A woman who for 15 years provided psychological counselling to some of the most vulnerable members of the Squamish Nation is suing the band for wrongful dismissal, saying she was harassed and eventually forced out of her job for raising legitimate concerns about the way her department was being run.
Kathryn Priest-Peries says she was the "town shrink" - the on-site therapist -for the Squamish Nation for many years.
"Things were wonderful for 13 years," she said, describing her work in addictions, posttraumatic stress and domestic violence counselling as some of the "most gratifying and intense" work she has ever done.
But in a civil suit filed in B.C. Supreme Court, Priest-Peries alleges after a new department head was hired, she was subjected to harassment and told to keep quiet on issues involving ethical questions.
When Priest-Peries refused, she said she was forced out and has suffered both financially and psychologically as a result.
Priest-Peries added in the year since she launched the lawsuit, the case has continued to drag through the courts while she's racked up legal bills and lost her house to foreclosure.
She also had to get counselling herself, after the loss of her job sent her into a depression, the lawsuit states.
The Squamish Nation, meanwhile, has said in a statement of defence that Priest-Peries was never an employee of the band, but an independent contractor. The nation also said that Priest-Peries voluntarily quit her job.
That's not the way Priest-Peries sees it.
She was recruited to work for the Squamish in 1995 because of her expertise in areas like multi-generational trauma, addiction and fetal alcohol syndrome, she said. In the years she worked for the nation, "there wasn't a single client complaint about my work," she said.
But when the Squamish hired a new head of their health department in 2006, Priest-Peries said she and her new boss soon began to clash.
Priest-Peries said almost immediately she was told she couldn't see new clients without prior approval of her boss, Kim Brooks. But in an interview, Priest-Peries said she had trouble getting Brooks to respond to her requests. In one case, Priest-Peries said she was still waiting for approval to see one client when she discovered that person had tried to commit suicide.
Another time, Priest-Peries said she was shocked when one of her clients showed up crying, saying he'd been told he couldn't see her anymore.
In the lawsuit, Priest-Peries said her boss "showed utter disregard for the safety and wellbeing of patients, gross negligence and inaction on matters that required immediate attention regarding patients."
Priest-Peries said in the claim she was also asked to "keep quiet on ethical issues."
In the statement of claim, Priest-Peries said she was fired and re-hired at least twice by Brooks.
Eventually, she felt she had no choice but to leave her position.
She said she's been trying to reach a settlement with the Squamish ever since, unsuccessfully.
In a statement of defence filed in court, the band has denied Priest-Peries' claim, saying she was not an employee but an independent contractor who resigned in 2010.
In its statement, the Squamish Nation denied that Priest-Peries was harassed or asked to "keep quiet" on ethical issues.
The band noted in its statement of defence that services by Priest-Peries were cut back in part because they could be "more economically provided by other sources." The statement of defence said Priest-Peries was supposed to provide short-term crisis counselling of a limited number of sessions. But Priest-Peries refused to comply with that policy, according to the statement of defence.
The band said it allowed clients to continue seeing Priest-Peries until transition plans were in place for those people to see other therapists. The band also continued to pay for sessions with one client who refused to see another therapist.
It also paid for extra contract work after several people asked to see Priest-Peries following a shooting on the reserve in 2009.
Meanwhile, Priest-Peries said she has continued to see a number of her former clients for free, because she feels she has an ethical duty to them.
"Therapy's not like seeing a chiropractor. You can't just see the one that's in," she said.
No date has yet been set for a trial. Squamish Nation spokeswoman Krissy Jacobs declined to speak on the court case.
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