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His job was to convince Ontario community to take nuclear waste. He claims he was fired for taking its side | CBC News

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A former employee of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is suing the Canadian agency for $320,000, claiming he was “publicly humiliated” when he was constructively dismissed for being “too much on the side of the community.” 

The NWMO is a non-profit agency funded by the nuclear industry. Its goal is to find a willing host community for the country’s growing stockpile of nuclear waste.

Currently, the agency is considering the Ontario communities of Ignace and South Bruce for a proposed deep geological repository, a sprawling $23-billion catacomb that would one day act as the tomb for Canada’s 3.3 million bundles of spent nuclear fuel that are currently in interim storage. 

In South Bruce, the agency has been accused by a citizens’ group of using its financial might to groom the declining farm community into becoming a willing host for a nuclear waste storage site. The NWMO has told CBC News it only wants to leave “a positive legacy” in the community to make South Bruce a better place, regardless of its decision. 

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Now, in a lawsuit filed in a Toronto court in August, Paul Austin alleges he was constructively dismissed by the NWMO for being “too much on the side of the community.”

None of the allegations have been tested in court.

Exec says local leaders lacked ‘capacity to understand’ project

Austin, 62, was a relationship manager for the NWMO in South Bruce from May 2012 until he considered himself to be constructively dismissed in August 2021, according to court filings. 

Ontario town divided on becoming nuclear waste site

A small Ontario town is deeply divided over whether to become the storage location for Canada’s nuclear waste. Advocates against the project accuse the waste management group behind the project of trying to garner support by putting money into their town. 3:52

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His job, says the statement of claim, was to be the “primary contact’ with the NWMO in South Bruce, acting as a “trusted adviser, co-ordinator of resources” and “guide” to local town and band council officials “through the siting process.”

Court filings for the plaintiff said senior leaders within the NWMO started to become “overly involved” on a local level in the summer of 2020, undermining Austin’s work.

When community leaders in South Bruce complained, one executive told Austin he was “too much on the side of the community,” that its leadership “lacked the capacity to understand” the nuclear waste site selection process and “were damaging their chances at being selected as host for the project,” according to the lawsuit.

At one point, the statement of claim says, Austin was told by a senior executive that “if community leaders didn’t change their ways, he would stop defending South Bruce to the NWMO president and other vice-presidents, and ‘let the project go to Ignace.'”

Austin could ‘simply quit if he wanted to’

In the fall of 2020, the court documents claim, Austin started to lose many of his key responsibilities, and leadership started ignoring his advice and excluding him from phone calls with community leaders in South Bruce. 

This bright yellow sign was erected by protesters in Teeswater, Ont., a small farming town in the municipality of South Bruce, one of two sites where the NWMO is considering storing Canada’s stockpile of used nuclear fuel. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The NWMO also created a position for a new “site director” who would “basically be the face of the NWMO in the community” and would take over many of the responsibilities of a relationship manager, according to the statement of claim. 

The agency further eroded Austin’s responsibilities in the spring of 2021, the court documents allege, overriding and rejecting some of his decisions when it came to community engagement. 

When Austin complained to his boss and human resources about the change in his role and responsibilities in July 2021, court documents said he was told by the NWMO that it felt no changes had occurred and he could “simply quit if he wanted to.” 

Austin claims dismissal ‘publicly humiliated’ him

At the same time, community leaders in South Bruce began asking questions about why Austin had been sidelined from his roles and responsibilities in the community, court documents said. 

When Austin reported the community feedback to his bosses, Austin was accused of being “arbitrary, discourteous and inaccurate in his accounting of the facts,” the claim says.  

In August 2021, Austin advised the NWMO through his lawyer “he considered himself constructively dismissed” effective Aug. 17 that year. 

Austin claims the NWMO’s actions were “harsh, vindictive, reprehensible and malicious,” and the organization’s actions have caused him to be “publicly humiliated” and and suffer “mental distress.” 

Court documents say Austin is asking for wrongful dismissal damages of $270,000, with another $50,000 in punitive and moral damages. 

CBC News spoke with Austin’s lawyer, Phillip White, on Friday. 

“As this matter is currently before the courts, I am unable to comment,” White said.  

In its court filings, the NWMO denies the allegations, arguing the changes to Austin’s role and responsibilities as relationship manager were part of the evolution of the site selection process, and he was told by the agency that his work was valued. 

The organization argues that because Austin left his post voluntarily, he is not entitled to severance. 

“While we fundamentally disagree with the allegations it would be inappropriate to comment on a matter before the courts,” Michelle Dassinger, the NWMO’s director of communications wrote in an email to CBC News Friday. 

“As an organization we value fairness, honesty, integrity and respect and apply these values to everything we do.”

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