Nurse who protested vaccine-passports under investigation: College of Registered Nurses Saskatchewan v. McInnes

In September of 2021, Leah McInnes, a registered nurse in the province of Saskatchewan, had participated in a peaceful assembly expressing concerns regarding existing and anticipated government mandates and anticipated vaccine-passports.

Throughout late August and early October 2021, Ms. McInnes expressed her opposition on social media to government mandates and vaccine-passports, while championing informed consent, freedom of choice without coercion, privacy of medical information, and shared some information surrounding Covid-19 vaccines, without opposing vaccines per se.

On September 26, 2021, a nurse filed a complaint against Ms. McInnes to the College of Registered Nurses of Saskatchewan (CRNS). After an investigation, the CRNS proposed that Ms. McInnes enter into an agreement, which would result in her admission to professional misconduct for such activities, which she declined.

In March 28, 2023, the CRNS filed a Notice of Hearing formally charging Ms. McInnes for her activities alleging that her conduct amounts to professional misconduct pursuant to section 26(2)(l) and (q) of The Registered Nurses Act, 1988.

Upon supplying further particulars, the CRNS in large part appears to allege that Ms. McInnes’ conduct amounts to professional misconduct, because her expression amounts to “misinformation”, “disinformation” or “misleading” information and, in some instances, is allegedly a misuse of her position of power.

Lawyers acting for Ms. McInnes point to the Code of Ethics for Registered Nurses of the CRNS, which says, “Nurses support a climate of trust that sponsors openness, encourages the act of questioning the status quo and supports those who speak out in good faith to address concerns.” They argue that Ms. McInnes had questioned the merits of mandatory vaccine policies in good faith. Further, counsel for Ms. McInnes argue that her expression, however disagreeable it may have been to the CRNS, is protected by section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and by relevant case law.

In particular, counsel for Ms. McInnes point to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal ruling in Strom v. Saskatchewan Registered Nurses’ Association, which states that “…criticism, even by those delivering those services, does not necessarily undermine confidence in healthcare workers or the healthcare system. Indeed, it can enhance confidence by demonstrating that those with the greatest knowledge of this massive and opaque system, and who have the ability to affect change, are both prepared and permitted to speak and pursue positive change. In any event, the fact that public confidence in aspects of the healthcare system may suffer as a result of fair criticism can itself result in positive change. Such is the messy business of democracy.”

The CRNS has obtained an expert opinion and Ms. McInnes is submitting two expert opinions in support of her expression.

After an initial investigation, the College proposed an agreement that would have Ms. McInnes admit to professional misconduct, but she rejected this offer, choosing instead to stand up for her Charter right to express her opinions. The College charged her on March 28, 2023, and filed a Notice of Hearing, the contents of which were later expanded after Ms. McInnes demanded clarity from the College as to what exactly the College alleged to be “misinformation”, “disinformation” or “misleading” information.

There are similarities between this case and another involving a Saskatchewan nurse a few years back who had voiced concerns about health care on social media. In 2020, in the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal’s decision in Strom v. Saskatchewan Registered Nurses’ Association, the court overturned a discipline committee’s finding of professional misconduct against Carolyn Strom, a registered nurse from Prince Albert. She had made social media posts criticizing a long-term care facility for its treatment of her grandfather, now deceased.

In an authoritative statement strongly supporting free expression, the Court wrote, “Such criticism, even by those delivering those services, does not necessarily undermine public confidence in healthcare workers or the healthcare system. Indeed, it can enhance confidence by demonstrating that those with the greatest knowledge of this massive and opaque system, and who have the ability to effect change, are both prepared and permitted to speak and pursue positive change. In any event, the fact that public confidence in aspects of the healthcare system may suffer as a result of fair criticism can itself result in positive change. Such is the messy business of democracy.”

Ms. McInnes’ disciplinary hearing began in October 2023 for four scheduled days and ended in November 2023.

On January 12, 2024, the Discipline Committee of the College of Registered Nurses of Saskatchewan dismissed all charges against Ms. McInnes. In their decision, the Discipline Committee stated that the case against her should not have even proceeded to a hearing.

Co-counsel to Ms. McInnes, Glenn Blackett, said, “It’s chilling to recall that this vitally important fact, that the Covid vaccine did not provide sterilizing immunity, was broadly censored while Canadians were supposedly debating the wisdom of vaccine mandates. Poor information makes for poor decisions.”Thankfully for Ms. McInnes and all Canadians who depend on an informed and ethical nursing profession, the Discipline Committee of the College accepted the evidence presented to them and found that Ms. McInnes had, in no way, misinformed the public.Mr. Blackett continued, “This is a hugely important decision, not just for Ms. McInnes, who embodies the ‘moral courage’ Canadians should expect of all health professionals. It is perhaps most important for upholding a nurse’s right to voice ethical and scientific dissent and to participate in democratic discourse. The importance of professional freedom of speech and conscience can hardly be overstated. Science, ethics and democracy simply do not operate without freedom to think and speak. If you can’t trust a professional, be it a nurse, doctor or lawyer, to tell you what they think is true, you can’t trust them at all.”As for Ms. McInnes, she sees this as a victory for free speech in the medical community which will only lead to better outcomes. “I very much value the right of my colleagues to express opinions different than mine and support them in their endeavours to seek change in healthcare and government policy they perceive to be in the public interest. I’m grateful that the CRNS Discipline Committee recognized my right to do the same, as it’s only in the collection of our opinions that the public truly benefits,” she stated.

 

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