The Commons: The show trial of Ruby Dhalla - Macleans.ca

The Commons: The show trial of Ruby Dhalla

The nannies detail mental torture and physical stress; Dhalla denies it, brags about their basement apartment

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The Scene. At six minutes past nine, after pantomiming a bang of the gavel for benefit of the TV cameras, David Tilson, chair of the standing committee on citizenship and immigration, asked that photographers clear the room and called the meeting to order. To his left sat members of parliament from the three opposition parties. To his right, half a dozen MPs from the government.

Along the walls of the committee room, sat staffers for each party. In the audience sat half a dozen reporters, a smattering of spectators and one aide to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

Three flat-screen TVs were set up around the room, one behind the government side for the opposition to look at, one behind the opposition for the government to look at, another at far end of the room for the benefit of spectators. On the screen, around a table in a poorly lit beige boardroom at some other location, sat two nannies, one advocate for their plight and a lawyer acting on their behalf.

The advocate, Ms. Pura Velasco, told the committee that she had submitted a brief to the committee. Tilson informed her that no such brief had been received. (Later, he would confirm that a brief had arrived, but it was still being translated into both official languages.) Whatever the case, Mr. Tilson then asked Ms. Velasco, Ms. Magdalene Gordo and Ms. Richelyn Tongson if they wished to make opening statements. They indicated they did.

With that, the show trial began.

After a brief introduction to the situation of live-in caregivers in this country by Ms. Velasco, the nannies began their testimony. Reading impassively in heavily accented English from prepared notes, Ms. Gordo and Ms. Tongson explained how they came to work for Ruby Dhalla and what they had been asked to do. Ms. Gordo referred to cleaning the pool house, making the beds, organizing the kitchen cabinets, shining Ms. Dhalla’s brother’s shoes, washing the mirror in his car. She said she had to shovel the snow in a storm. There were broken promises, withheld documents, poor pay, threats and insults. Ms. Tongson spoke of doing the laundry, cooking stir fry, dusting the furniture, washing the floor on her hands and knees.

By then it was nearly 9:30. Mr. Tilson had only intended for them to have 10 minutes between them, so he excused himself and proceeded to questions.

Liberal Maurizio Bevilacqua asked a series of questions about what interaction, if any, the nannies had had with Minister Kenney. The nannies indicated there was none.

Had a formal complaint been filed? The answer was unclear. What was the name of the agency they worked for? With whom were they under contract? More confusion, the broadcast arrangement not making for the easiest of exchanges.

“Well,” huffed Bevilacqua, “we’ve got to get some answers here.”

The Bloc’s Thierry St. Cyr took his turn. The employer in this case was Ruby Dhalla? Apparently. Were they paid and, if so, how? There was something about a taxi driver and the exchange of $400 at a McDonald’s near a suburban mall.

It was the NDP’s Irene Mathyssen who first managed to ask a question about what the federal government might do to better protect caregivers such as these. The witnesses passed on a couple of recommendations.

“Did you feel intimidated or insecure?” Mathyssen asked.

“I was mentally tortured and physically stressed,” one said.

Mathyssen pressed for details. Ms. Tongson broke down, sobbing and talking fast about her family, her situation and her worry. Faced with an excruciating scene, Mr. Tilson suspended the hearings. Ms. Tongson just kept sobbing and talking, now to no one in particular.

When the meeting resumed, Conservative Alice Wong asked the women to detail the threatening phone calls they’ve received since their story made news. They did so at some length.

***

At six minutes past 10, Ruby Dhalla strode into the room smiling, looking pretty in pink and white. She approached the opposition side and greeted her friends. Then to the government side, she shook hands with each of the Conservatives.

Mr. Tilson thanked the nannies for their testimony and the TVs went blank. Seated beside her lawyer, a short-haired gentleman in a remarkably skinny tie, Dhalla proceeded with her first testament.

She appealed to the better purpose of this committee’s work, but lamented the “partisan purposes” and “sensational ways” that have dictated the proceedings against her. She claimed her innocence. “I, Ruby Dhalla, did not … Ruby Dhalla, did not … I did not … I was not … And I had no involvement.”

She spoke of her own life story, her advocacy of women and immigrants. She harkened to her mother’s story of arriving in this country with nothing. She bemoaned the injury to her personal life and reputation. She described her home as one of love and compassion and respect. She deferred to her brother and mother. She pledged to work with the committee, to help the government better protect nannies and caregivers against potential abuse.

Liberal Alexandra Mendes was first to cross examine. Had a formal complaint been filed against her or her family? No. Did she hire the nannies in question? No. Did she ask them to shovel snow? No. Did she ask them to scrub the floors? No. Shampoo the rugs? No. In fact, the floors at her home were hardwood.

Then it was St. Cyr’s turn again. Was she aware of what was going on in the house? No. She had limited interaction with the nannies. She remembered seeing one lying on the couch, watching TV with her mother. Why were they paid in cash? Because that’s what they requested.

Mathyssen asked Dhalla to explain precisely what sort of conspiracy she saw acting against her. Dhalla proceeded to detail a series of meetings and forums, strange coincidences and inconsistencies.

“Point of order,” interjected Conservative Rick Dykstra. “If you’re going to make statements, you have to know they’re true, Ruby.”

Tilson rebuked him. “That’s not a point of order,” he said.

After a few more questions from Mathyssen, it was Dykstra’s turn. He opened with a monologue of sorts.

“This has been quite an experience,” he said. “What you’re going through is a struggle … I do find it unfortunate … that you’ve indicated there’s a witch hunt. I take that personally.”

He almost sounded hurt.

“We are trying to get the facts here,” he said.

The aide from Kenney’s office had been handing around a bit of amateur handwriting analysis based on various documents related to the case. Dykstra asked Dhalla if the handwriting was hers. She said no.

Were the nannies working illegally? Dhalla did not know, she was neither the employer, nor the sponsor. What about a call from an agency inquiring about the nannies? It had been redirected to Dhalla’s brother.

Tilson moved to the lightning round, each party given just two minutes to finish questions. Dykstra passed his turn to Dean Del Mastro, the hulking Conservative to his left. “There are so many questions I’d like to ask,” Del Mastro moped, “but so little time.”

He mocked Dhalla’s travel schedule, ventured something about the television show Survivor and something else about the services provided by Molly Maid and then asked why any nanny would leave the caring, loving situation Dhalla had described. Dhalla wondered why one of the nannies had never produced the necessary paperwork and left abruptly, apparently for another job.

Coming up on 11 now, the meeting was through. Dhalla closed with a description of the spacious basement apartment her family maintains—1,500 square feet with a flat-screen TV and mahogany woodwork.

Hopefully her testimony will lead to a renter. If only so something can be said to have been accomplished here.