Fired for not being Indigenous: Employee wins suit against Vancouver Native Health Society

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      A B.C. Supreme Court has ruled against the Vancouver Native Health Society in a wrongful dismissal case.

      The court also found that the organization “engaged in unfair, dishonest and callous behavior” toward former employee Horacio Valle Torres.

      In her reasons for judgment posted online Tuesday (April 9), Justice Catherine Murray wrote that this conduct included making “baseless allegations” about Valle Torres to justify his dismissal.

      Citing the testimony of Lou Demerais and Robyn Vermette, executive director and chief of operations with Vancouver Native Health Society, respectively, Murray also wrote that Valle Torres was deceived “about the true reason for his dismissal”.

      “It was only during the trial that the plaintiff learned the true reason for his termination,” Murray noted.

      According to Murray, “both Mr. Demerais and Ms. Vermette conceded in cross-examination that the plaintiff was actually terminated because he was not an Indigenous Canadian”.

      While Demerais gave evidence that was “filled with contradictions and inconsistencies”, he “eventually testified that the plaintiff was fired because he did not have the necessary skills for the job as he was not Indigenous”.

      As for Vermette, she “equivocated before eventually testifying that the plaintiff did not have the skills because he did not have the ‘lived experiences’”.

      “In cross-examination Ms. Vermette stated that the plaintiff did not have the necessary skills as he was not an Indigenous residential school survivor,” Murray wrote. “She then said that his cultural background had nothing to do with his dismissal.”

      According to Murray, there was “bad faith” toward Valle Torres.

      “In their testimony Mr. Demerais and Ms. Vermette displayed an alarming lack of candour as well as animus toward the plaintiff,” Murray wrote.

      In her reasons for judgment dated April 8, 2018, the judge recalled that Valle Torres was employed by the service provider for almost 20 years.

      Valle Torres came to Canada from El Salvador in 1990, and has an “impressive educational background including bachelor degrees in Business Administration and Philosophy”.

      When Valle Torres was fired on June 1, 2018, he was a project manager with the Phil Bouvier Family Centre, a facility operated by the organization in the Downtown Eastside.

      Murray wrote that Valle Torres’ employment was “terminated without cause and without notice”.

      Valle Torres was fired on a Friday, and the next Monday on June 4, his replacement was brought in.

      “During his employment the plaintiff was never given performance reviews nor was he told that there was an issue with his work,” Murray wrote.

      Murray ordered monetary awards for Valle Torres, including $30,000 for aggravated damages.

      Murray noted that Valle Torres was “emotional throughout much of his evidence”.

      “It was clear that he was crushed by the way he was terminated,” Murray wrote. 

      The judge wrote that Valle Torres testified that he held Demerais as "an important person in his life".

      "He considered Mr. Demerais to be a mentor," Murray stated. "According to the plaintiff the two enjoyed both a work relationship as well as a friendship. The plaintiff described Mr. Demerais as a 'great person with a great heart'."