TFN community health manager added to wrongful termination lawsuit

Thessalon First Nation's community health manager is being added as a defendant to a wrongful termination lawsuit brought against the band.

In an amended statement of claim, Mary Jane Wardell accuses Wendy Pekalski of accessing her medical information without permission on Dec. 20, 2023, roughly a month after Wardell was removed from her position as TFN's director of operations.

Wardell claims that members of TFN's newly elected chief and council directed Pekalski to access her private medical information, bolstering her broader argument that the band's leadership spearheaded a "co-ordinated attack" to discredit her reputation in the community.

On top of the $850,000 in damages Wardell initially sought for her wrongful termination, she is seeking an additional $200,000 for the "tortious invasion" of her private health records.

"The information disclosed was inherently private given that it was the intimate and personal health records of the Plaintiff, and a reasonable person would find that this unauthorized access is highly offensive causing severe distress and anguish," Wardell's statement reads.

Wardell was informed of this alleged privacy breach on Feb. 26 via Maamweysing North Shore Community Health Services, which is responsible for providing primary care and medical record keeping in the community.

The following month, Maamweysing chief privacy officer Michelle Brisbois told The Sault Star that at least 20 TFN members had suffered a similar fate to Wardell, with their medical records being accessed without permission between October and January.

The Star obtained several letters that Maamweysing sent out to TFN members informing them of this alleged privacy breach, all of which name Pekalski as the culprit.

Because of this alleged mass privacy breach, Maamweysing has since relocated to the nearby Town of Thessalon, leaving many TFN members on reserve concerned about the accessibility of primary care moving forward.

The TFN administration has publicly denied Maamweysing's claims that a mass privacy breach took place under their watch, writing in an April 5 Facebook post that the health agency's allegations “have not been proven.”

The Star reached out to Pekalski for comment on the claims Wardell made in her amended statement. However, she did not respond by press time.

Chief Joseph Wabigwan and TFN executive director Lesley Boulrice haven't returned The Star's request for comment as of Monday afternoon.

Wardell claims that her wrongful termination took place immediately following the Nov. 17 election, which resulted in the appointment of Chief Wabigwan and several new members of council.

The following evening, Wardell alleges that Wabigwan and newly-elected councillor Robert Simon Sr. attended her residence to deliver an envelope in person, with several other band members and OPP officers parked outside.

Wardell, according to court documents, did not receive this envelope at the time, since her sister refused to wake her "given the hour and the aggressive nature of the attendance."

When Wardell reported to the band office on Nov. 22, she was given a termination letter and asked to vacate the premises.

Wardell, who began working for TFN in 1991, believes her firing is completely without justification, arguing that she “did not have a history of formal disciplinary action against her” before the termination.

Outside of being fired without proper justification, Wardell also claims that the current administration’s “unprofessional” conduct during this period includes a “planned” and “orchestrated” effort to sully her reputation in the community.

Wardell said she believes this administration’s intentions are made clear through a private Facebook group run by Boulrice and others, which was allegedly used to post and spread false information about the former director of operations and her family.

“The First Nation's conduct has been highhanded, outrageous, oppressive, and represents a marked departure from ordinary standards of decent behaviour, justifying an award of punitive and/or aggravated damages,” the statement reads.

When reached for comment back in April over the initial court filing, Chief Wabigwan told The Star via email that “Thessalon First Nation disputes her claim but does not comment on matters that are before the courts.”

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Kyle Darbyson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sault Star