Human Rights Tribunal in turmoil: union
Employees describe work environment that has deteriorated ‘to point of toxicity’
By Kathryn May,
January 5, 2011
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is facing an outpouring of anger from workers who complain of a toxic workplace that is undermining the quasi-judicial agency’s ability to do its job.
More than half of the 25-member staff, including middle and senior level managers, have left, taken sick leave or retired over the past year. At least three have filed formal harassment complaints.
Unions representing workers confirmed they received numerous complaints of abuse of authority, intimidation and personal harassment. They say employees describe a work environment that has deteriorated “to the point of toxicity.”
The situation in the tribunal sounds strikingly similar to the poisoned workplace Auditor General Sheila Fraser found when she investigated the Public Sector Integrity Office under the leadership of retired commissioner Christiane Ouimet, said Milt Isaacs, president of the Association of Canadian Financial Officers.
The leaders of three federal unions have taken the unusual step of working together to get an independent investigation into the conflict and to find ways to resolve it.
“We’ve tried to be co-operative. We’re not looking for a head on a stick. We just want an outside agency to do an independent workplace assessment to see what we’re dealing with and make the changes needed,” said John Edmunds, president of the Union of Solicitor-General Employees.
“There’s a toxic work environment. As an employer, you would think they would want to find solutions.”
In a statement, the tribunal’s executive director Frederick Gloade wouldn’t comment on specific complaints. He acknowledged “workplace and human resource problems” some of which he said are “complex and go back some time.” Tribunal chairperson Shirish Chotalia, who was appointed by the Harper government in late 2009, did not respond to requests for comment.
Gloade said the tribunal has spent months trying to improve the situation. It proposed mediation, commissioned a “workplace improvement” report and implemented its recommendations. The tribunal has now agreed to a second workplace assessment to resolve any outstanding issues, including short and long-term “change management.”
“The CHART is committed to resolving these issues in the fairest and most appropriate way possible, so that the tribunal can focus on its mandate,” he wrote.
The unions feel they have fought an uphill battle in their efforts to work with the government to appoint an independent investigator to conduct an assessment of the troubled workplace.
They also say Fraser’s stinging report into Ouimet’s leadership raises questions whether the government should be more carefully screening the people it selects for such senior posts, including their previous management track record.
Fraser’s report found Ouimet was an abusive manager, who yelled, berated, marginalized and intimidated staff, many of whom left. She also concluded the career bureaucrat failed to live up to her mandate. She received 228 complaints over her three years in office, investigated seven, but found not one wrongdoing.
Isaacs said these kinds of complaints are even more worrisome when they arise at an agency like the tribunal which should uphold and be sensitive to human rights issues.
“You can’t help but ask whether we seeing a trend on how these commissioners manage and are appointed. Are they pit bulls on short chains that are being tugged somewhere else? I don’t know, but I think Canadians should be concerned,” said Isaacs.
The unions first appealed to Justice Minister Rob Nicholson last September to order an independent workplace assessment to identify “systemic” problems, the nature of the personal conflicts with the chair and to recommend “appropriate remedies.”
“The normally collegial working environment at the tribunal has deteriorated dramatically,” Edmunds said in a letter to Nicholson.
“In nine short months, an unusually large number of both unionized employees and excluded middle and senior managers have either prematurely left the tribunal, fallen ill due to stress or have been compelled to file abuse of authority and personal harassment complaints against the chairperson.”
Nicholson referred the complaints to the Privy Council Office and its senior personnel officials met with the leaders of the Union of Solicitor-General Employees, Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and Association of Canadian Financial Officers.
PCO agreed at an October meeting to the unions’ request for an independent workforce assessment, but months passed and none was done.
Several weeks ago, Chotalia wrote the unions and said that she would accept the union’s proposal for a workplace assessment because “it will offer a quicker route to fostering a healthy workplace.”
However, Chotalia’s entreaty was roundly rejected by the unions because she wanted a hand in setting up the terms of reference for the study. They argue the assessment should be independent with no involvement of Chotalia.
“Since you are personally the subject of several harassment complaints and the expressions of concern by many other employees of CHRT, we are sure that our firm objection to your proposal will come as no major surprise,” Edmunds replied in the letter.
In an e-mail, the tribunal argues the process will be independent because the Public Service Labour Relations Board, an arms-length and quasi-judicial agency, would oversee the meeting to set the study’s terms of reference, scope, methodology and timelines.
The tribunal is Canada’s premier human rights adjudication body. It acts like court and rules on cases referred to it by the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
The registrar and staff are public servants who plan, organize and support the hearings but they have nothing to do with the tribunal’s decision-making.
Chotalia became chair in November 2009 and her appointment was unanimously endorsed by MPs.
She practised at the family’s Edmonton law firm, Pundit and Chotalia for 22 years, specializing in human rights, immigration and employment law. She was a commissioner with the Alberta Human Rights Commission between 1989 and 1993 and an part-time adjudicator with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal from 1999 to 2005.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen