Slave-driver or smear victim? Dhalla hearing features two competing stories

OTTAWA - A pair of sobbing caregivers cast Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla as a hard-hearted taskmaster who hired them, forced them to turn over their passports and made them work long hours at menial chores.

OTTAWA - A pair of sobbing caregivers cast Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla as a hard-hearted taskmaster who hired them, forced them to turn over their passports and made them work long hours at menial chores.

The emotional testimony at a Commons committee Tuesday flew in the face of Dhalla's statements that she had nothing to do with the women's employment and that she was rarely home when they worked.

But Dhalla wasted no time firing back at her accusers.

Armed with a stack of documents, the Liberal MP vehemently denied the more sensational charges and pointed to discrepancies in the women's testimony.

She cast herself as the victim of a smear campaign and suggested the caregivers may have been coached in exchange for guarantees of permanent residency.

"I, Ruby Dhalla, did not employ Magdalene Gordo or Richelyn Tongson," she testified, her lawyer at her side.

"I, Ruby Dhalla, did not sponsor Magdalene or Richelyn.

"I don't know what their motive is, but I do want to tell all of you today that I have nothing to hide and I have done nothing wrong."

She denied the wide range of claims from the women in a voice shaking with indignation.

She insisted she did not yell at them, insult them, make them clean her cousin's house, demand their passports or imperil their immigration status unless they relinquished their personal documents.

The women both said it was Dhalla - not her brother - who interviewed them, hired them and supervised much of their work beginning in February 2008.

"I was mentally tortured and physically stressed," Magdalene Gordo told the House immigration committee, via video link from Toronto.

"As the days went by, I felt uncomfortable and overworked, working from 7:30 a.m. until 11 p.m."

She said Dhalla once called her from her constituency office and demanded she surrender her passport.

"I told her that I had left it in my apartment. Ruby angrily shot back with an order: 'If you don't give your passport then I will never sponsor you.'

"From this day on, I became concerned and terribly worried about my situation working for Dr. Ruby Dhalla without the proper documentation."

Tongson broke down in tears as she described how she wanted to remain in Canada, where she could support her four children. She said Dhalla forced her to hand over all her personal documents - like her passport, birth certificate, and marriage license.

Both women said Dhalla conducted their interviews and hired them.

They said they had almost no contact with her brother Neil. Gordo said the only time she had any interaction with him was when he showed her how to shine his shoes and prepare his suits daily.

But Dhalla said the hiring and management of the women was her brother's responsibility.

She suggested the Conservative government might have played a role in a smear-job conducted against her, with the help of two vulnerable foreign women.

"I really hope that my name and that my family's name is not being utilized in any way, shape or form, to gain permanent residency."

An aide to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was in the committee room handing out documents to reporters that included photocopies of the federal caregivers' application.

One portion of the contract was marked: "Is this Ruby Dhalla's handwriting?"

Dhalla was asked that same question during Tuesday's hearing and she said her handwriting was not on the document.

She also turned over a series of documents which she said support her version of the facts. She said the documents include:

-A statement from a snow-removal contractor who said he had always shovelled the snow at the Dhalla home - not the caregivers.

-A signed receipt from Gordo saying she was paid - this after Gordo told the committee Dhalla dragged out paying her, and refused more than once to do so before finally agreeing.

-A statement that showed Gordo was only employed for 11 days - after Gordo claimed her passport had been withheld from her for two weeks.

-Airplane boarding passes that, Dhalla says, prove she was only home in Toronto for three of the 11 days for while Gordo was employed at the residence.

Dhalla said she placed the initial call to the agency that provided the caregivers' names, but that all subsequent dealings with the agency came from her mother and brother.

She also scoffed at the notion that the women lived in misery at the Dhalla residence.

She said her mother sometimes cooked for them, even though they were hired to care for her, and that they would sit on the couch together watching television.

Dhalla said the women also lived comfortably in a 1,500-square-foot basement apartment, with a full kitchen, elegant carpeting, and a 60-inch flat screen TV.

Committee members were befuddled by all the discrepancies.

"We've heard two groups of witnesses," said Conservative chairman David Tilson.

"They've both said opposite stories. Who's telling the truth? I have no idea. Is there a third story? We'll wait and see."

The committee is studying the treatment of migrant workers, and Dhalla and her former employees were added to the list of witnesses.

 
 
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