Ex-Yukon University instructor alleges she was fired after returning from domestic violence leave

A close-up of a Yukon University sign. A former instructor in Dawson City alleges she was fired shortly after returning from domestic violence leave. The university, however, says her contract was about to expire and the timing was a coincidence.  (Paul Tukker/CBC - image credit)
A close-up of a Yukon University sign. A former instructor in Dawson City alleges she was fired shortly after returning from domestic violence leave. The university, however, says her contract was about to expire and the timing was a coincidence. (Paul Tukker/CBC - image credit)

A former Yukon University instructor in Dawson City says she was fired shortly after returning from domestic violence leave — a situation that's now before the Yukon Human Rights Commission.

The university, however, says her contract was about to expire and the timing was an unfortunate coincidence.

Melissa Antony had worked for the First Nations initiatives department for nearly two and a half years when she took a five-day domestic violence leave in early 2023. She was on her second day back at work on Feb. 14 when she said she received a call from her manager.

"He started with the fact that I had a lot of accrued leave," Antony said in an interview.

"He just told me that somebody else would be taking over [my] projects and I should just take my things and get out of my office and take my two months of vacation leave and then not come back after that."

Antony said she was initially "perplexed" at the request before she realized what was happening.

"I had experienced a lot with the domestic violence piece, personally, and I was not expecting to lose my job … I had a panic attack," she said. "Like, I couldn't find my breath and I was so shocked, I left and I went home."

While Antony was on a contract set to end on March 31 of that year, she said she'd expected a renewal, something she'd discussed with a previous supervisor. She also said she was the lead on two major projects for which she'd just helped secure five years' worth of funding — the university's Indigenization strategy and a micro-credentialing initiative — and otherwise had "outstanding performance reviews."

Antony confirmed she was never explicitly told she was let go because of her leave, but that considering the timing and circumstances, she could think of "no other reason."

In her complaint to the human rights commission, which she filed last April and a copy of which she shared with CBC News, Antony alleges she was discriminated against on the grounds of sex, disability and marital or family status.

"I believe I was discriminated against on the basis of my sex and more specifically in relation to my being a survivor of intimate partner violence — the very large majority of whom are women," the complaint reads in part.

"I believe I experienced discrimination on the basis of a physical/mental disability as well since I was terminated upon returning to work after disclosing domestic violence and taking leave due to the impacts the violence has had on my physical and mental wellness."

The situation, the complaint says, left Antony struggling "financially, emotionally and physically" and with "extreme PTSD" as she scrambled to find new employment in a small community so she could continue to support herself and her son.

Timing 'deeply unfortunate' but 'no malice' involved, university says

Yukon University declined an interview request. In an emailed statement, marketing and communications director Misha Warbanski wrote that Antony was "not terminated," but that the "contract came to its previously agreed upon conclusion."

"We wish to acknowledge that the timing of Ms. Antony's contract ending combined with a traumatic experience was deeply unfortunate, however, there was no malice on the part of the University [sic]," Warbanski wrote.

"We recognize that this has been a difficult and stressful time for Ms. Antony. We support all employees who have challenging issues in their lives."

In its response to the human rights complaint, which Antony also shared with CBC News, the university wrote that "extending or renewing" Antony's contract was "deemed infeasible" due to "internal leadership changes and priority adjustments."

"The timing of Ms. Antony's leave related to the domestic violence she suffered from and communication about the end of her term contract were coincidental and unconnected," the response reads in part.

While it repeatedly denies any discrimination or legal wrongdoing occurred, the response also acknowledges "communication with Ms. Antony about the end of her term contract, in particular, the timing of that communication, could have been handled better," and that the university "would be willing to formalize an unreserved apology in this regard as a settlement to this complaint."

Both Antony and the university indicated that the human rights commission was now investigating.

Commission acting director Lesley McCullough said in an interview that the commission doesn't confirm or deny the existence of complaints. However, speaking generally, she said a complaint at the investigation stage means a human rights officer is looking further into the circumstances after informal settlement attempts fail. The officer will then produce a report that's shared with the complainant, respondent and commission members, after which the members decide if there's enough evidence for a public hearing.

McCullough also said the commission accepted 44 new complaints last fiscal year, with 34 of them related to alleged discrimination in relation to "some aspect of employment," and that the average time to conclude a case was 1,029 days, or nearly three years.

Antony said the university had rejected her attempts to settle and that she was frustrated by its response to her complaint. However, she said she was still following through with the process — and is now choosing to speak publicly about it — in the hope it'll prevent it from happening again.

"It felt like an injustice that I was just fired like that, and I also feel like it's probably the worst thing they could have done to somebody in a vulnerable position, returning from domestic violence leave," she said.

"I wouldn't want any other woman to have to go through that."

Antony said she would like to see the university put policies in place to better protect women returning from domestic violence leave. She also wants it to acknowledge that what happened to her was wrong.

"In order to heal and move on with my life … I need it to be acknowledged that this was an injustice," she said.