The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has tossed out a complaint by four former employees of Kamloops Immigrant Services who alleged they were fired over a sexual harassment claim.
In a decision released Thursday, the tribunal rejected claims that Joseph Renner, Katheleen Martin and Susanna Fawkes were fired in the fall of 2009 by the society’s board for backing a sexual harassment claim by former ESL program manager Deborah Harrison.
The board also rejected Harrison’s claim that she was fired as a result of filing the sexual harassment claim against a director and interim manager, Vern Short.
In the 70-page ruling, tribunal member Norman Trerise details a dysfunctional downtown office in 2009, where the board of Kamloops Cariboo Regional Immigrant Society collided with employees engaged in a workplace coup d’etat.
“The board, as a whole, appears to have lacked the knowledge and skills required to manage a workplace effectively.”
Trerise also said some of the evidence at the hearing, both from complainants and former president Bernard Igwe, was not credible.
“I find his evidence generally to be totally unreliable,” he said of Igwe. “He seemed to have little regard for accuracy, simply saying whatever came to mind.”
Igwe is a professor at Thompson Rivers University who served as president of the board. He stepped down when an internal investigation was launched on Harrison’s sexual harassment claims.
“His management approach was dictatorial and certainly contributed to the alienation which allowed Ms. Herman (a former manager) to engage the support of so many employees to overthrow the board.”
Problems at the agency began late in 2008 when the immigrant society board became concerned about activities of Wanda Herman, then-executive director. The board launched an investigation, which resulted in Herman going on sick leave.
Herman was not involved in the complaint to the human rights tribunal, but is involved in separate lawsuits.
The board then appointed Short, a board member and longtime volunteer, as temporary executive director in spring 2009.
“Through no fault of his own, he (Short) lacked knowledge of management principles…. He did demonstrate significant insecurity and, in my opinion, compensated for that by acting in an authoritarian manner to avoid being challenged,” Trerise wrote.
As a result, “he was opposed at every turn by a hostile staff….”
Harrison, the ESL program manager, “held Mr. Short in contempt,” Trerise said.
That hostility turned into an effort to get rid of Short by ousting the board, through recruitment of new members who would turf directors in a special meeting.
Trerise said Harrison deliberately used Short’s lack of knowledge “to advance a coup that had been mounting since the spring of 2009.”
The board found out about the movement, firing nearly every employee over a period of six months, five of them at once.
At the time, then-board member Bill Sundhu described the KIS as “a toxic workplace.”
The society and some of its former employees are also involved in a related lawsuit in B.C.Supreme Court. Last year, a society member estimated the affair has cost the non-profit group $100,000.
Harrison’s original complaint of sexual harassment by Short — appointed an interim executive director in April 2009 — was settled prior to a hearing. Those details were not made public.