The troubled Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is expected to provide a harmonious and professional workplace for its employees, the federal government said Monday.
In an email statement to the Citizen, a spokesperson for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the minister expects the Tribunal chair Shirish Chotalia to “address issues” that led to two charges of harassing employees being upheld against her.
Two more harassment charges are pending against Chotalia, whose employees accused her of creating a “toxic” workplace since her appointment to the job in Sept. 2009.
More than half of the 25-member staff, including managers, left, took sick leave or retired in her first year on the job.
All government agencies are expected to provide healthy and professional working environments, said the minister’s spokesperson.
“We expect the Tribunal to address these issues,” the email continued.
The spokesperson would not say whether Nicholson or his officials had spoken directly to Chotalia.
The justice minister’s office was responding to a Citizen story that revealed details of an independent investigator’s probe into harassment and abuse of authority claims against the Conservative government appointee.
The Tribunal, Canada’s premier human rights adjudicator, rules on cases sent to it from the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
Harassment complaints against the head of a government agency are rare, but the case is reminiscent of Canada’s first Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, Christiane Ouimet, who resigned in late 2010 after then-auditor general Sheila Fraser revealed Ouimet had intimidated and engaged in “retaliatory actions” against employees.
Because harassment complaints typically go to the head of an agency, an independent investigator had to be brought in to rule on the complaints against Chotalia.
Philip Chodos, the choice of Chotalia and the Union of Solicitor General Employees, said Chotalia had exhibited “baffling, if not bizarre” behaviour toward probationary clerical worker David Pembroke whom she considered incompetent after he declined to do work for which he was not qualified.
Chotalia, a human rights lawyer with almost no public sector experience when she was appointed, had a huge amount of work to do, said Chodos, and at the time there were numerous complaints about a backlog of cases at the Tribunal.
“It is certainly baffling, if not bizarre, that the Chairperson, who had a great deal on her plate during this period and was undoubtedly on a huge learning curve, would devote so much time and attention to the performance of a relatively low-level employee such as Mr. Pembroke,” he said, adding that Pembroke was within his rights to decline the work.
Chotalia, who has written letters of apology to Pembroke and the other employee whose harassment complaint was upheld, was not available to comment to The Citizen.
The union is urging the Privy Council Office (PCO), which administers order-in-council appointments, to investigate Chotalia’s behaviour and take appropriate action.
PCO has delayed and frustrated employee efforts “to address the abuse of authority and its effect on the employees and their workplace,” said union official Robin Kers.
“The Tribunal has tried the tactic of issuing an apology hoping it resolves the matter, but it doesn’t,” he said. “What does the public service do in situations such as this? If this was a lower level manager, the head of the institution would have the authority to take specific measures. 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?”