Former Senate official who was fired after claiming racial discrimination gets a new hearing

A federal court judge has ordered a new hearing into a wrongful dismissal claim made by the first visible minority executive at the Senate.

Darshan Singh, who is of South Asian descent, was fired from his job as the Senate’s director of human resources in 2015 — just days after reporting allegations of racial discrimination.

A newly released court ruling details a series of wide-ranging accusations against his direct superior.

Singh claimed that his boss at the time “treated him differently” because of his “race and colour,” Tuesday’s Federal Court ruling said.

Singh’s allegations came after a major shakeup in the organizational structure of the Senate. Singh’s former colleague in finance was promoted and became his direct supervisor rather than the Senate clerk, according to federal court documents.

The relationship between the two “deteriorated progressively” that year, says the federal court decision. 

Nine days after Singh emailed his supervisor raising concerns about his treatment and supervision, he was fired. 

The letter of termination blamed a “breakdown of confidence and trust” on Singh’s attitude and behaviour toward his supervisor, says the federal court decision.

Singh took his case to the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board, arguing he was the victim of illegal and discriminatory treatment. That board dismissed his grievance last year, finding that an acrimonious workplace relationship — not racism — was the primary reason for his termination.

Federal Court Justice Alan Diner has overturned that ruling. Singh’s application for judicial review was granted with costs and a new hearing was ordered.

Adjudicator made errors, judge concludes

Diner concluded Tuesday that the last adjudicator made reviewable errors and said there may have been several causes behind Singh’s firing, rather than the “single explanation” provided by the employer.

“Employment relationships are complex and to accept one explanation is not necessarily equivalent to ruling out the subtle scent that discrimination may have played a part in the decision, even if it was not the central factor,” wrote Diner in his ruling. 

“The Senate’s burden was to convince the Adjudicator that Mr. Singh’s discrimination allegations had nothing to do with the termination.”

Diner wrote the adjudicator also erred in concluding that the Senate’s Speaker at the time, Sen. Leo Housakos, conducted a “sufficiently thorough and reasonable” informal investigation of Singh’s discrimination claim. 

Senator Leo Housakos’ office said Housakos will refrain from commenting at this time because the matter is “apparently not yet settled.” (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Housakos decided a formal investigation “was not warranted and decided instead to investigate the allegations himself,” says the federal court ruling.

Singh’s discrimination claim formed part of a lengthy email he sent in November 2015. He also claimed in that email that he was not properly consulted on human resources matters and wasn’t invited to committee meetings. 

Housakos dismissed those other claims, saying that Singh’s supervisor was not responsible for those decisions, the court ruling said.

But Housakos was “troubled by the allegations of discrimination” and spoke to “12 other senators who knew and worked with the supervisor, in addition to some middle managers,” the court ruling said. Singh pointed out that the senators interviewed were all white, the ruling added.

Speaker never spoke to Singh, court says

Diner found that Housakos failed to speak to Singh personally.

“Without hearing Mr. Singh’s complete version of the facts, but having interviewed at least fourteen others, it was unreasonable for the adjudicator to conclude that the Speaker conducted a fair process,” wrote Diner. 

“To conduct any investigation into a workplace discrimination allegation — however casual that investigation might have been — required providing the complainant with an opportunity to be heard.”

Diner said the Senate’s policy states “parties to a dispute have the right to be informed, to be heard and to obtain an impartial decision.”

The adjudicator also “limited himself” to information that was “uncontested or confirmed” by the Senate, Diner wrote. For example, Housakos never saw an email Singh sent to members of the Senate’s executive committee on Nov. 26, 2015 in which Singh said that while he did not want an investigation launched, he wanted to be involved in any such proceeding, the court document said.

Singh’s lawyer, Paul Champ, said Housakos was at the centre of the dismissal. Champ said the new federal court ruling shows that Housakos violated “basic principles of fairness” and the Senate’s own workplace policy. 

The adjudicator also “limited himself” to information that was “uncontested or confirmed” by the Senate, Diner wrote.

In an email, Champ said his client is “very pleased with this judgment and is looking forward to having his matter heard and resolved fairly.”

“The fact remains that a senior executive in the Senate with an excellent work record was terminated one week after he made allegations of discrimination against his boss,” wrote Champ.

“In a modern workplace, employees of colour should be encouraged to bring forward concerns that they are being treated differently due to race.”

Housakos says Singh is pushing his claim in the media

In a statement issued to CBC News, Housakos’s office said Singh and his lawyer were “attempting to play this case out in the media from the beginning.”

“By contrast, out of respect for our courts and tribunal, the Senate will not engage in litigation through the media,” the statement reads.

“As this is a matter that is apparently not yet settled, Senator Housakos will do the responsible thing and will refrain from commenting at this time, referring all questions to the Law Clerk of the Senate of Canada.”

The Senate also declined to comment on the court ruling.

“We are reviewing the decision and any further comment would not be appropriate since the matter has been referred back to the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board for adjudication,” said Senate Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel Philippe Hallée in a statement to CBC News. 

Singh’s supervisor has not yet responded to CBC News’ request for comment. 

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