Nunavut’s former chief coroner sues government for $1-million

Nunavut’s former chief coroner is suing the Government of Nunavut for more than a $1 million in damages, after being fired from her position on April 25 according to a statement of claim.

(Padma Suramala alleges a long campaign of interference from a justice official in the Government of Nunavut)

Nunavut’s former chief coroner is suing the Government of Nunavut for more than a $1 million in damages, after being fired from her position on April 25 according to a statement of claim.

Padma Suramala is asking for $200,000 for harassment and intimidation, $400,000 for two years of lost wages, $300,000 for intentional infliction of mental distress $150,000 to punish the government for its alleged actions and “special damages” to be determined at trial.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Nunavut has 25 days to respond to the allegations contained in her statement of claim which was filed at the Nunavut court of justice on June 22.

Hired as a nurse in 2008, Suramala became the chief coroner in 2011 after acting in the position for a year.

Following two single year extensions, she was given an indeterminate contract in 2014.

She filed numerous reports and recommendations that were often critical of the government.

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Her lawsuit alleges the problems began in 2016.

Domestic Violence Report

Suramala had prepared a long-awaited review of domestic violence in Nunavut that was sparked by a 2011 murder-suicide in Iqaluit.

Nunavut has a rate of domestic violence 10 times the national average.

In 2018 she was ready to present 15 recommendations to the Nunavut legislative assembly.

In her statement of claim, Suramala blames Deputy Minister of Justice William MacKay for burying the report, saying that he “insisted that the plaintiff [Suramala] only release a benign statement stating that the Chief Coroner was working with the Ontario Coroner Service to prevent similar events in the future.”

A copy of that report was eventually tabled in the legislative assembly by Adam Arreak-Lightstone, a Regular Member of the Assembly and the brother of a victim in the murder-suicide.

The Justice Department told the assembly to ask the Coroner’s office why the report was never tabled. Suramala had been fired two months previously.

Showdown With Ottawa Police

A police shooting in Pond Inlet Nunavut led Suramala into a conflict with the Ottawa Police Service. Ottawa Police are frequently used in Nunavut to investigate any shootings by Nunavut police.

On March 18, Nunavut RCMP shot and killed a 20 year-old man at the cemetery in the northeast Baffin Island community, the second of three lethal police shootings in Nunavut stretching over six months, from late 2016 to May 2017.

Suramala was sent to investigate as chief coroner and Ottawa Police was sent as well.

Read: RCMP, government skip community meeting on police oversight in Iqaluit 

In her Statement of Claim, Suramala alleges that she was “actively prevented from attending the death scene by the Ottawa Police.” She added that MacKay worked with Ottawa Police to prevent her from gaining access to the scene and that she was prevented from sharing the results of an autopsy with the dead man’s family.

Not A Suicide

Suramala goes on to describe a situation where she says MacKay prevented her from calling the death of a government employee a suicide.

A Government of Nunavut employee died in December 2017, while on leave from work. Suramala’s investigation determined it was a suicide and she prepared a series of recommendations for the government to follow to prevent more.

According to her statement of claim, “Deputy Minister William MacKay expressed his opinion to the Plaintiff [Suramala] that the cause of death was accidental and he did not accept the Chief Coroner’s finding that the cause of death was suicide.”

Audit the Coroner

Following that series of events, which Suramala called interference, she and MacKay agreed to bring in an outside investigator, to better lay out how the Coroner’s office should work, and how it was supposed to be kept separate from day-to-day government.

Kent Stewart, a retired chief coroner from Saskatchewan, was hired to complete the report, which he did in September 2017.

It stated that the chief coroner should not have to deal with interference from senior managers and politicians, that the coroner herself was overworked with 120 to 150 cases a year, and that the Coroner’s Office should receive access to some medical records without a warrant.

The access to medical records had long been a point of contention between the coroner and the Department of Health, according to Suramala’s statement of claim.

The Department of Health was demanding a warrant for access to records, Suramala had received legal advice of her own saying she should receive warrantless access.

She acted on that legal advice, and on January 30, 2018, she used a Coroner’s Authorization to get medical records from the nurse-in-charge at the Qikiqtarjuaq NU Health Centre. She was suspended days later.

Suspended While on Leave

According to her statement of claim, Suramala suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which she developed following the August 2011 First Air plane crash in Resolute Nunavut. She was responsible for collecting and identifying body parts following the crash.

While taking 30 days leave for her PTSD, which she said was approved by MacKay, Suramala said she received a letter from the Justice Department, titled “Suspension Pending Investigation.” Dated Feb 5, 2018, the letter said that she was being suspended for allegations of misconduct, while also claiming the suspension was non-disciplinary.

Suramala got a lawyer and prepared to face the allegations. According to her statement of claim, they included the warrantless medical records she received in January and that she was also working for the YWCA’s Women’s Shelter in Iqaluit while working as the chief coroner.

She claimed she had informed the Justice Department of her work at the women’s shelter, and that the deputy minister had approved it. After some back and forth between her lawyer and government lawyers, Suramala was fired on April 25, 2018.

Claims of Injury

A spokesperson with the Department of Justice in Nunavut says no one can comment at this time – but a defence will be filed in court in “due course.”

Suramala’s lawyer told the court she is letting her statement of claim stand as her side of the story.

According to her statement of claim, she has been receiving medical care due to the stress caused by her firing. She also claims to suffer from “severe anxiety, depression, social isolation, insomnia, humiliation, mental distress, frustration, aggravation and the erosion of self-esteem and confidence.”

The way Nunavut deals with their employees was under fire in the previous legislative assembly.

Then Regular Member Pat Angnakak, now minister of Health, brought human resource issues to the floor of the Assembly on numerous occasions.

Video Journalist / Iqaluit

Kent has been APTN’s Nunavut correspondent since 2007. In that time he has closely covered Inuit issues, including devolution and the controversial Nutrition North food subsidy. He has also worked for CKIQ-FM in Iqaluit and as a reporter for Nunavut News North.