By Andrew Duffy, The Ottawa Citizen – March 21, 2009
A National Research Council Canada scientist says he was humiliated and harassed by his former boss, Chander Grover, who, he alleges, hired an all-Chinese photonics team in the belief they would quietly tolerate abuse. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal will next month hear the racial discrimination case brought by scientist Ming Zhou against Grover and the NRC.
Grover won a landmark discrimination case before the same human rights tribunal 17 years ago.
In an interview with the Citizen, Grover, 66, flatly denied Zhou's allegations, which date from 2003 and 2004.
He said they were "trumped up" as part of a campaign to oust him from the federal research organization.
"It is very clear from both our submission and Ming Zhou's submission that NRC is behind this," he said.
At the time the complaint was filed, he said, NRC management was desperate to remove him and appeared "willing to go to extremes" to do it.
Grover said he was fired from the NRC in July 2007 due to what the organization termed medical incapacity.
But those health problems, Grover said, were largely the product of a poisonous work environment that the NRC created and failed to fix. Grover has since launched a human rights complaint that alleges his firing was the culmination of an unjust campaign to remove him. That complaint is still being investigated.
Grover and the NRC have a bitter and litigious history.
Since 1987, the parties have been battling each other almost constantly before the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, the Federal Court of Canada and the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
Grover's initial human rights case was among the longest and most expensive -- it cost an estimated $1 million -- in Canadian history.
A research physicist, Grover was made director of radiation standards and optics after the human rights tribunal found in 1992 that he had been discriminated against because of his race and colour. The tribunal ordered the NRC to give the Indian-born Grover a promotion to section head.
It was in that position, the Chinese-born Ming Zhou contends in his pending human rights case, that Grover publicly humiliated him and unfairly criticized his work.
In a statement filed with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, Zhou alleges that Grover prevented him from communicating with NRC officials outside the photonics group and refused to give him a permanent staff position, despite promising him one.
Zhou contends that the photonics group was created by Grover who intentionally staffed it with eight ethnic Chinese employees.
"Dr. Grover considered Chinese newcomers a group of people that were more tolerant of his abusive conduct and reluctant in speaking out their pain," Zhou says in his statement.
The NRC encouraged him to launch an internal harassment case and a human rights complaint, Zhou says in his statement.
He told NRC officials that he was primarily concerned about the impact of Grover's conduct on his employment situation. According to Zhou's statement, a human resources official told him the NRC could do nothing about his employment status until he filed an harassment complaint.
With that understanding, Zhou alleges in his statement, he filed an harassment complaint against Grover in August 2004. He hoped that NRC would offer him a permanent job after substantiating his unfair treatment.
Zhou filed a human rights complaint one month later.
The NRC hired an independent investigator to probe Zhou's internal harassment complaint and, in September 2006, a final report found most of Zhou's complaints were justified, according to Zhou's tribunal statement.
Zhou's lawyer then sent a letter to the NRC, demanding the organization remedy the unfair treatment by offering Zhou a permanent position.
The NRC did not act on that request, the statement says, and allowed Zhou's contract to expire in December 2006.
In his statement, Zhou says it's possible that the NRC used his discrimination complaint simply to remove Grover and that the "promise of correcting the unfair employment was just a lure." Zhou, 46, has been working at a research institute in China since September. His wife, Yuling, and two children, James, 18, and Cecilia, 9, remain in Ottawa, where they attend school.
In a telephone interview from China, Zhou told the Citizen he wants to move back to Ottawa to live with his family and work at the NRC.
"I think I have that right," he said.
Zhou was educated at the University of Science and Technology of China, and in 1995 received his PhD from Université Montpellier 2 in France. He moved to Ottawa in 1998 to work at the NRC as a post-doctoral fellow. In 2000, he took a job with Zenastra Photonics, which closed a year later, then rejoined the NRC.
"I believe Dr. Grover treated me unfairly, unjustly," he told the Citizen. He said the full story would be revealed at his human rights tribunal hearing.
A Canadian citizen since 2004, Zhou has also filed two separate human rights complaints against the NRC related to its handling of his harassment case. Those complaints are still being investigated by the human rights commission.
For his part, Grover said Zhou's complaints against him are unfounded. He denied belittling Zhou's work and rejected the suggestion that he intentionally favoured Chinese scientists. The vast majority of people who applied for his photonics group, including Zhou, were Chinese, he said. All of the positions were filled in keeping with the NRC's hiring policies, but the successful candidates just happened to be Chinese.
"This was not by design," Grover says in his statement to the tribunal, which notes that other groups under his control did not have a majority of newly-hired Chinese scientists.
As an NRC director, Grover was responsible for four groups with 50 to 60 employees.
In an interview, Grover said he will demonstrate to the tribunal through hundreds of e-mail transcripts that his relationship with Zhou was, for years, positive and constructive. His annual performance reviews rated Zhou's work very highly, he said.
It was only after Zhou complained to the NRC that the relationship between the two soured, Grover said.
"I liked the guy (Zhou) actually," Grover told the Citizen. "He was a good scientist and he was doing good work at NRC and it was sad that the NRC didn't want him to continue that." Grover believes the NRC encouraged Zhou and others to file human rights complaints against him as part of a strategy aimed at forcing him out of the organization.
That strategy, Grover said, manifested itself after the collapse in May 2004 of mediation talks to resolve several of his outstanding human rights complaints against the NRC.
In June 2004, according to Federal Court documents, Grover was suspended without pay after filing a third request that year for intermittent sick leave based on doctors' certificates. Grover had been using his sick leave to avoid attending what he considered stressful, unpleasant management committee meetings.
In October 2005, the Public Service Labour Relations Board ordered the NRC to reinstate Grover with full back pay. It said he had been the victim of "disguised discipline." Grover returned to work in November 2005, but was removed from his former position, according to his human rights tribunal statement. He found his work conditions untenable and went on extended sick leave in January 2006, a move contested by the NRC.
In May 2007, according to the tribunal statement, a Health Canada unit reviewed Grover's case and confirmed that his sick leave was valid. It recommended a gradual return-to-work program for him.
Grover was not offered such a program, he said in his statement, and was instead dismissed in July.
Grover contends that Zhou's human rights complaint, along with his own firing for medical incapacity, fit squarely into a pattern of behaviour first described by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 1992.
In its 1992 decision, the tribunal found that the actions of NRC managers "were contrived and calculated to further humiliate Dr. Grover and bring an end to his career at NRC." The tribunal called it a "pre-conceived and well-planned strategy." Grover was born in India, educated there and in France, and came to Canada in 1978 as a specialist in optics. He was hired by the NRC in 1981.
NRC spokeswoman Natalie Hall said the organization cannot comment on matters before the courts.
Earlier this year, the NRC went to Federal Court in an attempt to quash the Canadian Human Rights Commission's decision to refer the Zhou case to the tribunal for a public hearing.
Last month, however, Judge Michael Phelan said the case should proceed and must be assessed on its own merits.
"Aside from Dr. Grover's bad manners and possible abusive behaviour, the investigator found grounds for complaint that Dr. Grover had specifically targeted Chinese nationals to hire because, for alleged cultural reasons, they could be more easily dominated," Phelan noted.
Grover's practice of hiring people of Chinese ethnicity for the photonics group was apparently known to NRC management. Indeed, he said, the director-general of the unit, Marie D'Iorio, told a commission investigator that she "struggled with the appropriateness" of the hiring practice.
"These are facts which raise issues as to NRC knowledge, conduct and policies relevant to this matter," Phelan said.
The NRC, which claims it had no knowledge of Grover's motive for hiring Chinese scientists, may have a completely defensible position, but that is an issue for the tribunal, the judge concluded.