The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal became a toxic workplace as its Conservative-appointed chair harassed, screamed at and spied upon staff from 2009 to 2012, a federal watchdog has found.
Calling it a case of “gross mismanagement,” the report into workplace harassment at the body designed to weed out discrimination describes Shirish Chotalia as a tyrannical boss who struck fear among her staff and failed to follow basic rules of governance. During an earthquake in Ottawa in 2010, she “ordered her employees, through her assistant, to remain inside the building” to attend a swearing-in ceremony that she had organized for herself, the report said.
Tribunal employees filed formal complaints about Ms. Chotalia to the Department of Justice and the Privy Council Office in 2010. Given a perceived lack of response, employees went the following year to the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner to file a whistle-blower’s disclosure.
The Commissioner conducted an investigation and warned Ms. Chotalia last August that she was likely to be hit by a finding of wrongdoing. In November, she resigned.
The Human Rights Tribunal, which receives unresolved cases from the Canadian Human Rights Commission, was created 36 years ago to enforce the anti-discrimination measures in the Canada Human Rights Act.
In a report released on Thursday, Integrity Commissioner Mario Dion said “Ms. Chotalia committed gross mismanagement in the public sector by … creating a dysfunctional workplace for employees and members of the CHRT that potentially jeopardized the ability of the CHRT to fulfill its mandate.” The report said tribunal staff were frequently brought to tears and suffered from severe anxiety because of Ms. Chotalia’s management style and actions, stating that:
Ms. Chotalia “repeatedly harassed employees at all levels by referring to them in derogatory terms, by questioning their competencies in the presence of their colleagues and by spreading misinformation about them in the workplace.”
Ms. Chotalia “frequently raised individuals’ personal health issues” and “subjected certain employees to aggressive interrogations.”
Ms. Chotalia “frequently yelled insults and directed defamatory comments” at a member of the tribunal.
Ms. Chotalia “ordered staff to spy on an employee while at work and to report that employee’s movements and actions to her,” and “maintained a secret file on an employee” who had never been advised of any problems.
Ms. Chotalia “regularly called and e-mailed some employees late at night, early in the morning and on the weekend on non-essential and questionable matters.”
Ms. Chotalia was born in Ethiopia and moved to Edmonton as a four-year-old. She was appointed to the Human Rights Tribunal in 2009 by the Harper government, after having spent years working in criminal law, human rights and immigration in Alberta.
The Commission gave Ms. Chotalia an opportunity to address its findings, but she never responded. According to the report, she felt she was the victim of a conspiracy, once saying: “I was chosen by a Conservative government, I am a brown woman from Alberta and the unions want to remove me.” However, investigators did not find “any evidence that could support Ms. Chotalia’s theory.”
The tribunal should now launch “a workplace wellness initiative” to repair the damages caused by the recent turmoil, the Integrity Commission found. Robin Kers, a labour relations officer at the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said harassment cases shouldn’t have to go to the Integrity Commission, but that it was unavoidable in this case because by law, Ms. Chotalia was in charge of all such matters at the tribunal. The government refused to talk about its appointment of Ms. Chotalia, which the NDP characterized during Question Period as a “patronage debacle.”
“The individual no longer works for the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which is an arm’s-length agency operating independently from the government, and the tribunal has now addressed this matter,” Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said in the House.