Alana James was convinced that she found serious wrongdoings. James, a relatively new B.C. health-ministry employee in 2012, was sure that contract researchers hired by the ministry had broken the law and misused confidential medical information for personal gain.
James had been hired to draft and review information-sharing agreements between the ministry and the researchers. But everywhere she looked she found misconduct.
For decades, BC’s health ministry had enjoyed a collaborative relationship with academic researchers on drug safety. For example, one of these researchers Roderick MacIsaac, a PhD student at the University of Victoria, had been reviewing the effectiveness of British Columbia’s new smoking-cessation program. James was convinced that he and others had misused anonymous health records in his research.
Anonymous records such as those found in PharmaNet, stripped of personal details such as names and addresses, had been regularly shared with researchers to evaluate government programs. Investigative reporter Kerry Gold says:
“A record of every prescription dispensed or purchased in the province, PharmaNet is a researcher’s gold mine (Walrus magazine, September, 2019).”
Alana James was so convinced of wrongdoings that she told her boss, Robert Hart. Hart considered James’ allegations misguided. It was his opinion that she didn’t fully understand the complex relationships of those she was accusing, much less the nature of their work. Crucially, she had no evidence of wrongdoing.
James felt dismissed by her boss; she was told “to shut up and go away” in her words. So went over the head her boss to then auditor general John Doyle.
Doyle took James seriously -not because there was any evidence of wrongdoing but because in the previous year a high-ranking health official had pleaded guilty to charges of receiving personal benefits related to a health-records contract he’d awarded to a doctor. The ministry was still smarting from the scandal.
Sensing the possibility of more misconduct, Doyle’s office asked the ministry of health to look into James’s claims. Suspicions from the auditor general gave credibility to James allegations.
Margaret MacDiarmid, the new minister of health, only a day into her job, held a press conference on September 6, 2012, and said that RCMP investigation was underway. This was a big surprise to the RCMP because there was no investigation underway. However, MacDiarmid’s announcement added more weight to James’ claims.
Caught up in the zealous fervour that gripped government, investigators accused Robert Hart, Alana James’ boss, of wrongfully receiving money. Hart didn’t know what they were talking about but he was suspended immediately and escorted from the building. Eventually, he and six others were fired including the student Roderick MacIsaac.
Humiliated, MacIsaac withdrew from his PhD program at University of Victoria. In January, 2013, the introverted forty-six-year-old who had put off his studies to take care of his aging mother through her final stages of terminal cancer took his life.
To get to the bottom of the matter, the government commissioned a investigation by the ombudsperson. The report, called Misfire, began in 2015, took nineteen months to complete and cost $2.41 million. It found no wrongdoing by anyone but by this time lives and reputations had been ruined in the wake of James’ wild claims.
“The episode remains one of the most sensational cases of wrongful dismissal in Canadian history, and it was driven by a set of assumptions that were unfounded and at no point tested—until it was too late,” says Gold.
Footnote: John Doyle completed his term as auditor general in 2013 and went back home to Australia. He hired Alana James, a trained nurse, to care for his chronically ill wife. After the death of his wife, Doyle and James married in Australia where she began graduate work and research at the University of Melbourne.