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Queen’s University tried to ‘cancel’ me, says professor as former employer denies wrongful dismissal

August 16, 2023
The Canadian Press

The campus of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. Photo: JHVEPhoto/Adobe Stock
By J.P. Antonacci, The Hamilton Spectator

Dr. Matt Strauss’s former employer says the outspoken doctor’s commentary about the COVID-19 pandemic harmed Queen’s University’s reputation, while Strauss claims the university tried to “cancel” him.

Haldimand-Norfolk’s former acting medical officer of health sued Queen’s and the head of the school’s department of medicine, Dr. Stephen Archer, last October, alleging “constructive dismissal” while seeking $600,000 in damages and lost wages.

Strauss was an assistant professor of medicine at Queen’s from July 2019 to November 2021, while also practicing internal medicine and working in the ICU at a Kingston hospital.

He alleges his Queen’s career was marred by “consistent and relentless harassment, humiliation and belittlement” by Archer and other employees — motivated, Strauss claims, by his public criticism of lockdowns and other pandemic-era health measures.

Strauss claims “malicious, aggressive, condescending and defamatory statements” made by Archer damaged his reputation and created a hostile work environment, prompting Strauss to quit his job with more than seven months left on his contract.

University denies allegations, raises issues around conduct

In a recently filed statement of defence, the university denied all of Strauss’s allegations and raised issues with his job performance and conduct.

None of the allegations have been tested in court.

The university alleges Strauss cancelled medical clinics “at the last minute” and did not communicate with his superiors, which negatively affected patient care.

In a written rebuttal, Strauss alleges it was Archer who asked Strauss and others to cancel clinics in order to deal with rising COVID-19 cases. Strauss claims he “spent the cancelled clinic time working extra shifts in the critical care unit.”

The school also claims Strauss “attempted to bypass” mandatory COVID-19 screening protocols at the entrance to medical buildings, an allegation Strauss “expressly denies,” saying he went through the screenings “countless times.”

The university claims Archer did not single out Strauss for criticism or make any “libellous or defamatory” statements about him, but instead acted professionally and in good faith to promote public health messages and protect the university’s reputation by encouraging Strauss to think about the effects of his “harmful commentary.”

Strauss said the school took his social media posts — including tweets saying fast food and motor-vehicle accidents posed higher statistical risk to children than contracting COVID-19 — out of context.

He denied that his writings caused any harm, and said Archer and Queen’s could not prove that they did.

Archer allegedly alluded to Strauss and his views “in a public and demeaning manner” while speaking with colleagues and medical students, Strauss claims.

“I would stress that this is fundamentally a case about academic freedom,” Strauss said in a statement emailed to The Spectator.

“It is certainly not a case about clinic scheduling … and this will be demonstrated in court.”

No choice but to quit

The university alleges they informed Strauss that his part-time contract would not be renewed due to a funding shortfall, but “encouraged” him to apply for a newly created full-time position.

In his rebuttal, Strauss said to apply and be turned down — as he expected would happen due to the school’s “aggressive and very unfair” treatment of him — would damage his reputation and future job prospects.

The university claims Strauss did not show up for his last scheduled day of work, but Strauss said he was given the day off.

Queen’s alleges Strauss “was intentionally silent about his plans” to take the medical officer job in Haldimand-Norfolk “and deliberately timed his resignation so as to receive as much income in advance and cause as much disruption as possible to the department of medicine.”

Queen’s further claims Strauss has offered no proof his departure caused him emotional distress or financial loss, saying any reputational harm Strauss suffered “comes as a result of his own choice to engage in commentary on social media and elsewhere.”

The university contends Strauss did not file a harassment complaint and instead allegedly “confirmed that he was not being harassed” in a meeting with the director of human resources.

That is hogwash, Strauss said in his rebuttal. He alleges the school and Archer “were engaged in a campaign of harassment and ostracization due to his sincerely held and informed medical opinions, and his desire to speak publicly about same.”

According to Strauss, that the school did not investigate his claims of harassment — despite repeated oral and written complaints — left him no choice but to resign.

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