Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NRC staff enraged by gift cards

Final-day treats 'kick in the teeth' for laid-off workers

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OTTAWA -- Have a doughnut on your way out the door. That is the message several dozen employees of the National Research Council took away June 29 as the president of the agency issued gift cards for a coffee and a doughnut to all employees, including 65 who are being laid off this month.

"Thank you for the contribution you have made in helping NRC successfully work through our massive transformation," read the letter from NRC president John McDougall. "To celebrate our success in gaining government support, here is a token of appreciation: have a coffee and a doughnut on me."

A $3 gift card to Tim Hortons accompanied each letter to more than 4,000 NRC employees. It cost taxpayers more than $12,000.

Some of the employees being laid off received the gift card on their last day of work. Most others had their last day July 2.

"Talk about a kick in the teeth," said one NRC employee, who asked not to be identified. The employee, who is not losing their job, said the emotion in the NRC offices as the letters were received ranged from fury to tears.

"It was awful."

A total of 65 NRC employees are being laid off this month, 47 of them in Winnipeg. Most of the Winnipeg workers losing their jobs are scientists who worked on the NRC's magnetic resonance imaging research.

Charles Drouin, chief media relations officer for the NRC, said the letters and gift cards were a way to say thank you to employees for their work during a difficult year at the agency. He said not all employees were scheduled to leave on June 29.

"It just coincided. We wanted to try and include everyone. The president thought the note would be a good way to thank our employees."

He added not all employees reacted badly to the gift. The president received one official complaint, said Drouin.

For more than a year, the NRC has been changing the research it does to accommodate a federal government request to focus mostly on commercially viable research. The recent budget specifically plans to refocus the NRC toward "research that helps Canadian businesses develop innovative products and services."

That change includes getting rid of the MRI research at Winnipeg's Institute for Biodiagnostics and selling the NRC's two downtown Winnipeg office buildings.

Research at the NRC's Institute for Biodiagnostics was commercially beneficial, particularly for IMRIS Inc., a company that earned $52 million last year selling surgical-theatre MRI devices that were developed through NRC research.

The employee said the vice-president of the NRC said the MRI research was being canned because "there is no Canadian MRI industry."

Most companies that sell MRIs are major multinationals such as Siemens, Phillips and GE Healthcare.

"Our goal henceforth is to support industry," said the employee. "This government does not believe the government should be in the business of science."

The employee said there are a lot of employees twiddling their thumbs because the research they had been working on is no longer a priority and the agency has not figured out what it wants them to do.

Drouin said the NRC is "trying to transform itself to become one of the world's leading research and technology organizations."

He noted the recent federal budget added $110 million to the NRC's Industrial Research Assistance Program.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2012 A3

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