06/19/2015 10:11 EDT | Updated 06/19/2016 05:59 EDT

Terry Lake won't commit to public inquiry into health firings despite mounting pressure

Despite mounting pressure, B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake won't commit to pursue a public inquiry into why the provincial government fired seven health researchers and one co-op student and then misled the public about a police investigation that never happened. 

Lake cited privacy concerns and ongoing legal proceedings with two of the fired workers as reasons why the government must be cautious about what information it can release.

Those calling for a public inquiry now include the family of University of Victoria student Roderick MacIsaac, who committed suicide in January 2013 after being fired, at least one of the other fired workers, Ron Mattson, former deputy minister of health Graham Whitmarsh and the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union.

- B.C. health researcher firing scandal timeline 

In September 2012, the health researchers were fired for allegedly improperly accessing government data.

Documents released through an FOI showed the RCMP were never given evidence by the government to investigate the wrongdoing that was used to justify the firings, despite the government telling the public an investigation was ongoing.

The government has since admitted it was a "regrettable mistake."

Lake spoke with Michelle Eliot on B.C. Almanac.

Will you hold a public inquiry into the firing of these employees?

When we release information, we are bound by a legal statute called the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. That really constrains in many ways what we can release. I think it's important for the public to know that it's not politicians that decide what to release. It is civil servants that look at this act and they work on advice of legal counsel to make sure that they are protecting people's privacy.

It was a politician, then-Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid, who held a news conference saying there was an RCMP investigation. Why did the health minister say that when there was no RCMP investigation?

I wasn't the health minister at the time, but she said that the findings would be passed onto the RCMP. There was a real concern at that particular time that data had been misused and in fact the privacy commissioner verified that data had been misused, that it had been downloaded onto unencrypted flash drives, which was contrary to policy in the ministry. Material was given to the RCMP. They wanted it in a different format and subsequently. [But with] the new deputy minister, we went through and we settled with some employees, so that obviated the need for an RCMP investigation into that part of of the issue.

The second part of the issue is the awarding of contracts and that went to the Office of the Comptroller General who did a review. They have passed on their report to the RCMP and the RCMP will decide whether to take further action. We have demonstrated the RCMP asked us not to release information before they had finished their work on that part of the file...

The sister of Rodrick MacIsaac says that until two weeks ago, she was under the impression that there was an RCMP investigation. Why was none of that information made available to the people that were affected?

My understanding is when there were agreements that were signed off with employees, they were made aware that there would not be an investigation by the RCMP on that part of the stream of material. However, it wasn't up to the Health Ministry to determine what the Comptroller General would do in terms of their review. Having said all that, it sounds really confusing for the public and it's frustrating for people. I certainly understand that. So I would like nothing better than to get as much information out to the public as possible.

So why not have a public inquiry?

Again, we need to make sure that we are getting the right kind of advice from our legal counsel in terms of protecting peoples' privacy. We don't want to make mistakes that were made in the past in terms of dragging people through things inappropriately. There are legal things that are still going on. We have such actions that won't be heard until March of 2016 and so again, we must be careful that whatever we do doesn't cause a problem with any legal processes that are ongoing.

I understand how people are frustrated by this. I'm frustrated by the constrains that are put on us and we have to recognize that those constraints are there for a reason and protection of privacy and keeping people's reputation — of all people, including those that were involved in the HR process — is respected. We'll continue to push as much as possible and look for ways that we can satisfy the public in terms of the details of what happened and what we're doing to make sure it doesn't happen again. 

To hear the full interview with Terry Lake listen to the audio labelled Terry Lake on the health firings.