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Students object to counsellor’s firing

McGill Student Services’ abrupt firing of longtime mental health counsellor Eric Widdicombe last month left his students shocked and searching for explanations.

Human resources gave Widdicombe just two days to leave his four-year tenure at McGill after learning that he failed the oral French portion of a test required by l’Ordre des conseillers et conseillères d’orientation et des psychoéducateurs et psychoéducatrices du Québec (OCCOPPQ).

“I was shocked,” Widdicombe said. “There was very little concern for the impact of my termination on the students I saw. I had to write a letter for my clients to explain what happened.”

In October 2007, Widdicombe was informed that, in order to continue working at McGill, he had to become a member of the OCCOPPQ. In addition to various academic qualifications and professional experience – covered by his Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology from McGill – he still had to pass a standard French test.

Student Services revoked all of his benefits pending his January 17 test results — the first opportunity Widdicombe had to write the test.

“I felt like I was being punished for something that is out of my control,” Widdicombe said.

“I worked very hard with a tutor, spent a lot of time and energy on this, and I’m surprised they could just let me go with little regard for the students I would see. I never thought that this would play out.”

But Executive Director of Services for Students Jana Luker insisted that the requirements of the OCCOPPQ exist to protect students.

“We trust they know more about accrediting psychiatrists,” Luker said, although she acknowledged that the effect of Widdicombe’s firing on his clients was unfortunate.

“To stop care is not ideal at all,” she said.

Fifteen to 20 of Widdicombe’s former clients had to face the consequences of his firing, including U3 International Development Studies student Nikola Philibert, a longtime client of Widdicombe’s.

“I showed up to my weekly appointment and the receptionist just said, ‘He’s gone,’” Philibert said.

Upon learning of Widdicombe’s departure, Philibert sent a letter of complaint to McGill Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Morton Mendelson and Luker, calling on them to hire Widdicombe back.

In Philibert’s letter to Luker, she wrote, “I did not get the impression that you completely comprehended the importance of putting the needs of highly vulnerable young people above policy issues….I am urging you to reconsider your decision and take into account the actual student’s lives you have affected and the ramifications your policies have.”