OTTAWA – When an earthquake rattled the nation’s capital in 2010, the former head of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered her frightened staff to stay inside their shaking building so they could attend a ceremony she had organized for herself, says a withering new report.
Brushing aside the concerns of her employees during the earthquake is among the more egregious allegations of “gross mismanagement” levelled against Shirish Chotalia in a report released Thursday by the public sector integrity commissioner.
Mario Dion’s two-year investigation concluded that Chotalia’s behaviour towards some employees and members of the tribunal constituted harassment and abuse of authority.
“In my soon-to-be two-and-a-half years as public sector integrity commissioner, this is the worst lack of respect vis-as-vis individuals that you are responsible for,” Dion said during a teleconference.
The report cast Chotalia as a tyrant who belittled and insulted her staff to the point of tears.
“Ms. Chotalia, during meetings and in the presence of other employees, behaved in a way that was belittling and humiliating toward individuals,” it said.
“She frequently raised individuals’ personal health issues, the topic of a previous disagreement and unjustifiably blamed them for errors. In some cases, individuals were brought to tears as a result of her public humiliations.”
Her aggressive interrogations of some staff caused them “severe anxiety,” the report added. Nor was her behaviour limited to more junior staff. Investigators found Chotalia harassed and abused other government-appointed members of the tribunal, who presided over hearings.
“Ms. Chotalia frequently yelled insults and directed defamatory comments at a member, questioning his competencies and bringing up issues about this person’s health and capacity to work in the presence of other employees,” the report says.
Another tribunal member was criticized for defending an employee who was being harassed in the workplace. Chotalia put “inappropriate pressure” on that member to render decisions during tribunal hearings, the report says, and often belittled him by calling him “immature” and a “child.”
She spied on her staff and kept a secret file on one employee, the report said, even though that person had never been told of any problems.
Investigators also found Chotalia worked her staff around the clock without paying them overtime, and even forced one employee to wear a set of keys around their neck – even though that person complained of discomfort and pain.
Chotalia refused to co-operate with the investigation, Dion said. The report said she thought the commissioner’s investigation amounted to a witch hunt.
“Ms. Chotalia also expressed this sentiment to the investigator at the beginning of this investigation and told him that this was happening because, ‘I was chosen by a Conservative government, I am a brown woman from Alberta and the unions want to remove me’,” the report said.
“This investigation did not reveal any evidence that could support Ms. Chotalia’s theory.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Chotalia to lead the tribunal in 2009. She left her seven-year appointment last November – four years early – following several controversies.
She now works as a lawyer in Edmonton, specializing in immigration and employment cases.
“As former chairperson (of the) Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, Ms. Chotalia has helped Canadians access justice,” her website says.
She did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The phone at her Edmonton law office rang unanswered with no option to leave a message, and she did not return an email.
Dion remarked on the irony of someone who is supposed to uphold human rights being accused of such egregious abuses.
“The result was a poisoned atmosphere at the tribunal,” he said. “A place that, ironically, is supposed to place the respect of individuals at the very highest level.”
The head of the union that represented the lead complainant said he hoped the commissioner’s finding would lead to better protection of workers’ rights.
“Under the current rules, complaints of abuse of authority, harassment and discrimination must be heard by the CEO or deputy head of a branch of the federal government,” John Edmunds of the Union of Solicitor General Employees said in a statement.
“In this case, the guilty parties were the CEO or deputy head. That is why the complainant and his union filed a complaint with the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner.”
He added a complaint was also brought against the former executive director, but the commissioner could not investigate after that person resigned. Edmunds called for the commissioner to be granted the power to investigate senior managers even after they quit.
© The Canadian Press, 2013