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Shanaaz Gokool, former CEO of Dying With Dignity Canada, in Toronto on Oct. 11, 2019.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Dying with Dignity Canada is vehemently denying that it engaged in racial discrimination against Shanaaz Gokool, the former chief executive officer who is suing the advocacy group for wrongful dismissal.

In a statement of defence, the right-to-die group took aim at one of Ms. Gokool’s key allegations against her former employer – namely, that Dying with Dignity’s board initially paid two new white employees more than Ms. Gokool, their boss, a woman of colour.

Dying with Dignity alleged in its court filing that it was Ms. Gokool herself who set the salaries of the new staff members at levels higher than her own, as a bargaining chip in her own contract talks.

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“The plaintiff, a sophisticated negotiator, was able to leverage the salaries of her subordinates in her own compensation negotiations, which ultimately resulted in the plaintiff receiving the exact salary that she had requested,” read the statement of defence, filed last month.

Ms. Gokool, in a reply document filed this month, said that was not true.

Her reply said Dying with Dignity’s board of directors was responsible for approving salaries, including the salaries of the white chief operating officer and the white director of major gifts, who were for a time paid more than Ms. Gokool.

Ms. Gokool’s $1.75-million wrongful dismissal suit – which has not yet been tested in court – is unfolding as Dying with Dignity and other organizations weigh in on how the federal government should revise Canada’s assisted-dying law.

Earlier this month, the Liberal government launched public consultations prompted in part by a Quebec court decision last fall that struck down the requirement that a natural death had to be “reasonably foreseeable” for a patient to qualify for a medically assisted death.

In the nearly five years since the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the Criminal Code prohibition on physician-assisted dying, Dying with Dignity has emerged as a major player in how the law has been applied in hospital corridors and homes across the country.

But behind the scenes, the organization seemed to be in turmoil, according to the duelling accounts laid out in court documents.

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Ms. Gokool, who moved to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago as a toddler, alleged in her lawsuit that Dying with Dignity’s board of directors subjected her to years of systemic discrimination before firing her last July.

Dying with Dignity countered in its court filing that it fired Ms. Gokool after Cameron Dunkin, then chief operating officer, sent a document to several board members that, “outlined numerous significant issues with the plaintiff’s workplace conduct,” including a management style that Mr. Dunkin called, “overbearing and aggressive.”

Several other staff members told the board around the same time that “they were experiencing significant stress and considering resignation as a result of the plaintiff’s workplace conduct," the defence document said.

Ms. Gokool said in an interview that she only learned of Mr. Dunkin’s report after reading about it in the statement of defence.

“It is shocking that the board did not conduct an arms-length investigation or engage with DWDC’s staff as a whole before resolving to take such drastic action," Ms. Gokool’s reply document said. "The board’s knee-jerk acceptance of allegations from Mr. Dunkin – a (white) man who stood directly to benefit from Ms. Gokool’s termination – also speaks volumes about the unconscious bias that taints the board.”

Ms. Gokool’s reply blamed Mr. Dunkin, now acting CEO, for “fostering conflict” that allegedly contributed to the resignation of five long-time staff members, four of whom left after the statement of defence was circulated by e-mail in early December.

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James Cowan, a former senator who chairs Dying with Dignity’s board, said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday that the organization would not comment beyond its statement of defence.

"Our primary focus remains on continuing the work of improving quality of dying, protecting end-of-life rights and helping Canadians avoid unwanted suffering,” he said.

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