Friday, June 12, 2020

The man who refused to kill baby bears: A win in the Court of Right Thinking

A cute bear from Pixabay to stand in 
for the cubs that Casavant saved.
Court judgments are often answering questions that the average person wouldn't possibly think to ask about the issue of the moment, like "Did the judge err in declining to consider the jurisdictional issue on judicial review?"

But here's the quick version of BC conservation officer Bryce Casavant's story: He disobeyed a direct order from his boss to kill two bear cubs and instead took them to a rehabilitation facility (they've since been released back to the wild). He got fired as a result. And now the BC Court of Appeal has overturned that firing.

It wasn't overturned for the reasons that I would have overturned it, which would have been around things like questioning why you'd fire a guy who made an informed decision that saved wildlife without harming the public. That would be the Court of Right Thinking, and we don't have one of those.

But hurrah for all the complicated legal arguments the court cited that still ended up with Casavant winning his appeal. I like a conservation officer who tries to conserve.

The story starts out pretty low-key. Casavant was working in Port Hardy back in 2015 and got a call from a resident that a mother black bear and her two cubs were rummaging through the resident's garbage.

Casavant was told by his superiors to kill all three bears because they'd been habituated to eating human food and would continue to be nuisances. The resident said she hadn't seen the cubs eating garbage, so Casavant killed the mother and took the two cubs to a veterinarian for assessment. Deemed healthy, they were transferred to a wild animal recovery centre and would be eventually released back to the wild.

Then all hell broke loose back at Casavant's workplace, and he ended up being dismissed from his conservation job and told he was now working for the Forests Ministry. "The hope is that in your new position, given the different nature of the work involved, you will not suffer from the same inability to follow instructions and policies," his superiors wrote, citing two other incidents when he didn't follow their orders.

Much conflict and union involvement later, Casavant lost a lower court case about his dismissal and took it to the BC Court of Appeal. The court battle was all based on high-faluting legal arguments that had nothing to do with sparing the lives of two perfectly healthy bear cubs, but the upshot is that Casavant won, though perhaps only because the discipline procedure was messed up.

"In my view the best that can be done in these circumstances is to declare that the proceedings before the arbitrator and Board were a nullity, to confirm that Mr. Casavant’s dismissal should have been addressed under the Police Act, Special Provincial Constable Complaint Procedure Regulation, and to leave the parties to sort out the consequences of those declarations, if any, on the settlement agreement," wrote Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon in a June 4 unanimous decision.

No doubt the questionable psychologist's report used to justify firing Casavant because he was unfit for the work played a role in the appeal court's thinking. Asked to perform a general workplace environment assessment, the psychologist "instead provided an opinion about Mr. Casavant’s suitability for his position (a report for which the psychologist was eventually sanctioned by the College of Psychologists, which found the report to be unreliable and improperly obtained)."

Conservation officers play difficult roles mediating the relationship between wildlife and the public. Complex legal arguments aside, Casavant's case highlights that officers appear to be governed in quasi-military fashion, taking their orders from someone who isn't at the scene, didn't talk to the affected residents, and perhaps isn't even trained in conservation. (Haven't we all had bosses with zero experience in the work they're now supervising?)

Is this how the BC public imagines conservation to work? Surely we want skilled conservation officers able to assess the situation in that moment and make a decision that saves wild animals whenever possible. Casavant didn't win his appeal on that argument, but the Court of Right Thinking is feeling good about this decision.