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Why did Roderick MacIsaac have to die?

Health researcher committed suicide; found four years ago today

Roderick MacIsaac was a shy and bookish man who found comfort in facts and solitude, until he was swept up in a highly publicized privacy-breach investigation in 2012.

He was devastated.

MacIsaac was one of eight B.C. Health Ministry researchers fired in August 2012. A University of Victoria PhD co-op student at the time, he was the victim of a Health Ministry investigation into health data breaches and contract irregularities in which the government said the RCMP was involved.

Four years ago today, on Jan. 8, 2013, MacIsaac was found dead of carbon-monoxide poisoning.

The coroner said he was “working on a document he had created relating to the events that were causing him significant stress,” when over the Christmas holidays he started up a gas generator in his small Saanich rental suite and died by suicide.

“I wished he would have let us know how this was affecting him,” said his sister, Linda Kayfish. She said her brother was told by his employers that he could not discuss the matter “and he was one to follow rules.”

“I don’t think he saw a way out of it, and we’re still discussing it four years later and we’re still no closer to finding out why he was fired,” said Kayfish. “Why he was fired was beyond me.”

Brother-in-law Doug Kayfish confirmed the document was about the firing and that MacIsaac was frustrated and astonished by how the initial investigation was conducted, the lack of process and logic: “He just couldn’t believe anyone could get away with doing something like this in this day and age.”

“It’s still raw,” said Linda Kayfish, who lives in the Okanagan. “I just feel that everybody let him down, myself included.”

The government later apologized for the wrong and heavy-handed firing of the PhD student, but MacIsaac never heard that apology.

“In these circumstances, it was very appropriate that government apologize for what the health minister, I think, appropriately characterized as very heavy-handed actions,” said Premier Christy Clark in October 2014.

The Health Ministry conceded the improperly accessed and stored data had only ever been used for research purposes, and no one benefited financially.

The Health Ministry was rapped on the knuckles by B.C.’s privacy commissioner for lack of oversight. It was eventually confirmed that the RCMP did not investigate — but MacIsaac never learned of that, either.

In the end, some of the fired workers received apologies, others were rehired and all the wrongful-dismissal lawsuits and grievances were settled out of court.

In July 2013, Kayfish received a cheque for $482.53 in the mail. It was the result of the settlement made posthumously between the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union and the government — for the three days remaining in MacIsaac’s co-op term after he was fired.

In a 2014 review, Victoria lawyer Marcia McNeil wrote that she was unable to determine who ordered the firings or why, in part because she lacked “the reports, briefing notes, meeting notes or other documents which are frequently prepared in situations where discipline may be contemplated.”

That prompted demands for a public inquiry.

Instead, a probe by B.C. ombudsperson Jay Chalke, ongoing since the fall of 2015, is scheduled for completion by the end of this fiscal year.

Harold Roderick MacIsaac was born in Edmonton in 1966. He was named after his dad. It was the only connection they would have.

Harold Sr. was “out of the picture” about three months after wife, Marion MacIsaac, became pregnant.

“He came in and took a look at him in the hospital and that’s the last we saw of him,” said Linda Kayfish.

Harold was raised by single mom Marion and his sister Linda, who was 10 years older than her brother.

“Until he was about 8 or 9 we called him Harold,” said Kayfish. “Then one day he came home and told us that he would no longer be called Harold and wanted to go by Roderick, and so from then went by his middle name.”

He was kind and gentle from his first day. “It was his nature,” said Kayfish. He did all the usual kid things: He was a boy scout and held down a paper route.
He never gave his single working mother reason to worry.

He was “thoughtful” and would intuitively know to help someone lift a bag of groceries or open a door.

“That’s the kind of person he was, he didn’t need to be told to do those things,” she said.

The MacIsaac siblings, growing up in Edmonton, would visit the big department stores over the holiday season to gawk at the Christmas displays.

“We pressed our faces against the windows,” said Kayfish. And then there were the times they’d escape to 25-cent matinee movies starring the likes of Dick Van Dyke and Jerry Lewis.

And then there were all the trips to the library. A young MacIsaac wanted big adult books, books on history and non-fiction. Books were his companion.

“Books and learning were his refuge,” Kayfish said.

Kayfish married her husband Doug at age 16 — 43 years ago — and left the family home when MacIsaac was just six years old.

Kayfish knew there were some “tough” years for her baby brother.

MacIsaac’s braces didn’t help his extreme shyness, and he wasn’t athletic like some other boys. He was a staunch defender of gay rights as an adult, but was less clear about his own sexuality — “though as far as he was concerned I don’t think he thought it mattered,” said Kayfish.

MacIsaac and his mom moved to Calgary in 1974 and then Vancouver Island in 1979.

After graduating with an arts and applied communication degree from Camosun College (1985-89), he worked at Queen’s Printer Publishing, but found that to be uninspiring. His mother encouraged him to enter journalism, and while he enjoyed it, it wasn’t a perfect fit.

Then in 1993, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and he was struggling with coming “out” to her about his sexuality, MacIsaac became depressed and considered self-harm, said Kayfish. Later, “he worked through all this” and decided he was still the best person to care for her, said Kayfish.

“He looked after her and bathed her … and kept the worst of it to himself,” she said. The Kayfishes were living in Montreal at this time, contributing financially.
Marion MacIsaac died at age 63 on Oct. 13, 1998.

After this low, MacIssac began to rebuild.

What brought him joy was being with family — his three nephews Lance, Curtis and Kyle Kayfish, who were all living outside Victoria at the time — and spending time in nature and enjoying life’s simple pleasures, including reading and movies.

He adopted a minimalist lifestyle, lived frugally and strongly believed in reducing one’s environmental footprint.

In 1999-2000, MacIsaac rebounded and began upgrading his education with undergraduate studies at Simon Fraser University, living in a condominium his sister owned in Burnaby. He studied actuarial sciences and then Canadian government and politics, math and statistical analysis. He graduated with a bachelor of arts degree with minors in statistics and political science.

He took his master’s degree in political science at the University of B.C. in 2006-2007 and then moved to Greater Victoria in the fall of 2007 to attend the University of Victoria in the hopes of earning a PhD in public administration.

He was a “first-rate” student completing his comprehensive exams in the spring of 2009 “in an exemplary manner,” according to a written biography.

At a service at UVic’s interfaith chapel on what would have been MacIsaac’s 47th birthday, one professor noted that while reserved, MacIsaac would not hold back in challenging professors on their research. And he was a stickler for order; move his chair at UVic and there would be trouble.

Evert Lindquist, who was director of UVic’s school of public administration at the time, said after MacIsaac’s death that the doctoral student had been a “number cruncher,” skilled in quantitative analysis and working with data.

“He was a quiet and methodical student with a wry sense of humour and knowledgeable about a wide variety of topics.”

MacIsaac’s first thesis fell apart, explained Kayfish.

It could have broken MacIsaac, but in the fall of 2011 he obtained a co-op position in research and evidence development at the Health Ministry’s pharmaceutical-services division. His term was extended for two more semesters.

MacIsaac was part of a committee evaluating the B.C. government’s smoking-cessation program and other research going on at the time and thought he had found his thesis topic.

“He was finally able to show: ‘I have achieved this,’ ” said Kayfish. “He wanted to give back.”

Three days before his co-op term with the Health Ministry was to end, he was fired. All seemed lost.

Rebecca Warburton, MacIsaac’s adviser at UVic, was also fired from her part-time ministry position as co-director of research and evidence development in the pharmaceutical-services division. She would later settle her wrongful-dismissal lawsuit with government.

“He had such potential, he could have been part of that next generation of analysts,” Warburton said, following MacIsaac’s death.

She described MacIsaac as a “really respectful” person who was one of four students in the public administration PhD program.

“He always wanted to do data analysis,” Warburton said.

Lindquist said of the firing: “He handled that with dignity.”

A mentor was helping him develop a strategy to complete his dissertation in the new year.

But no one knew how much he was suffering over how he was fired and why, said Kayfish.

“He was a real person and he believed, I think, he believed that somewhere we all cared about one another.”

Roderick MacIsaac would have turned 51 on Jan. 24, 2017.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com