Canadian Human Rights Tribunal boss faces harassment accusations

Steve Mertl
·National Affairs Contributor

The Conservative-appointed head of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is under fire for allegedly harassing her own staff.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper named Alberta lawyer Shirish Chotalia, chairwoman of the tribunal in November 2009. The tribunal hears complaints referred to it by the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Now the Ottawa Citizen's Chris Cobb reports an independent labour investigator has upheld harassment complaints against Chotalia from two staff members.

Lawyer Philip Chodos concluded she engaged in "baffling, if not bizarre" behaviour. Chotalia faces two more harassment complaints. Her employees last year accused her of creating a toxic atmosphere in the workplace.

More than half the tribunal's 25-member staff left via sick leave or retirement in her first year on the job, the Citizen reported.

Chodos was appointed to investigate under an agreement with Chotalia and unions representing her staff.

The process is considered unusual since harassment complaints normally are handled by the heads of the affected government department or agency.

"The Conservative government and Privy Council Office have a real dilemma on their hands and it will be interesting to see what spin is put on this matter," Robin Kers, labour relations officer with the Union of Solicitor General Employees, told the Citizen.

One of the complaints Chodos investigated involved probationary clerical worker David Pembroke, who said Chotalia began harassing him after he turned down her request to work as her executive assistant to replace one who had left on stress leave.

Pembroke said he didn't feel qualified but Chodos reported his boss then accused him of being incompetent, questioned his work ethic and tried to have him fired. He left before his probationary period ended and now works for another government department.

Chodos said in his report that prior to her appointment, Chotalia had "little, if any" public sector management experience, was on a "steep learning curve" and facing "onerous" responsibility.

Chotalia has written letters of apology to Pembroke and the other employee whose harassment complaint was upheld.

Tribunal executive director Rachel Boyer told the Citizen the report's findings "were not all negative."

"... The chair took her responsibility very seriously as CEO and as soon as she saw the findings she immediately issued an apology to both complainants," said Boyer. "It isn't her intention to cause discomfort."

But Kers dismissed the reaction. The Privy Council Office, which administers order-in-council appointments, has delayed efforts by employes to address "abuse of authority and its effect on the employees and their workplace, Kers said.

"The tribunal has tried the tactic of issuing an apology hoping it resolves the matter, but it doesn't," he said.

A lower-level manager in a government department would have been disciplined by the head of the institution, said Kers.

"That person could be sent for sensitivity training or moved to a different position or fired. But how do you appropriately deal with harassment charges against heads of institutions?"