A judge has awarded $30,000 in damages to a B.C. man who was fired from his position with a Vancouver Aboriginal health organization “because he was not an Indigenous Canadian.”
Horacio Valle Torres was stunned last summer when he was terminated without notice or adequate explanation from his job as program manager of a Downtown Eastside centre providing services to Aboriginal families.
According to a B.C. Supreme Court judgment, Valle Torres felt the reason the Vancouver Native Health Society (VNHS) gave him for his firing was “not true” and that it created the impression with his colleagues “that he had done something seriously wrong.”
“It was only during the trial that the plaintiff learned the true reason for his termination,” wrote Justice Catherine Murray. “The plaintiff was actually terminated because he was not an Indigenous Canadian.”
Possible human rights code violation?
In addition to the award for aggravated damages, Murray also ordered the VNHS to pay Valle Torres two years’ salary and accrued vacation pay of $41,681.51. The money will be adjusted to account for amounts he received on termination. Torres wouldn’t comment.
The judge declined to award punitive damages, which are ordered in cases where deterrence and denunciation is warranted.
But she made a point of noting that she had not been asked to determine whether or not “firing this plaintiff for not being Indigenous is discriminatory or contrary” to B.C.’s human rights code.
Valle Torres came to Canada from El Salvador in 1990 and first started working for the VNHS in 1996 in a role that saw him helping sexually exploited youth. He rose to the position of co-ordinator before he was laid off in 2004 because of a funding cut.
The VNHS rehired the 56-year-old in 2006, and he stayed with the organization for the next 12 years, rising through the ranks to become project manager of the Phil Bouvier Family Centre.
“His responsibilities included overseeing day-to-day operations of the programs,” Murray wrote. “It was clear from the plaintiff’s testimony that he was exceptionally committed to the programs and was very proud of the work done at the centre.”
‘It was clear that he was crushed’
Valle Torres was never given performance reviews or told there were issues with his work. But on June 1, 2018, he was handed a letter by the executive director and the chief operating officer of the VNHS.
“We have decided to restructure our programming,” the letter read in part. “As a result, your services are no longer needed.”
Valle Torres was given his outstanding vacation, eight weeks pay and an escort out of the building.
“It was clear that he was crushed by the way he was terminated,” Justice Murray wrote.
“At one point in his evidence he became overwhelmed with emotion and was unable to speak. When asked why, he explained that he had just remembered some mementos that he had to leave behind.”
Murray said she found the evidence of former VNHS executive director Lou Demerais, who Valle Torres considered a friend, to be “troubling.”
“It was filled with contradictions and inconsistencies,” the judge wrote. “His memory was faulty and convenient.”
Didn’t have the ‘lived experience’ for the job
Demarais gave a variety of reasons for dismissing Valle Torres, but admitted that his job performance was “fairly good.”
“He eventually testified that the plaintiff was fired, because he did not have the necessary skills for the job, as he was not Indigenous,” Murray wrote.
Chief operating officer Robyn Vermette testified that Valle Torres did not have the “lived experience” for the job.
“In cross-examination, Ms. Vermette stated that the plaintiff did not have the necessary skills as he was not an Indigenous residential school survivor,” the judge wrote. “She then said that his cultural background had nothing to do with his dismissal.”
Demerais is no longer with the VNHS. The new executive director could not be reached for comment.
Aggravated damages can be awarded against an employer “where the employer engages in conduct during the dismissal that is unfair or is in bad faith.”
Murray said the $30,000 award was justified because the VNHS had engaged in “unfair, dishonest and callous” behaviour toward Valle Torres.
While the judge agreed that the organization also deserved to pay punitive damages, she said that as a not-for-profit society, any further damages “would punish families in need more than it would punish the defendant.”