Can anyone give Detective Constable Debbie Carleton her life back?

Imagine dedicating more than 23 years of service as a detective constable in the Halifax police – including a seven-year secondment to the RCMP.  Imagine serving in roles in which fear and violence were the norm.  Imagine investigating child pornography, posing undercover as a prostitute, being embroiled in human trafficking and other serious crimes.  Imagine working all hours of the day and night to catch criminals who are involved in everything from robbery to shootings. 

This was Debbie Carleton’s life.  She says “I put my life on the line for 20 years.” She started on the Dartmouth police force in 1995.  Early in 2015 she met with then-Chief Jean-Michel Blais.  He offered her the position of the first female, white, gay diversity officer, a job she very much wanted.  However she would never be able to do the job.

Her life came crashing down when, in 2015, Carleton was diagnosed as suffering from severe PTSD.  This devastating  injury affects many in services such as police, fire and ambulance because of what they experience and see on the job – from dead children, to vicious attacks, to victims of fire.  One could think that Workers’ Compensation (WC) would cover her treatment and benefits. But WC did not. This is why.

Det. Constable Debbie Carleton (credit: Canadian Foundataion for Labour Rights)

Seventeen years earlier, when Halifax and Dartmouth police forces amalgamated into Halifax Regional Police (HRP), the union and management agreed to withdraw from the province-wide Workers’ Compensation plan.  Instead, HRP brought in their own self-insured plan.  The HRP, or employer’s plan, was supposed to mirror the WC coverage and even give claimants some improved benefits.  But it also meant every treatment, every drug and every health benefit required by a police officer who suffered an OJI (on-the-job-injury) had to be sanctioned by the employer.  Arguably, there was no arm’s length relationship between the employer – including the police chief — and their knowledge of an officer’s personal medical condition.    More on that in a minute.

“PTSD tends to be the flavour of the day. [Let’s] be honest with ourselves and say ‘I’m going to take care of myself and get going.’ “

Former Halifax police chief Jean-Michel Blais

Back to  Detective Constable Carleton:  in 2015, medical professionals proposed Carleton’s PTSD management should include in-house patient treatment in a specialist Ontario clinic.  There are no such care facilities in Atlantic Canada. Former police chief Blais re-interpreted the policy that the HRP had followed for two decades.   He said management only had to provide salary to police when injured, but not other benefits (such as in-house care) which he described as “Cadillac treatment.”  Blais scoffed that, “PTSD tends to be the flavour of the day…[let’s] be honest enough with ourselves and say, ‘I’m going to take care of myself and get going?’ ”  

Blais maintained that he too had suffered for years from PTSD dating back to several tours of duty in Haiti,

But as he had managed to get over the anxiety, depression and nightmares –PTSD hallmarks– Blais claimed he was now the “poster boy” for living successfully with the disorder.   This is a form of gaslighting: diminishing someone else’s real suffering to boost one’s own status.  Chief Blais, refused to okay spending $1,000 a day for Carleton’s in-house treatment in Ontario. 

Below: Former police chief JM Blais (CBC.CA); 2019 Graduates and Swearing in for Halifax police (Facebook); diagram of some PTSD symptoms (Psychologicalscience.org)

Police chief “inserted himself” into Carleton’s medical case

Mark Hartlen, then-president of the Halifax police union, argued for Carleton and others to be covered for mental health illnesses and PTSD.  He also said that chief Blais had “inserted himself” into discussions about members’ health in talks with medical practitioners. In fact, documents revealed that the chief was actively involved in conference calls and discussions concerning Carleton’s care.

After haggling back and forth with Carleton’s health team, the chief agreed to pay the fees “ex gratia” – which amounted to about $70,000.

In May 2017, Carleton returned to Halifax from her treatment in Ontario.  Within weeks she attempted suicide and landed in hospital.  Her clinical team advised the police management she required a second stay at the Ontario facility.  This time, the police chief absolutely refused to pay; HRP insisted that since Carleton was receiving her full salary, she could pay for the in-house treatment herself. 

Carleton recalls, “In 2014, when I had an ankle injury on the job, everything was covered. Services and treatment never questioned.  The chief was never involved. But because it’s PTSD, I have to explain everything.”  Indeed, there are documents that show reams of payments for physical injuries, but of course no records show that any claim was turned down.  Anecdotally, it seems no claim was every turned down until the claim for Carleton’s in-house PTSD treatment.

Carleton has to go to the NS Human Rights Commission

In 2017, on the advice of her union, Carleton ended up filing a complaint of discrimination on the basis of disability with the NS Human Rights Commission when she was denied funding for a second stay at the in-house facility – despite her medical team’s recommendation.   

In 2018, the police union had negotiated out of the employer’s plan and back into a WC plan.  While this will help some, it will not help Debbie Carleton and several others who are bound by the old employer’s self-insured plan.

It has taken more than four years for Carleton’s case to come before a NS Human Rights board of inquiry (BOI).   The case which was scheduled for a hearing next week should have decided whether or not HRP discriminated against Carleton on the basis of mental disability.

But Carleton’s human rights case will not be heard on Nov. 2.  On Oct. 22, the Supreme Court of Canada made a decision that means workers, where they are unionized, must seek relief only at arbitration, not at Human Rights Commissions.  The Supreme Court decision arbitrarily ends Carleton’s human rights case and possibly thousands now at Human Rights commissions across Canada.  Notwithstanding the legal merits of the decision, the impact is unfair;  Carleton’s case has now been summarily dropped. 

What now?  Carleton, who is younger than 55,  cannot yet retire.  Her condition has deteriorated significantly due to not receiving a second round of in-house treatment; she can never work again in her profession.   Her prescription and counselling benefits as well as her police salary will end in January 2022. 

Debbie Carleton gave her life for our community’s safety and security.  Now she faces a very difficult and impecunious life.  She may not get her job back but maybe she can get a life back. 

Featured image above: detail from Canadian Royal Mounted Police Horse Rider, by Andre Dluhos. Dluhos was born in 1940 in what is now Slovakia. Now he lives in the US. Here is the oil painting.

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