An escalating war of words between the leadership of the province’s dental watchdog and its employees has prompted calls for an independent investigation into an alleged toxic workplace culture of “bullying and harassment” that is undermining the public interest.
On Dec. 30, 16 anonymous current and former staff of the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario (RCDSO) sent provincial government and opposition politicians — as well as the Public Appointments Secretariat of Ontario — a list of allegations.
“Bullying and harassment…persist,” reads the letter from the 16 authors, who say they have kept their identities secret for fear of repercussions. “Swearing, shouting, racist and sexist remarks, intentional marginalization of female and racialized staff and sexualized behaviour are all ongoing problems. No one bothers to report such incidents to (human resources) because they have been normalized and no remedial action would be taken anyway.”
The authors say they are the “tip of the iceberg.”
“Many others were and are too afraid to participate but support us in spirit and hope we succeed. We only remain in the shadows for fear of retaliation, but we are not going away and we are not giving up.”
The letter followed a Toronto Star investigation published in December that detailed allegations from more than two dozen current and former staff, senior executives and former executive council members claiming they had been targeted with legal threats and were bullied for expressing opinions critical of college leadership.
In a written statement after the story was published, then college president Ron Yarascavitch (whose term ended in January) dismissed the Star investigation, saying it “improperly relies on bald, unfounded allegations leveled in letters containing material false statements.” The statement said the college has a “robust complaints reporting system,” which the anonymous critics did not use “to the best of the college’s knowledge.”
Yarascavitch declined comment when contacted by the Star for this story, referring all questions to the college’s communications staff.
In response, the 16 wrote that any attempt by the RCDSO to “verify or refute our allegations has been cursory at best, since not a single one of us or any of our colleagues has ever heard about or been interviewed for any investigation. The assertion in the (Yarascavitch) statement that the Star improperly relied on ‘bald, unfounded allegations’ is therefore disingenuous.”
In January, the group of 16 wrote again to the politicians, saying the situation is “spiralling downward, with morale at the RDCSO sinking to new lows while its leadership spends massive amounts of membership fees trying to cover up rather than fix the problems.”
College registrar Irwin Fefergrad declined interview requests. A written statement from college counsel Linda Rothstein — a partner in Toronto firm Paliare Roland — calls the allegations “inaccurate, or false, or misleading, on numerous issues.”
“There is no truth to these allegations. The college takes allegations about its workplace culture extremely seriously,” the statement reads. “It is apparent that the anonymous group prefers to publicize their grievances, rather than engage in constructive work-place mechanisms to address them.”
The statement also says that following the Star investigation, the college, which is the provincial regulator for Ontario’s dentists, created a “hotline for staff to register specific complaints with an independent investigator.”
NDP health critic France Gelinas, says she has been aware of internal strife at the college for two years and is calling for a formal investigation.
“Now that I know this is continuing, we need to have an independent third party overseer to get to the bottom of it. I know that if the college is going to be able to protect the public, we need to clear the air,” said Gelinas.
Gelinas says she became aware of dissent inside the college in the fall of 2017 when she received letters from staff and met with dentists complaining of intimidation, harassment and bullying that “impeded the college’s ability to protect the public,” she said.
In February 2018, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath wrote to then-premier Kathleen Wynne and then-health minister Eric Hoskins urging them to take “immediate action to investigate these serious allegations.”
Gelinas says she will now be raising the issue with health minister Christine Elliott to “remind her of her important responsibility to make sure the public continues to have confidence in the college.”
Questions for Elliott from the Star were referred to a health ministry spokesperson, who said the government “strongly supports that all workplaces should be respectful and free from bullying or harassment.”
A spokesperson for labour minister Laurie Scott, who was also sent the allegations, said she would not comment on an “internal (human resources) matter.”
In one case reported by the Star in October, college lawyers pursued a former college staff member who they suspected leaked documents to the Star. He did not.
The former staff member was threatened with legal action if he refused to be interviewed and submit his computer for examination.
In her statement to the Star, Rothstein said the college is taking steps to “investigate and address the potential confidentiality breach, which is a matter that the college takes very seriously.”
The Star story also detailed three libel notices college lawyers served a former college president, vice president and a third dentist in 2013 after each criticized the college in a newspaper story.
“These were legal steps to protect the institution from serious wrongdoing,” Yarascavitch wrote. “The college carefully considers and investigates matters that arise before taking any legal steps.”
But the 16 current and former staffers counter that it was all part of the college’s culture of silencing critics.
“I am a longtime RCDSO staff member and have both witnessed and been a victim of the bullying, harassment, threats and intimidation,” said a current college employee on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions. “It took a lot of courage for RCDSO staff to come forward with our concerns and we have acted honourably at all times, only escalating the situation when our voices were not heard by those who were supposed to be protecting us. We are not the ones spreading misinformation and I am outraged that our integrity is being impugned by the RCDSO President…Dentists and the public should be asking themselves why the RCDSO is fighting so hard to avoid an independent review.”
A former senior staff member called Yarascavitch’s statement “laughable.”
“I have never worked at nor heard of another work place that is so toxic and poorly governed,” he said. “If the Premier or Ministry of Health ever intervenes, they will learn a great deal about how the self-governance model for health professions in Ontario is broken…It was governed by fear and intimidation during my tenure and it appears that nothing has changed.”
In response, college lawyers say the college can not comment on “statements by unknown parties about unspecified incidents.” It says the college is not aware of any employee who was a victim of bullying, harassment or intimidation who was not protected and none who were silenced or had their employment threatened.
Another allegation levelled by the anonymous critics is financial impropriety.
The Star previously reported Fefergrad’s salary in 2017 was $607,497. And the college’s annual legal bills have risen from about $672,000 in 2012 to more than $1 million this year. The college attributed this primarily to an increase in legal costs for regulatory oversight of dental misconduct.
Documents obtained by the Star show Yarascavitch, who has an active dental practice in St. Catharines, earned a total of $80,506 in 2016 for his college work, including a $50,000 annual honorarium set aside for college presidents. The remainder is paid for the president’s work on committees. In 2017, Yarascavitch earned $67,260. Last year, he was paid $80,121 as of Sept. 30. The college had budgeted $60,000 for his earnings in 2018.
The college did not provide his full remuneration for 2018. In a statement, it said any exceedances in the president’s remunmeration relate to the number of days he was entitled to a per diem based on his time commitment to college business. “This cannot be accurately predicted in the budgeting process.”
The statement acknowledges the college’s operating budget has jumped to $2.17 million from last year. It attributes the increase to $1.6 million in expenses related to staff resources “to deal with increasing complexity and volume of work,” upgrading technology and “an increase in legal fees principally related to the college’s regulatory mandate.”
“The reality is that the college is an extremely high-performing organization, and it is a positive, inclusive work place.”
With files from Kenyon Wallace