A man who is accusing the city of racial discrimination is behind the so-called Sudbury Wikileaks website, a lawyer for the city said at a hearing Jan. 25.
Mireille Khoraych, of the Toronto firm Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP, said the website targets the same city staff that Neville Hewage names in his Ontario Human Rights Tribunal complaint. And the Freedom of Information Act file numbers listed on the website match FOI requests Hewage filed with the city.
“The balance of probability” indicates it’s his website, Khoraych told Keith Brennenstuhl, the tribunal’s vice-chair.
Khoraych, Brennenstuhl and Hewage were all in different locations during the summary hearing, held so Brennenstuhl could rule on the city’s motion to have Hewage’s claim dismissed. The three parties held a conference call for the hearing, which lasted three hours.
Hewage’s initial complaint named several city staff members and made several accusations. However, he amended his complaint to include just four city managers -- Nick Benkovich, Gary Comin, Drew Peloquin and Kevin Fowke – and just one accusation – that, because he is East Indian, he was ordered to clean urine and feces in bathrooms at the water treatment plant where he worked.
In his testimony, Hewage told Brennenstuhl he is claiming he was discriminated based on his race, colour, ethnic origin, place of birth and ancestry. Up until his dismissal in August 2012, Hewage was a water treatment operator at the city’s Wanapitei Water Treatment Plant.
The issue of cleaning the bathrooms arose in November 2011, Hewage said. His resistance led to a suspension in March 2012 and his eventual dismissal.
He told Brennenstuhl that cleaning “urine and feces” was not part of the water operator’s job description, and he accused staff of not flushing the toilet, a move he says was directed at him.
“This was done only to me,” Hewage said. “They singled me out ... Board operators never, ever cleaned the feces and urine of others. And when I was hired, there was no mention of toilet cleaning.”
After he filed his complaint, Hewage said the city tried to put cleaning in the operator’s job description, a move that led to 36 staff members to file grievances.
“The respondents tried to manipulate the facts,” he said. “They were masking my racial discrimination. After the harassment took place, they rushed to change the job description.”
Hewage said it’s a particularly sensitive issue for him because of his cultural heritage. In India, people consider cleaning bathrooms a job for “coolies,” or untouchables in the Hindu caste system. Untouchables are considered to be beneath other Hindus and face widespread discrimination in India.
“So because I was a coolie, an untouchable, I was being forced to clean toilets,” he said. “An all-out war had started against me.”
Hewage also said he has given $1 million of his own money to charities that help the poor in India, and that at any given time, he’s paying to feed and educate 1,000 people in the poorest parts of India. So he has dedicated much of his life to helping untouchables.
“They knew very well it is a culturally sensitive issue and that it would hurt me,” he said. “I felt distressed and dishonoured. I was humiliated.”
He said other operators will back up his claims, if the matter goes to a full hearing.
When it was her turn to speak, Khoraych flatly denied Hewage’s accusations. She said the case Hewage detailed, at best, describes unfairness in the workplace, not racial discrimination. But even that best case isn’t true, she said.
“We deny all of the accusations,” Khoraych said, adding that Hewage’s claims are “vexatious” and amount to an abuse of the tribunal’s process. She asked Brennenstuhl to force Hewage to shut the Wikileaks Sudbury website, which she said he is using to personally attack certain city managers.
As far as the issue of cleaning the bathroom, she said it has always been part of the operator’s duties, just as the city’s firefighters are responsible for keeping their bathrooms clean. While not part of the job description for firefighters or operators, she said it was something everyone knew they had to do.
“No one ever said to (Hewage) that he had to clean urine and feces,” Khoraych said. “But cleaning duties were always part of the job.”
When he got into a dispute with his supervisors over cleaning the bathroom, Khoraych said Hewage started a petition and got other operators to sign it opposing the cleaning duties and pushing the city to hire custodial staff to do the work. She said the union local is backing that effort and that’s why so many grievances were filed when cleaning was added to the job description. And the job description was only updated because of Hewage’s complaint.
Further, she said they have documentation that shows Hewage knew as far back as 2008 that cleaning duties were part of the job.
“So the applicant has always known that his duties included cleaning the bathroom,” Khoraych said.
She also accused Hewage of secretly recording conversations with city managers and trying – unsuccessfully -- to get them to order him to clean “urine and feces.” She also accused him of intimidating other board operators into supporting his fight, and said many are going along with him out of fear. No one else has ever refused to clean, she said, so that’s why Hewage is the only one who received a written warning about it.
And as far as the reference to untouchables and accusations that managers knew this was a culturally sensitive issue, Khoraych said they have no knowledge of such cultural details.
“This is the first time they have heard the term ‘coolie,’ ” she said.
She said Hewage’s performance reviews were always positive except for one area: attitude. She says there is absolutely no evidence of racial discrimination, but plenty of evidence that Hewage doesn’t want to clean bathrooms. In fact, he tried to get the warning letter struck from his record, filing an internal complaint that makes no mention of racial discrimination.
“These allegations are really just general allegations that he was treated unfairly,” Khoraych said, and therefore not a matter for the tribunal.
Before the dispute broke out, she said there is evidence of good relations with city managers, who even supported Hewage’s charity work and accommodated his schedule when he made trips to India.
“So that’s the context we’re working in,” she said.
She also said that Hewage is facing fraud charges because he filed FOI requests using false names so the city wouldn’t know it was him.
In response, Hewage said cleaning urine and feces was never part of water operator duties, and it only became part of the job description after he filed his human rights complaint.
“They singled me out to clean the urinals and toilet bowls,” he said. “This only became an issue after they harassed me … because of my race.”
He began to detail his accusations again, but was stopped by Brennenstuhl.
“Mr. Hewage, you are just repeating yourself at this point,” he said.
Khoraych said Hewage has a vendetta against the city employees named in his complaint, and has used the Wikileaks Sudbury website and the media to attack them personally. So she asked for a publication ban, as well as for the website to be shut.
“He has taken information and data (from the FOI requests) and presented it in such a way that it misrepresents the truth,” she said. “We should not allow him to attack these individuals in public.”
While not admitting he’s behind the website, Hewage said the issue was irrelevant to his complaint, and that the city hasn’t proved he’s behind it.
“It’s not fair that the tribunal would rule on an unproven allegation.”
Brennenstuhl thanked everyone for their submissions, and said he would have a ruling within a few months.