A destitute Victoria man has been handed the biggest human rights damage award in Canadian history because he was denied a top-secret job due to depression.
Chris Hughes, 50, has received $518,000 from Transport Canada — reduced to $353,000 after deductions.
A former customs officer, he had applied to Transport Canada to become a marine intelligence analyst at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, near Victoria, a position created after Sept. 11 to protect the West Coast from seaborne terrorism.
The cash windfall comes one year after the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled Hughes was due the salary and benefits he would have earned — and should be given the job he applied for 13 years ago “without competition.”
But Hughes says the settlement from Transport Canada isn’t enough.
“I should be paid a lot more money,” he said. “They forced me into poverty. I lost everything. I was going without food many days.”
Hughes is seeking a judicial review of the human rights decision, claiming he’s owed an additional $1.2 million— because the tribunal ordered that he receive five years of compensation, not 13.
Transport Canada is fighting back, trying to overturn the original half million dollar-plus settlement.
The hearing is scheduled for later this month.
In the meantime, Hughes is paying off his debts and re-establishing his credit rating with the money he’s received, so he can apply for security clearance and take back the position he was denied.
“The job’s mine as long as I pass this top secret clearance, including the credit worthiness,” says Hughes. “I expect to be passed.”
Admitted to depression
The battle began in 2005, when Hughes was the top candidate for the top-secret job. But during the job interview, Hughes confessed he suffered from depression.
He didn’t land the job— and other government jobs that followed.
Hughes alleges he was blacklisted.
“In Victoria the [human resources] community and the federal government is pretty small. And I do believe that word was spread throughout the departments in Victoria not to hire me,” says Hughes. “I was screened out based on negative stereotypes on mental health …That’s discriminatory.”
Hughes says he was driven deeper into depression and became virtually unemployable. He says he was financially ruined, made homeless and forced to couch surf.
In 2007, Hughes filed a complaint against Transport Canada before the human rights tribunal. In 2014, the tribunal ruled Hughes had been discriminated against because of his depression. It called some aspects of the case “troubling.”
It directed the two sides to agree on a remedy or it would impose one. Transport Canada appealed the decision in federal court, but lost.
Last year, the human rights tribunal finally issued its own solution, telling Transport Canada to “instate [Hughes] … on the first reasonable occasion, and without competition, to the position of intelligence analyst…”
It also ordered the government department to pay Hughes for lost wages and compensation, but imposed a cap, assuming the job would have begun in May 2006 and ended May 2011, an arbitrary end date.
In March, Transport Canada finally decided on a $518,000 gross settlement, the country’s largest-ever discrimination payout. The previous record totalled approximately $480,000, paid to a Hamilton school board employee in 2016.
Transport Canada still fighting
Transport Canada won’t say why it’s continuing to fight the payout.
“Transport Canada has implemented the remedy decision to the extent required, despite the fact that the judicial review application…remains to be heard and decided upon,” wrote the government department in an email to CBC News.
Since the matter is before the courts, the agency declined further comment.
Hughes says trying to claw-back his settlement is just a waste of taxpayers’ dollars.
“I think they’ve handled it over the last decade in a very vindictive manner,” he says, “and not very cost effective for the taxpayer.”
Hughes wins second complaint
Hughes may be due another massive payout, in a separate but related case.
In May, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled on another of his discrimination complaints— against the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).
The CBSA denied Hughes’ application for a position in 2006, shortly after the rejection by Transport Canada.
The human rights tribunal ruled there was a “subtle scent of discrimination” by border agency employees and interviewers, and that Hughes was “discriminated against in the hiring process.”
A dollar figure for what he’s owed for that job rejection, will be determined at a future hearing.
Hughes believes it could be even bigger than his settlement against Transport Canada.
“Best case scenario would be $2 million in back pay, damages, pension, expenses, etc.,” says Hughes.
He says he knows there could be more appeals, and both of his cases could ultimately end up in the Supreme Court of Canada. But he’s not giving up.
“I’m pretty competitive,” he says. “I will fight it for a long time.”