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A victory against racism

Print edition : Nov 24, 2001 T+T-

Dr. Shiv Chopra, an Indian, emerges victorious in a prolonged battle against race-based discrimination in a Canadian government department.

DR. SHIV CHOPRA'S victory in Canada against racial discrimination is a testament to his perseverance and determination. For more than a decade now, this Punjab-born scientist has been battling his bosses over the denial of promotion at Health Canada, where he continues to work.

Chopra's long struggle began when a "white" colleague was preferred over him as Director, Bureau of Human Prescription Drugs in Health Canada. This was done despite the finding of a government appeal board that the person did not have the required qualifications. When Chopra challenged the decision, he was told: "Some get it, some don't." Unsatisfied with the explanation, Chopra sent a written complaint to the Public Service Commission and his union.

In late 1991, he went further and filed an application with the Federal Court to get the appointment revoked. He won a minor victory when Health Canada decided to hold the competition afresh. But the result was the same. Chopra was said to be unfit for the post as he did not have the requisite experience in management. However, Chopra's case received a shot in the arm when, in an interview to human resources officials investigating the case, Chopra's superior, assistant deputy minister, Dr. Albert Liston, reportedly remarked that the ethnic minorities lacked "soft skills" such as communication and negotiation, because of their cultural heritage. Liston allegedly suggested that Chopra was authoritarian and possessed a confrontational style, which would not make him a good negotiator. Further, the investigation brought to light how positive remarks about Chopra's work in an assessment by Health Canada in 1991, were replaced with unflattering comments. "Dr. Chopra is an energetic and resourceful worker and required little supervision" became "Dr. Chopra works with little direct supervision." During the hearing, the department accused Chopra of not doing enough to advance his career.

THIS was not the first time that Health Canada faced criticism for practising racial discrimination. In 1997 a human rights tribunal found that the department was discriminating against racial minorities in matters of promotion. In 1992 Chopra took his case to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The tribunal that was set up to inquire into the matter agreed that Chopra had indeed been discriminated against, because of his ethnic background. The department was ordered to make changes in its appointments and recruiting policies. Consequently, today at least 15 non-whites occupy senior management positions in Health Canada.

However, the same year another tribunal did not find any evidence of racial discrimination in Chopra's case, filed against Health Canada on September 6, 1992. However, the tribunal agreed that he was treated unfairly. Chopra appealed against the ruling and in April 1998, the Federal Court set aside the tribunal's decision and ordered that it reconsider Chopra's case. In the course of the hearing, the tribunal held that as Chopra's case was one of individual discrimination and not systematic discrimination, statistics showing visible minorities as being under-represented at senior levels of management could not be admitted as evidence. Chopra was suspended for five days for speaking about his experiences at Health Canada at the Heritage Canada Employment Equity annual meeting on March 26, 1999. In August he received a letter from Dr. Andre Lachance, Director, Bureau of Veterinary Drugs, asking him not to speak at conferences without authorisation from Health Canada.

Chopra had to fight his department on another front too. In 1998, as part of a group of veterinary scientists from Health Canada's human safety division which testified before the Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry that it was pressured to approve a controversial hormone intended to boost milk production in dairy cattle, Chopra said: "We have been pressured and coerced to pass drugs of questionable safety."

Minister for Health Allan Rock has said that Health Canada would not appeal against the tribunal's decision and that a settlement would be worked out. Minority ethnic groups have hailed Chopra's victory. Ewart Walters, secretary of the National Council of Visible Minorities, said: "His has been a lonely, heroic struggle."

Chopra has won several awards for his scientific work as well as his commitment to human rights - including the Governor-General's Award in 1993 and, a Human Rights award from the Professional Institute in the 50th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998. But Chopra's legal battle with the Canadian Human Rights Commission is still on.