Earlier this month, the BC Human Rights Tribunal made a ruling in the case of the City of Nanaimo’s former chief financial officer Victor Mema, a Black man who was fired in 2018 after he racked up thousands of dollars of personal purchases on a city-owned credit card.
In her lengthy report, BC Human Rights Tribunal chair Emily Ohler concluded that Mema’s suspension and eventual termination by the city was discriminatory on the basis of his ancestry, place of origin, race and colour, and awarded him $643,563.44. The City of Nanaimo disputes that the firing was discriminatory and says it will seek a judicial review of the decision.
The tribunal report tells a complex story of the incidents that led to Mema’s firing, bringing nuance that was absent from earlier media coverage. Ohler concludes that Mema was fired on the basis of a misconduct report that was inflected with racial bias and leaned on stereotypes of Black men as dishonest or potentially criminal. Media coverage at the time, quoting city staff, similarly cast a light of suspicion and criminality on Mema, the report notes.
“I wasn’t surprised [by the findings], because I truly believe I faced discrimination. That’s the whole reason I went to the tribunal. It wasn’t a crapshoot, I knew what I had experienced,” says Mema, in an interview that marks the first time he has spoken at length about the allegations against him.
“Moreso, when it was happening, I think — as a Black person, we either try and rationalize or ignore it. So when I was suspended, it was all hazy for me. But it was what happened the week after that told me that this was all racially motivated.”
It was the subsequent “hounding out” of the only other Black city employee and the rescinding of an accepted employment offer to a Black woman weeks after his suspension that cemented his suspicions that what had happened to him was “purely based on race,” says Mema.
The tribunal heard testimony related to these events, which offer relevant context to the finding that systemic racism at City Hall played a role in Mema’s dismissal.
It is understandable that city staff and the public took issue with Mema’s use of a city credit card (also referred to as a P-card) for personal expenses, Ohler writes. “In my view, it is obvious on its face that municipal taxpayers would not take kindly to civil servants treating the City’s accounts as an opportunity for interest-free personal credit, regardless of the explanation offered.”
But much of the previous reporting of this story fails to include some of the important context around what happened. The tribunal report lays out some of the undisputed facts: Mema never attempted to conceal his personal use of the credit card, and cooperated with staff to repay it. He was not the only person on staff who used city credit cards in this way. City administration tacitly permitted the use of credit cards for personal purchases for later repayment and did not have clear policies around this practice. By the time of his firing, Mema had repaid his debts and was readying to implement new policies on staff use of the cards.
“Mr. Mema’s views on his own [city credit card] use – that he could use it to purchase anything provided he paid it back — are difficult to understand given his education and experience,” Ohler writes. But the tribunal’s role is not to decide if Mema breached a duty or engaged in misconduct, the report says.
Instead, it’s to determine if discrimination played a role in his dismissal. When it fired Mema, the city relied on a misconduct report that connected sometimes irrelevant dots to paint him as suspicious and someone who might collude to take advantage of his position for personal gain, the report concludes.
Ohler writes that she accepts that the author of the misconduct report “sincerely believed she was acting in line with her training and ethical principles in respect of the expected behaviour of a CFO.”
But that report, and the subsequent actions by the city, reflect “the insidious ways that racial bias lives in many of our subconscious. It lives there not necessarily because we seek it or choose to give it space but because, as courts and tribunals have recognized time and again, it is planted there by the systems in which we all exist.”
The context of this ruling
Born in Zimbabwe, Mema arrived in Canada as a refugee in 2008. First hired by the City of Nanaimo as its director of finance in 2015, by early 2017 his role had expanded to become that of chief financial officer (CFO).
Prior to this, Mema was employed as the director of finance for the municipality of Sechelt, where he ran into similar trouble. Sechelt had filed an action against Mema in small claims court in 2017, stating that he had charged a significant number of personal items to his district credit card. This case was later dropped. Mema filed a human rights tribunal case against Sechelt in 2016 for workplace discrimination, which the tribunal later dismissed.
As recently as July, Mema’s claims of unlawful termination and wrongful dismissal by the City of Nanaimo were tossed out by the B.C. Supreme Court because they were not filed within the required six month limitation period required by provincial law. However some of Mema’s other allegations, such as “intentional infliction of mental suffering” are not bound by a limitation period and are matters that might be determined at a later trial, according to Justice Ian Caldwell.
Relatedly, in April the Chartered Professional Accountants of Alberta (CPAA) concluded a disciplinary hearing into Mema’s alleged actions while employed by both the District of Sechelt and the City of Nanaimo. They are currently awaiting the tribunal’s decision, according to Joanne Rosnau, the CPAA’s senior vice president of communications and recruitment.
Chaos and dysfunction at City Hall
The BC Human Rights Tribunal report opens a window into infamously fraught and dysfunctional years at City Hall between 2016 and 2018.
Who can forget some of the key chaotic moments at this time—for example, when seven city councillors asked Mayor Bill McKay to resign in March of 2016 over a range of issues, including bullying behaviour. Or how in October that same year, then-councillor Gord Fuller made national news after telling the mayor to “bite me” during a city council meeting?
Or then the following month, when city councillors asked the RCMP to investigate the mayor over a breach of confidential and privileged information, and then directed city staff to initiate legal action over what they said were improper business dealings by the mayor.
By January of 2017, the city had filed a lawsuit (which was later dropped) against the mayor for breach of duty, obstructing city staff and not acting in the best interests of the municipality. And then that summer, a “bombshell” video was released showing former city councillor Wendy Pratt allegedly physically assaulting Tracy Samra — the city’s first female and first Indigenous chief administrative officer (CAO).
Perhaps the most shocking incident came the following January, when Samra allegedly threatened to kill the mayor, and was arrested at her home. The charges were later dropped.
In describing the acrimony at City Hall — the lawsuits and accusations, the infighting between city staffers, city councillors, the mayor and Samra — there was also the ongoing issue of what Ohler characterizes in the report as “incessant” leaks to the media. At times this involved internal and confidential city documents and information, which only contributed to the increasingly detrimental atmosphere of anxiety, paranoia and mistrust.
The leaks included ongoing reports about Mema’s personal credit card use, and internal efforts to address it. Given the nature of these leaks, the tribunal found that “it is reasonable to infer that someone from within the city’s finance department was sharing information.”
Through all of this, Mema emerges as a complex figure. By most testimonials, he was described as well-liked and talented, with impressive skills and ideas. For example, the city won an award in 2017 for excellence in financial stewardship from the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, while Mema was at the helm.
He also served as a mediating force in the office and “a good defender of staff, insulating them from some of the more challenging behaviours of Ms. Samra,” testified John Van Horne, the city’s director of human resources, according to the report.
Though there as the city’s witness, Van Horne also told the tribunal that “people loved the guy,” Mema was “a breath of fresh air,” and that he “felt like [my] only friend at the City.”
Personal credit card use causes concern
The report also paints a fuller picture regarding what was going on for Mema personally at the time he began racking up charges on the city credit card. Though he did use the card for personal purchases, initially these payments were promptly repaid. This went against official policy on credit card use but was condoned in practice, and wasn’t flagged at the time as a concern. But in the summer of 2016, Mema’s wife and mother both became very ill, and he fell behind on repayments.
“With my wife and my mum sick, there was some financial pressure, hence the delay,” Mema says. “Had I paid the balance way back, there would be no issue.”
The tribunal found at least one other unnamed staff member frequently used their card for personal purchases, was also delayed in their repayments, and did not appear to have been reprimanded for it.
Mema says that his exceptional use of the credit card for personal use was due in part to his senior-level role, which required frequent business travel and expenses. He also alleges that he faced scrutiny over spending that others did not.
Parsing out which expenses were personal and which ones were in error was complicated and often subjective, he says, and at times it seemed as though “city staff were very quick to try and excuse everybody else” and claim that their non-business-related expenses were simply in error, where his were often exaggerated.
A close relationship with a controversial figure
The human rights tribunal findings also shed light on Mema’s complicated working relationship with Samra, who was his direct supervisor. Though continuing to sign off on his mounting personal expenses, even after it had been flagged and a repayment plan arranged, Samra seemed surprised when finally enlightened as to the extent of the problem during a meeting with Van Horne in February of 2017.
Van Horne testified that Samra seemed “focused less on correcting the issue than on how to assist Mr. Mema with his financial issues,” wrote Ohler, and proposed different ways to help him out, directing Van Horne to increase Mema’s vacation time that year from four weeks to seven, and to give him a monthly payment of $300 a month for two years, in lieu of relocation expenses he had never used.
After her alleged assault by then-councillor Wendy Pratt, Samra went on leave and Mema stepped in to become both acting CAO and CFO for five months, after which he was awarded a bonus (in addition to extra pay) by Samra, who told Van Horne it was due to the fact that Mema had essentially worked for five months straight “without a break.”
Despite this financial help, and the arrangement of a credit card repayment plan of $500 biweekly, which he readily agreed to, Mema’s charges continued to accrue. By October of 2017 his card was suspended, and (at Mema’s request) it was destroyed.
According to the city’s accounting department, he had racked up a total of $14,148.97 in personal charges throughout 2016 and 2017, though some of it had already been paid back.
Samra’s efforts to support Mema financially appear to have fuelled suspicions among other staff in the department and were cited in the later misconduct report. In that report, decisions made by Samra, sometimes unilaterally, were brought forward as evidence of Mema’s alleged wrongdoing. But the inference that they colluded to enrich each other is not substantiated by the evidence, the tribunal found.
In 2017 the city auditor flagged the fact that Mema and Samra were signing off on each other’s expenses,“and rightfully, they said this could give rise to collusion,” says Mema. “But then that, in a politically charged environment, is to be construed as: ‘They were colluding.’ So the question is, what did they collude on? Now you have to prove that. And there was no evidence that there was any collusion.”
City launches audit of credit card use
On November 8, 2017, via their corporate counsel, the city hired an independent auditor KPMG to conduct a forensic audit of staff’s use of city-issued credit cards going back seven years and to make recommendations and suggestions around future policy and procedure.
This audit was completed and submitted to city’s corporate legal counsel on February 21, 2018, though earlier drafts had been reviewed by city councillors. By this time, according to the audit, all amounts owed by Mema had been repaid.
The KPMG audit of staff credit card use confirmed that the city had a practice (against their own policy) of allowing personal expenses under certain circumstances. It recommended that the agreement with employees be clarified, that the recording of personal expenses be changed, and that formal approval and collection processes be adopted.
“KPMG was good at independently saying, ‘This is how the city has condoned the use of the credit card, so you want this to be improved on, and that to be improved on,’” says Mema.
Prior to the final audit report being filed, city council was briefed on its findings during a Jan. 22, 2018 council meeting.
Councillor Bill Bestwick, chair of the council’s finance committee, testified during the tribunal that “his takeaway from the draft [audit] report… was that there was no fraud or crime, only poor judgment,” writes Ohler.
Bestwick also said the city’s policy and practice needed to change because too many cards had been issued under a vague agreement that didn’t specify exactly when they could be used, or what the exact conditions and timeline were around repayment. “As he put it, the [credit] card policy seemed to be, ‘If you do use it for personal purchases, pay it back sometime,’” the report summarizes.
As a result of the audit, council unanimously adopted a resolution to address the issues and then drafted a multi-part plan on how to overhaul the personal use of city credit cards, which was adopted. Mema then worked with the finance department to implement these changes and says they arrived at something that mirrored the province’s own credit card policy.
By the morning of March 1, 2018, the finance department had signed off on the rollout of the new policy and the only thing left was to take it to council for approval.
Both Bestwick and then-Councillor Jim Kipp testified to the tribunal that as far as they were concerned, at this point the problem was resolved.
The misconduct report
Two days after the KPMG audit was completed, employee Jamie Slater, who is white and at that time worked in the city’s accounting department, wrote up and filed a serious misconduct report against Mema.
During the tribunal, both Slater and Laura Mercer, the city’s then-accounting services manager, testified that they had wanted Mema to face consequences. Slater said she didn’t trust the results of the KPMG audit, although she hadn’t yet seen that report.
The city’s actions to address the issue were “not enough, however, for Ms. Slater,” writes Ohler. “Without knowing whether Mr. Mema had faced discipline, or what was in the [credit] card audit, or what had been put forward by or discussed amongst Council, [she] in essence decided that there must be more to the story.”
The misconduct report makes a number of allegations, but in essence details Mema’s credit card misuse and the attempts to have the funds repaid, the payments towards Mema that were authorized by Samra, the fact that both Mema and Samra were authorizing payments and expenditures for each other — including significant legal invoices for Samra — and that Mema had requested banking access for an interim deputy director of finance named Nick Mloyi.
Slater also expressed her opinion that Mema’s card use constituted “serious misconduct” because it fit the definition according to city policy of “unauthorized and inappropriate use of the city’s assets”.
The tribunal questioned the timing of this report, which was written months after Mema’s credit card was cancelled, and after steps had been taken to address the credit card issue and improve the city’s policies.
The report cited that Samra had disciplined staff after they brought forward concerns about Mema’s credit card use, an event that Mema had no role in. According to an excerpt from the disciplinary letter Samra sent to Slater and Mercer, it appears the two had been primarily disciplined for their refusal to respond to meeting requests and for the discussion of confidential employment matters (in the midst of incessant leaks of information to the media) — not for generally raising concerns.
Slater’s inclusion of this point in the misconduct report serves to make it appear as though Mema’s credit card use was being covered up in some way, or “more nefarious,” states Ohler, and this plays on the stereotype of Black men being prone to dishonesty.
In fact, as noted earlier by Van Horne, Mema was often the person who shielded other employees from Samra. “The City’s own evidence was that Mr. Mema was even supportive of finance staff when they elevated their concerns to Ms. Samra and Mr. Van Horne,” wrote Ohler, even when their concerns were specifically about him.
In addition, Slater inaccurately framed Mema’s repayment plan in the misconduct report as a “payroll garnishment” (even though it was something he readily agreed to), which in turn “raises suspicion, implying a lack of voluntariness or even a resistance to repayment,” wrote Ohler.
This was also despite the fact that Mema did not resist discussion of his card use or ever attempt to hide any of his personal purchases, Ohler notes.
And even though the card issue was being effectively addressed with the new policy, Ohler states that Slater nevertheless expressed unfounded fear and suspicion that Mema might continue to find other methods to use city funds for personal gain.
It’s unclear what those methods would be, or why the sloppy or irresponsible use of a company credit card would incite speculation around the possibility he could misappropriate other funds, or otherwise engage in criminal financial behaviour, the tribunal found.
While mentioning Mema’s role in approving Samra’s legal invoices, Slater omits the fact that she also personally participated in discussions about the appropriateness of approving the invoices. This served to cast suspicion while telling only a partial story, Ohler writes.
The city cited Mema’s approval of these invoices as one of the reasons for his firing.
“[Slater] talked about the legal invoices [in the misconduct report], but doesn’t include the due diligence that happened — that she was a part of, and that I actually asked her to do before I authorized the invoices,” says Mema. “She brought it up as a complaint, but doesn’t say what the due diligence and what her involvement was.”
Slater’s inclusion of Mema’s request for banking access for Mloyi in her report was also “troubling,” noted Ohler.
Mloyi, also a Black man of Zimbabwean descent, had been temporarily hired by Mema according to the city’s direct appointment policy. This hire came after the deputy director job was internally offered to two other employees — including Mercer — and was turned down. Mloyi then became the only other Black person in the finance department, besides Mema.
Though it’s “a common business practice” to seek employees through one’s own network, Ohler stated that “there is an inescapable whiff of race-based bias in the manner in which Ms. Slater viewed and characterized Mr. Mema’s having tapped his professional network” to hire Mloyi.
During the tribunal, Slater testified that her inclusion of the bank request for Mloyi — which was reasonable, considering his position — was cause for concern because she felt it represented, according to Ohler, “a further opportunity for collusion and misappropriation of funds — presumably by Mr. Mema.”
This unfounded belief that Mloyi was Mema’s friend and that he had been “installed” by Mema to engage in or cover up some kind of financial misdeeds, was “pervasive” within City staff, and simply without factual basis, argued Ohler.
“There was this conclusion that he was my friend because he’s Black, right?” says Mema, who adds that if a white man hires another white man, there isn’t the same automatic assumption that they are friends.
In fact, Mloyi was a former professional colleague when the two worked at the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, and Mema says he doesn’t recall ever interacting with Mloyi outside of work in Nanaimo.
“This is a theme throughout the misconduct report: eyeing with suspicion various events about which only partial facts were known and assembling them in a way that created a narrative of suspicion and ‘risk,’” concludes Ohler.
Council considers the misconduct report
Slater sent the misconduct report to Van Horne, the director of human resources, who took it to the manager of legislative services, after which it was put on the agenda of an in-camera city council meeting held on March 1, 2018.
Though the tribunal couldn’t access the meeting records for what was said during the presentation of the misconduct report, Bestwick and Kipp are recorded as absent. Bestwick testified that he left because he could see it was going in a bad direction and wanted no part of it.
Kipp testified that he also left because it appeared to be “a hunt” for Mema, that the information as presented to them by the manager of legislative services was “ridiculous” and that it was in fact Mema who had helped the City “achieve some of the financial controls they had been wanting for decades.”
Then-councillor and Snuneymuxw member Sqwulutsultun (Bill) Yoachim — who was the city’s first Indigenous city councillor — testified that just weeks earlier, he had received texts from the president of the union representing city staff that were racist in nature, calling Mema a “criminal” and stating that staff were not happy with “those kinds of people” being hired.
Yoachim told the tribunal that he was upset by the texts and had read them out during a Feb. 5 council meeting, but that there was little to no response, and that there seemed to be a “lack of interest in changing institutionalized racism at the city.”
The manager of legislative services — who presented the misconduct report to council — was also the union president’s wife.
Considering the texts her husband had sent, it was “bizarre” that she was making this presentation, testified Yoachim, adding that he “regretted to this day” his participation in the vote to suspend Mema.
That evening, the remaining council members unanimously voted to suspend Mema, pending an investigation, and to turn the misconduct report over to the RCMP.
“It is unclear what of the contents of the misconduct report the council viewed as potentially constituting criminal conduct, particularly given it consisted solely of unsubstantiated internal allegations, aside from Mr. Mema’s use of his P-card which had been reviewed in the P-card audit,” commented Ohler. “This readily brings to mind the pernicious stereotypes of Black men.”
Mema’s suspension and firing
Though Mema’s suspension hinged on an investigation that was “pending”, there’s no evidence that the city investigated the allegations in the misconduct report any further. At the tribunal, the city argued that the KPMG audit had investigated the material concerns and was sufficient to inform its decision to suspend, and later fire, Mema.
Mema says he was never shown a copy of the misconduct report, or informed of the full list of allegations against him, and first heard he was suspended when a reporter called him to ask for comment.
“So I get suspended, and the mayor is on TV, and he’s talking about, ‘These are serious allegations, there will be an investigation,’ but no investigation actually happened,” says Mema.
“As a process, you would think that if there was an allegation against you, you would be furnished with whatever the allegation is, right? Generally, ‘There is a complaint against you, can you answer to this?’ But that never happened. So I never got to know or read what the [full] allegations were until the city was forced to disclose it during the tribunal process, months later. I was suspended, fired, and I had never seen what the allegations were.”
Following his suspension, Mema received a notice letter that invited him to attend a hearing before council, during which they would consider the termination of his employment. The hearing was to take place under Section 152 of the Community Charter, which allows for an employee to be fired after they have the opportunity to be heard.
The notice letter specified that council was to consider issues related to Mema’s city-issued credit card and his approval of Samra’s legal fees. The tribunal report notes that no legal invoices or other documents, including the misconduct report, were included with this letter.
Prior to the hearing, Mema’s counsel repeatedly requested that the city confirm the purpose of the upcoming hearing and provide all documentation relating to it, and expressed concern about the leaking of private and confidential information from the city to the media, which they viewed as an effort to discredit him.
Ultimately Mema says they decided to attend the hearing, primarily so they could put their objections on record.
During the hearing, Van Horne essentially read out a statement that reiterated the general issues outlined in the notice letter, and then Mema’s lawyer then made submissions, according to minutes that were obtained by the tribunal.
These submissions included (among other things) an assertion that procedural fairness was not followed, that the city had not provided Mema with draft resolutions or documents, that no reason for an investigation had been given, and that Mema had been given no opportunity to respond to the misconduct report.
It’s unclear from the tribunal’s findings if Mema was ever shown a copy of the misconduct report or advised of the full allegations within it, but he insists he was not.
“I never saw the whole list of allegations until later. When they fired me, they pretended they had heard from me on all issues. It was bizarre,” he says. “I have worked in municipalities for 25 years, and I knew what that was. That meeting was just held to tick a box — ‘We gave him a chance to be heard.’ So I wasn’t surprised when I got the letter that I was fired on May 11. That was a foregone conclusion.”
A Black colleague faces ostracization
Following his suspension and firing, Mema found himself professionally ostracized, which impacted his standard of living and mental health, the tribunal found. And he wasn’t alone.
Mloyi, the deputy director of finance who was implicated by association and without evidence in the misconduct report, also found himself excluded and ostracized by other staff at city hall after Mema’s suspension.
Despite being second in line to the CFO, no one informed Mloyi of the suspension, which he learned of via text from Mema.
Nor was he told about a finance department meeting held in his absence on March 5 while he was travelling, days after the suspension. During that meeting, it was decided to bring back the old deputy director from retirement to help with the preparation of the city’s budget.
Upon his return to work that following Monday, Mloyi testified that an unnamed employee told him, “By the way, we no longer report to you,” after which he was systemically excluded. His weekly meeting invite was removed from his calendar, and his meeting requests with managers were declined. His interactions with finance staff declined to almost nothing, and according to his testimony, almost no one would speak to him.
“I kindly ask that once a decision has been made about my role with the city be communicated to me other than to be made to suffer role ambiguity and exclusion, which by the way is a worst form of harassment and bullying,” he wrote in an email to Van Horne.
When Mloyi tried to address his concerns to Mercer, saying that he believed his race might be playing a role in this outright ostracization, instead of exploring what he was experiencing, her response was disbelief.
“This defensive unwillingness to listen to a racialized person expressing concerns, and the apparent operation of the myths and misconceptions that can arise when race discrimination is alleged, speaks to the environment in which the events captured in the misconduct report unfolded,” writes Ohler.
Weeks after Mema’s suspension, Mloyi was offered three weeks’ severance to leave early and though he initially refused, he agreed to resign on March 15.
This early departure was likely due to the city’s “excluding him from discussions, removing him from projects, alienating him from colleagues and ongoing work,” and the return of the former deputy director who then took over his job, found Ohler.
By this point, personal information about Mloyi had started leaking to the media, and “this experience had a significant impact on his life,” she wrote. “It was difficult for him to find a new job at that time.”
As Mloyi had only been a temporary hire, the city had recruited a permanent deputy director of finance, during which Linda Ngomesia, a Black woman, emerged as the top candidate.
After an extensive vetting process which included an assessment with an industrial psychologist, during which she did very well, Ngomesia was offered the position on January 24 and was set to begin work on May 1.
By early March, Ngomesia had read media reports about the chaos at City Hall, and called Van Horne, who reassured her everything was fine and confirmed the city’s offer of employment.
However, three days later, the city wrote an email to Ngomesia and rescinded their offer of employment, stating that “as a result of the current uncertain structure and the unavailability of the CFO, the city is not in a position to provide the necessary direction, support and oversight of the position at this time,” adding that it didn’t seem fair “to appoint you to a position and be unable to provide guidance and direction.”
Ngomesia testified that she felt “blindsided” as she was preparing to move her family from out of province and could not understand what had transpired in the days since she had spoken to Van Horne.
“She had the sense that had she had white skin, the city would be ushering her in saying, ‘please take us in this new direction we want to go,’” Ohler wrote. “She thought it very strange that there would be so much process only for the city to suddenly realize, with three days’ notice, that they would be unable to ‘provide’ her with ‘guidance’ in the role.”
Kipp spoke powerfully to this climate of racism at City Hall in his own testimony.
“Our city has racism problems. Our city has prejudice problems, and if we don’t admit that we’re going to stagnate worse than we already are,” he testified. “Are we Canadians polite racists? I would say yes. But this is different. Victor has been treated differently than others, and that’s my view.”
This is the crucial conclusion within Ohler’s report, which is that racial stereotyping and bias doesn’t have to be intentional—in fact it’s often not, and it can serve as an underlying motivation, even when it’s unconscious.
In the tribunal’s breakdown of finances awarded to Mema, he received $50,000 for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect, $583,413.40 in lost wages and $10,150.04 in expenses.
“We do not agree with the characterizations of staff. It is our view that individuals on staff who came forward to disclose information regarding serious matters did so in good faith with the best interests of Nanaimo’s citizens in mind,” stated Mayor Leonard Krog on Aug. 15, in response to the ruling.