Treatment for what may be the most egregious case of privileged entitlement and abused power in recent Nova Scotia history is in the hands of three learned jurists.
Chief Justice Michael MacDonald and Associate Justices Joel Fichaud and Cindy A. Bourgeois have only the law to apply to the self-sabotaging condition that vexes the province like a pox with no cure, and even the law isn’t always up to the task, when justice is called for.
“This is the most successful, professional reputation assassination in Canadian history,” Halifax lawyer Craig Garson charged this week, his rhetorical passion uncommon in the normally staid proceedings of Nova Scotia Court of Appeals – the province’s highest court.
“This" is the 15-year battle waged against Dr. Gabrielle Horne by two successive health authorities. Her original sin was not falling faithfully in line at the command of senior, male colleagues.
The initial bullying, repugnant as it was, has been eclipsed by a decade-and-a-half of spineless or mindless institutional function that first backed then joined in the abuse. Through the entire ordeal, Nova Scotia governments hid in the tall grass waiting for the coast to clear.
Premier Stephen McNeil was unable to “intervene in an ongoing legal process,” when his government’s invention, the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA), became the latest to take a turn at Dr. Horne, who was the most promising medical researcher in the province until she dared say “no” to a putrid order.
Garson isn’t the only notable Nova Scotian to equate the institutional persecution of Dr. Horne with an execution.
More than a decade ago, prominent Halifax physician Dr. John Sullivan, a cardiologist like Dr. Horne and her initial tormenters, said she was a “professional homicide” victim.
When she arrived in Nova Scotia in 1998, Gabby Horne had 17 years of training for a career in medical research. A med student at 18, she was still quite young as she began to practice, research, and teach at Dalhousie.
“Teacher of the year,” clinical scholar and research excellence awards, and outstanding job performance reviews all came her way.
She earned a grant to do ground-breaking research. The work attracted attention and more money. She built a multi-disciplinary team and embarked on heart research of global interest.
The prestigious work also attracted local interest, and Dr. Horne was pressured to add a senior member of the cardiology department, Dr. Jonathan Howlett, to her team. She didn’t. The pressure intensified, but she had the team she wanted and carried on.
Then the trouble started. She was out-of-line with a system of entitlement she didn’t know existed.
Without notice, she was placed on “emergency” privilege variance at the QEII. To a layperson, that sounds benign, but it is a scarlet letter in medicine. It’s reserved for doctors deemed a potential hazard to patients.
With little reason and less evidence, Dr. Horne was held in that state for four years, during which she was fully exonerated twice by independent investigations and had the overwhelming and vocal support of all but a few of her colleagues.
When an agreement was signed to put an end to the fiasco, Capital Health mysteriously renounced its own deal, sending the matter to court for the first time, where Justice Donald Hall said it had gone on too long, was in no one’s interest, but he couldn’t fix it. He could only apply the law. That was a dozen years ago.
When her privileges were finally restored in 2006, without much explanation beyond a foggy procedural “oops,” her career, her reputation and her research lie in ruins.
The law offered the only way back, and in the spring of 2016, a decade after she initiated legal action, a seven-member civil jury recognized her treatment for what it was, and awarded her $1.4 million – the largest damage award of its kind in Canadian legal history – plus legal costs.
Gabby Horne could finally awaken from her nightmare. Or could she?
The NSHA, having subsumed Capital Health and eight other districts, issued a “let’s let bygones be bygones” statement after the jury verdict, but then dragged out the process on determining costs.
That forced the matter back to court, and allowed NSHA another chance to ensure power would prevail.
The NSHA appeal claims the trial judge erred in her charge to the jury, which would demand a new trial, or failing that, the sum the jury awarded should “shock the conscience of the court.”
Garson gets the final word. “The only thing that should shock the conscience of the court,” he said, is the malice of those responsible for where Dr. Gabrielle Horne finds herself today.
Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.