The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa has been ordered to reinstate a "star" historian after a federal labour arbitrator concluded the decision to fire her was directly related to her disability.
In a lengthy decision, Colin Johnston found that the museum unjustly terminated film and photography curator Joanne Stober in March 2019 nearly a year after she went on leave because of a disorder linked to work-related anxiety and depression.
Johnston said Stober should be compensated for lost wages, finding she was also entitled to human rights damages for the museum's failure to accommodate her disability, despite notes from two doctors saying she wasn't ready to return to work on the date set by her employer.
"I accept that Dr. Stober's decision not to return ... was made in good faith and was based on the advice she was receiving from her doctors," Johnston wrote.
'Her dream job'
The ruling highlights behind-the-scenes conflict at Canada's national museum of military history that saw Stober hired with fanfare in 2016 only to feel like she had a target on her back after the sudden departure of former museum director general Stephen Quick two years later.
The decision underscores a key finding in other workplace disputes: "that an employer cannot ignore a medical opinion simply because workplace stressors brought on the illness."
The Canadian War Museum is one of three museums overseen by the Canadian Museum of History, which is a Crown corporation. Stober's firing was grieved by her union — The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.
Stober left a job as a senior archivist at Library and Archives Canada in 2016 to take on a mission that included showcasing the war museum's existing art holdings while bringing the collection into the digital age.
The museum put out a press release to announce her hiring — which was unusual for a historian.
Stober claimed she made it clear she had a young family and needed time off during the summer. She testified that the museum was not opposed to that request.
In her first two years on the job, she gave lectures around the country, developed programs for school groups and received an internal scholarship that increased her wage.
"She described her position at the museum as her dream job, perfectly matching her qualifications," Johnston wrote.
"This all changed in 2018."
Viewed as a 'star hire'
Stober's problems began with an exhibition brought in from Boston on the work of female photographers from the Middle East.
She said the museum's director of public affairs was concerned about her use of the word "Palestinian" during a TV interview, and the Jewish Federation of Ottawa complained about an exhibit referring to Gaza as an "occupied territory."
"[Stober] was directed to contact the curator in Boston and request that the offending text be removed," the decision reads.
"[She] felt humiliated by this conversation and worried that it could do irreparable damage to her reputation as an academic and historian."
After Quick left as director general, Stober claimed his replacement said the departure shouldn't worry her — a comment she found odd.
She said she was told "some viewed her as Dr. Quick's 'star' hire" and when she asked if that meant she could be terminated, she was told it would be difficult because her position was unionized — a response she didn't find comforting.
"At this point, she began to obsess over her future with the organization, and the events that followed only seemed to reinforce her paranoia," Johnston wrote.
Stober believed she was subject to a series of professional slights, including the museum saying it would no longer pay for her travel to Oxford University to give a keynote lecture after initially approving the trip.
"The Oxford lecture was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would boost her career as a historian and academic. The museum was now trying to take this away from her," Johnston wrote.
"She felt that the employer was targeting her because of her association with Dr. Quick."
An adjustment disorder
As 2018 continued, Stober was denied her request for parental leave in the summer and she noticed that the scores on her performance evaluations had been lowered — something the new general director claimed was happening for all staff, not just Stober, under demands for more stringent standards from management.
By the end of June, she was tearful, anxious, not sleeping and had pains in her chest.
Her doctor said she was suffering from "an adjustment disorder" which was explained by a psychologist as "an emotional or behavioural reaction to psychosocial stressors where faulty thinking is at the root of the problem."
The doctor wrote her a note placing her on medical leave, but the museum had concerns about the validity of her claim, given that it coincided with her request for parental leave.
They asked for more proof, which resulted in her doctor including an outraged note in his second letter saying "it is frankly insulting that non-medical personnel have deemed that my medical assessment is not valid."
'A difficult witness'
The decision details the back and forth between Stober, her doctor, the union, the museum, an insurance company, a psychologist and an outside doctor hired by the museum to get a second opinion.
That doctor spoke with Stober's physician briefly but never connected with the psychologist, concluding the historian's problems were due to an "alleged human resources issue" and that there was no "medical reason why she cannot return to work."
Johnston noted that the same doctor was a "difficult witness" who swore at the arbitrator and called the union's counsel "a bitch." The arbitrator called the report "flawed" because the doctor attributed all Stober's problems to workplace conflict without giving any real consideration to the medical evidence.
The museum argued it had cause to terminate Stober's employment and said the problem had to do with her failure to provide medical proof she was totally disabled from working — not the fact she suffered from a medical condition.
The employer also said Stober was not targeted and that the fuss around the photography exhibition was "much ado about nothing."
Johnston agreed there was no evidence to conclude that management deliberately targeted Stober. But that wasn't the point because she held the "honest belief" she was being singled out and it was making her sick.
"Enough things were happening to lead her to believe rightly or wrongly that she was no longer in management's favour and that decisions were to her disadvantage," the arbitrator wrote.
At the end of the day, Johnston found Stober provided enough evidence to show that — on the face of it, she was unable to return to work.
"The employer, in my view, has put forward no evidence to contradict this conclusion," he wrote.
"I accept that her decision was made in the best interest of her health and cannot be interpreted as wilful insubordination."
Museum staff could not be reached for comment.