Nova Scotia

DND ordered to pay $25K for 'pure and simple racial prejudice'

A federal panel has awarded a black apprentice mechanic $25,000 in damages under the Canadian Human Rights Act after it concluded that his bosses racially discriminated against him when they terminated his apprenticeship at CFB Halifax.

'The employer’s attitude that the grievor could not succeed as a mechanic ... was racist,' says panel

At a hearing of the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board earlier this year, the panel heard testimony that co-workers of Christian Reeves were forced to make up stories about him to get him in trouble. (Christian Reeves/Facebook)

A federal panel has awarded a black apprentice mechanic $25,000 in damages under the Canadian Human Rights Act after it concluded his bosses racially discriminated against him when they terminated his apprenticeship at CFB Halifax.

Christian Reeves was employed by the Department of National Defence from late 2009 until July 2015. He was fired for multiple alleged reasons, including poor performance.

Reeves grieved his termination earlier this year. In his grievance, Reeves alleged he was the victim of harassment and discrimination in the workplace based on race and that he was treated differently than his co-workers.

Reeves was born in Liberia. In 1995, he, along with his family, moved to Canada to escape civil war.

Earlier this year, the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board heard that Reeves's co-workers were forced to make up stories about him to get him in trouble and that one military supervisor was overheard using the N-word in the workplace.

Reeves's apprenticeship consisted of four learning modules, known as blocks. At the end, there was a Red Seal exam, which allows a journeyman to work in any province in Canada.

After spending time at CFB Shearwater, Reeves was transferred to CFB Halifax in 2011. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

After Reeves failed four out of seven courses in the summer of 2014, he was given another chance and placed on an action plan and successfully completed Block D. After that, he took the Red Seal exam and failed.

"Terminating his employment after the action plan was successful and after he had achieved Block D only because he had failed the Red Seal exam … shows an attitude towards the grievor that is simply unexplainable. The only remaining explanation is pure and simple racial prejudice," panel member Marie-Claire Perrault wrote in the June 24 decision.

"The employer's attitude that the grievor could not succeed as a mechanic, as repeated by a number of witnesses, was racist.

"From the evidence I heard, it seemed to me that the grievor was not given an equal opportunity to succeed. Some on the management side seemed determined to put an end to his probation."

Reeves could not be reached for comment.

An email chain presented at the hearing showed a quality assurance inspector had reported he overheard one of the military supervisors using the N-word.

"The inspector took offence, finding it disrespectful for the ... 'the three blacks or coloured [people] working here in the shop.' He added in a further email that he had relatives of black descent," the decision said.

The supervisor was told not to say the N-word again.

Co-workers coerced to 'write up' Reeves

Neil Harnish, a vehicle mechanic in the heavy equipment shop, told the hearing a warrant officer had asked him to "write up" Reeves.

The decision said Harnish was in the hiring process for the permanent supervisor job at the time.

"He was told that if he was unwilling to say negative things about the grievor, he would no longer be part of the competition," the ruling said. "He was told to write down whatever the grievor was not doing right."

Under pressure, Harnish wrote Reeves did not have the knowledge and enthusiasm to be a mechanic.

"I would not want him as a mechanic in my shop," Harnish wrote.

Reeves was fired in July 2015 after 5 ½ years on the job. (CBC)

At the hearing, Harnish said he regretted what he did.

In 2006, Reeves was the only black male accepted into Nova Scotia Community College's two-year heavy duty mechanic program.

In November 2009, he was offered an indeterminate appointment with DND as a vehicle technician apprentice with an annual salary of $52,000.

His letter of offer had a probationary clause that lasted the duration of his entire apprenticeship rather than the normal 12 months.

In October 2014, Reeves wrote a letter of complaint about his training and treatment at CFB Halifax. He was transferred there in 2011 after spending time at CFB Shearwater.

Reeves wrote that after he transferred, he didn't have a proper mentorship. He alleged he did the same job as his co-workers, but did not receive the same amount of pay.

'I had to watch my back'

"Some of my co-workers have told me that they have been coerced into signing a form against me or their employment or chance of advancement is in jeopardy ... I was told by one of my co-workers that I had to watch my back because they were trying to get rid of me," Reeves wrote in the letter.

In July 2015, after 5 ½ years on the job, the department ended Reeves's probation and fired him on four grounds, which included allegations that he failed to meet expectations, had multiple weak performance reviews and failed his Red Seal test.

At the hearing, Ted Godsell, the commanding officer of base logistics at the Halifax base, claimed Reeves was not receptive to senior people trying to work with him. Several reports had been made of the alleged disrespectful behaviour by Reeves. Godsell said he was not aware of co-workers being coerced to sign statements against Reeves.

"Mr. Godsell concluded from his analysis of the grievor's file that there were serious concerns about his ability to be an effective mechanic," the panel wrote.

Godsell did not investigate Reeves's complaint

"His failure of Block D and then the Red Seal exam added up to the reality that he could not be a mechanic. The record also included his disrespect of supervisors. All in all, his work behaviour was not suited to the military environment."

In cross-examination, Godsell confirmed DND did not investigate Reeves's complaint.

Reeves' performance reviews for 2010-2011, 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 showed he met most performance expectations, but needed to improve communication with his supervisors. One performance review was missing.

DND statement

In a statement to CBC News, DND said it couldn't speak about the Reeves case because of privacy reasons.

"However, the Department of National Defence (DND) and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) does not condone or tolerate racism and discrimination in the Canadian Armed Forces. This is a fundamental principle of the DND and CF code of values and ethics," the statement said.

Douglas Hill, the Public Service Alliance of Canada grievance and adjudication officer that represented Reeves at the hearing, said he will not comment on the case until the 30-day appeal period ends.

However, he said in an email he was scheduled to meet with the employer on July 11 to discuss retroactive salary, reinstatement and other lost benefits over the last four years for Reeves.

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email sherri.borden.colley@cbc.ca