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Shanaaz Gokool, seen here in Toronto on Oct. 11, 2019, knows she is 'risking possible future employment opportunities,' but believes she is a change-maker.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

The former chief executive officer of the advocacy group Dying with Dignity Canada has filed a wrongful dismissal suit against the charity, alleging its board subjected her to years of systemic discrimination before summarily firing her this past summer.

Shanaaz Gokool, who led the right-to-die organization for three years, said in a statement of claim filed Tuesday that her ill treatment included a starting compensation package that was worth only two-thirds as much as that of her white predecessor, despite the fact that Ms. Gokool served as both CEO and chief operating officer at the time.

The board of Dying with Dignity Canada (DWDC) later hired a chief operating officer and a director of major gifts, both of whom are white, and initially paid them more than Ms. Gokool – their boss.

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“Despite her strong track record of success, DWDC’s Board continuously denied Ms. Gokool the credibility and respect enjoyed by her (white) predecessor,” the lawsuit says.

“Instead, it subjected her to a pattern of disrespectful and often humiliating behaviour designed to undermine, appropriate or second-guess her work. Over time, it became clear that DWDC’s Board was simply incapable of providing a woman of colour the respect or compensation that she objectively deserved.”

Ms. Gokool, 50, is originally from Trinidad and Tobago. She came to Canada as a toddler.

DWDC’s board called Ms. Gokool’s allegations – which have not been tested in court – “factually incorrect and misleading.”

“The board of directors of Dying with Dignity Canada (DWDC) is disappointed by Ms. Gokool’s decision to proceed with this unfounded legal action and further, her choice to litigate this matter through the media,” board chair James Cowan, a retired senator from Nova Scotia, said in a statement to The Globe and Mail.

"To be clear, the board of directors rejects the allegations put forward by Ms. Gokool in the strongest possible terms.”

Ms. Gokool’s lawsuit describes Dying with Dignity Canada as being on the brink of insolvency when she took the helm in February of 2016, one year after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the Criminal Code prohibition on physician-assisted dying.

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DWDC has since emerged as a major player in the shaping and implementation of Canada’s medical-assistance-in-dying system, which has helped at least 6,749 grievously ill patients to die as of last fall.

According to her $1.75-million lawsuit, Ms. Gokool’s accomplishments included refashioning DWDC as a national human-rights organization; winning back the charitable status that had been lost under predecessor; increasing regular donor funding to a projected $350,000 per month in 2019, up from $33,000 per month in 2015; and securing a $7.75-million bequest from the estate of a major donor with whom Ms. Gokool had developed a strong relationship.

In an interview, Ms. Gokool said she agonized about suing an organization whose mandate she wholeheartedly supports and whose staff she described as talented and hardworking.

“I’m terrified," she said of her decision to file the lawsuit. “I’m risking my reputation. I’m risking possible future employment opportunities. Some people are going to say I’m a trouble-maker – mind you, they said that about Dying with Dignity Canada. I’d like to think that I’m a change-maker.”

Surviving childhood racism also motivated Ms. Gokool to speak out. Growing up as one of the few children of colour in her predominantly white neighbourhood in Dartmouth, she said she was teased and harassed about her name, her skin colour and even the curries she brought for lunch.

“I went to bed every night praying that I would wake up white so I could be treated like everyone else,” Ms. Gokool told The Globe.

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Ms. Gokool was first hired as DWDC’s chief operating officer in June of 2014 at a starting salary of $67,000. In February of 2016, she accepted a one-year, $78,000 contract as CEO, reluctantly agreeing to step into the role after DWDC was unable to find a new leader from outside its ranks, the lawsuit says.

The total compensation package for Ms. Gokool’s predecessor was more than $130,000 per year, including rent on a Toronto apartment, according to the claim.

The board raised Ms. Gokool’s salary to $88,000 in January of 2017 and $98,000 a year later, and paid her a $10,000 bonus in June of 2018.

The lawsuit alleges that both raises were “prompted by the fact that DWDC was seeking to recruit a new COO at a rate of pay potentially higher than it was paying to Ms. Gokool.”

In November of 2018, DWDC hired a new COO at an annual salary that was $12,000 higher than Ms. Gokool’s, according to the suit.

When Ms. Gokool objected to the pay disparity, the board told her it would have to conduct a formal performance review before it could increase her salary, a process that dragged on until Ms. Gokool signed a new contract with a base salary of $165,000 per year on April 29.

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Over the course of her contract dispute, Ms. Gokool urged the board to fix what she alleged was an underlying culture of systemic discrimination at DWDC. In May, the board agreed to a mediation process led by an outside lawyer, but then, without warning, it fired Ms. Gokool on July 23, according to the lawsuit.

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