The embattled head of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has stepped aside in the aftermath of a scathing Federal Court decision that criticized her management of a landmark case involving the welfare of native children.
The Citizen has learned that tribunal chairwoman Shirish Chotalia wrote a brief email to staff on Friday saying she was departing on stress leave. “I am taking stress leave until June 17, 2012. Thank you for your continued support,” she wrote.
A tribunal spokesman says her long term future remains unclear.
Chotalia had already relinquished her internal management function to her deputy, Susheel Gupta, “so that I would not make decisions that may involve labour relations issues that involve me.” She said she would continue with adjudication work and other chairwoman’s duties.
That abruptly ended on Wednesday, the day of the Federal Court decision, when Gupta wrote to staff telling them he would be taking over all of Chotalia’s responsibilities. Her stress leave note followed barely 48 hours later.
The critical Federal Court decision was the latest in a string of public embarrassments for the Edmonton lawyer, who was appointed to the job by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in September 2009.
Earlier this year, an independent investigator upheld two harassment complaints brought against her by former employees. Similar complaints will be heard by the Public Service Labour Relations Board this fall.
The Citizen has also learned that the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commission has launched an investigation into the tribunal workplace — a relatively rare move by the body charged with investigating and ruling on wrongdoings in the public sector and protecting “whistle blower” public servants from reprisals.
It’s the integrity commission’s policy to neither confirm nor deny an investigation is taking place, a spokeswoman said, but if investigators find a complaint to be valid, their reports are made public.
In upholding the two harassment complaints against Chotalia in January, independent investigator Philip Chodos described her dealings with a low-level probationary clerical worker as “baffling, if not bizarre.”
Chotalia, a human rights lawyer with almost no public sector experience when Harper appointed her, was dealing with complaints about a backlog of cases piling up at the tribunal, said Chodos.
Despite the workload, Chodos reported that Chotalia spent a significant amount of time monitoring the performance of the clerical worker whom she considered incompetent and who had refused her demands to do work for which he had no qualifications.
“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,” he wrote.
After Chodos upheld the two harassment complaints, Chotalia wrote letters of apology to both former employees.
Since Chotalia’s appointment, at least a dozen employees have left the tribunal, several of them also on stress leave. The agency has fewer than 30 employees.
The timing of Chotalia’s sudden departure suggests that the criticism of her performance by Federal Court Justice Anne Mactavish in a decision released last Wednesday was a key factor.
The landmark ruling is the first step toward First Nations children living on reserves getting the same level of education and social welfare funding received by native children living off reserve.
The federal government, which funds the on-reserve children, opposes the equal funding formula that native groups say affects 160,000 children who receive 20-per-cent less funding than their off-reserve counterparts.
Chotalia’s tribunal had sided with the federal government and dismissed the complaint.
“The decision was unreasonable as the tribunal failed to provide any reasons as to why it could not consider the complaint,” said Mactavish, a former head of the tribunal.
The judge questioned the fairness of the decision and ordered the tribunal to appoint another panel to review the complaint.
Tribunal spokesman Jamie Robertson refused to discuss details of Chotalia’s departure Friday and could not confirm whether Chotalia will be returning to the job.
“We’ll know more at that time,” he said. “In any event, the work of the tribunal continues.”
Union of Solicitor General Employees spokesman Robin Kers said he did not know for certain what triggered Chotalia’s sudden departure.
“There is still substantial tension and uncertainty among tribunal employees, and I understand there has been a dispute among managers over who handles human resources functions,” he said.
“It’s entirely appropriate for the chair to remove herself from those functions in light of past cases of harassment and ongoing investigations in harassment.