Stressed Kwantlen employee kept vomit bucket under desk, email to education minister Amrik Virk detailed

Published: August 6, 2013
Amrik Virk

File: Minister of Advanced Education Amrik Virk during a break in Vancouver on June 20, 2013. Wayne Leidenfrost/ PNG

MICHAEL SMYTH
THE PROVINCE 

Explain or resign.

That’s the ultimatum from the NDP to Liberal Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk, after The Province obtained an email linking the minister to a workplace-bullying storm rocking Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Sandra Kuzyk, 52, is suing the university for wrongful dismissal after she was sacked from her job as a long-serving executive assistant in the office of the university president.

Kuzyk alleges she and other Kwantlen staff were repeatedly bullied in 2011 and 2012 by then-interim-president John McKendry, claiming he “yelled, berated and otherwise terrorized, threatened, abused and harassed” her at work.

“He threw various objects, including but not limited to files, documents and binders at the plaintiff and others,” Kuzyk claims in a civil suit filed July 26 in B.C. Supreme Court.

Kuzyk also alleges McKendry pressured her to not co-operate with a 2011 RCMP investigation into a data breach of confidential student records.

None of the allegations has been proven in court and McKendry declined to comment on them, telling Province reporter Glenda Luymes: “I don’t feel I need to defend myself.”

Kuzyk, an executive assistant at the university for 15 years, says she complained about the bullying, but was pressured to keep quiet and was “terminated without cause” on March 27. She is seeking monetary damages.

Now The Province has obtained an email from Kwantlen board of governors chair Gordon Schoberg to current university president Alan Davis that suggests Virk, the rookie advanced-education minister, was aware of the possible harassment crisis.

The email says multiple people reported stories of alleged abuse, and that one worker was so stressed by the incidents that she ­apparently kept a bucket under her desk for vomiting after her interactions with the president. The email added that staff were fearful of addressing the alleged situation because of the potential harm it could cause their careers.

The email was written June 13, 2012, when McKendry’s interim appointment as Kwantlen president was nearing an end and Davis was preparing to take over.

At the time, Amrik Virk was the vice-chair of the university’s board of governors.

“Last night I had Amrik over to the house and we talked this out,” Schoberg wrote to Davis. “We need wisdom in knowing what to do.”

David Eby, the NDP’s advanced-­education critic, said Virk must explain his involvement.

“What did the advanced-education minister know?” Eby asked. “When did he know it? What did he do about it? What recommendations did he make? How did he conduct himself? He needs to clarify this so people can have confidence going forward.”

But Virk, a former RCMP inspector in Surrey first elected for the Liberals in May, is not talking.

“Given that this is a civil case between a former employee and Kwantlen Polytechnic University it would be absolutely inappropriate to offer further comment at this time,” Virk said. “There is a legal process in place that must be respected.”

Not good enough, counters the NDP’s Eby.

“I guess that would be adequate for a private citizen,” Eby said. “But when you’re talking about the advanced-education minister, who will be making decisions in relation to Kwantlen and is required to maintain a relationship with the president’s office there, I think the public is entitled to more of an explanation than that.”

Eby called the allegations in the lawsuit “extremely serious” and said if Virk can’t or won’t explain his involvement he should resign as advanced-education minister.

“There’s a huge risk of a perception of a conflict of interest,” Eby said. “For example, if he were to cut the Kwantlen budget, or give them a big new program, it would invite questions about why that was done.

“If there’s a threat that he could be called in to testify, I think he and the premier have to look seriously at his role as the minister responsible for Kwantlen.”

Schoberg told Province reporter Luymes the Kwantlen board was not involved in the decision to fire Sandra Kuzyk, insisting her harassment claims were properly investigated.

The university, which has yet to file a formal defence in court, did not respond to a request for further comment, while the Ministry of Advanced Education made clear Virk has no intention of quitting. But things could get uncomfortable for Virk if he gets dragged into what appears to be a very messy lawsuit.

msmyth@theprovince.com

twitter.com/mikesmythnews

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