A Canadian nurse is at the center of a landmark decision on medical coercion and freedom of expression that could have major implications for nurses and other professionals across the country. On September 26, 2021, Saskatchewan nurse Leah McInnes became the subject of a complaint from a colleague after attending a rally that opposed COVID vaccine mandates. Despite supporting the use of vaccines to prevent disease, McInnes was an outspoken critic of medical coercion. From August to October 2021, she took to social media to express her dissenting views on the government’s pandemic response, which prompted an investigation by the College of Registered Nurses of Saskatchewan (CRNS) into her off-duty activism.
The CRNS accused McInnes of spreading “misinformation” for her posts, which included advocating for the removal of “unjust mandates” and protesting against the invasiveness of private medical information. They charged her with “professional misconduct” under the Registered Nurses Act, alleging that she had operated outside the scope of her duties and misused her power. The College proposed that she admit to professional misconduct, but McInnes stood by her beliefs in defense of freedom of expression. In response, the College went on to file a Notice of hearing with a revised list of charges against her.
Her legal counsel at the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms argued that McInnes’ off-duty activism was protected by the Code of Ethics for Registered Nurses of the CRNS, which promotes a climate of trust that encourages open expression. They further contended that her expression was protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The case was compared to a ruling in Saskatchewan Court of Appeal, which held that criticism, even by those delivering healthcare services, does not necessarily undermine confidence in the healthcare system.
McInnes’s case is part of a broader issue involving the disciplinary proceedings of nurses for their off-duty conduct. Nurse Amy Hamm faced a similar situation with the British Columbia College of Nurses and Midwives (BCCNM) over her advocacy for gender rights. Shortly after co-sponsoring an ‘I heart J.K. Rowling’ billboard, Hamm was accused of making discriminatory and derogatory statements regarding transgender people. She received widespread backlash and hateful messages.
Both McInnes and Hamm have been subject to intense scrutiny from the regulatory boards, highlighting the challenges that nurses and other professionals face when expressing their beliefs outside of work. The outcome of McInnes’s case could have far-reaching implications for freedom of expression among professionals and the power of regulatory bodies to control their speech.