This article is also available to read in French.
When the phone rang, in the fall of 2016, Tamara Thermitus wasn’t looking for a new job. Then fifty-one and working for Canada’s minister of justice, she had built a national reputation as a lawyer with a moral streak and a rare gift for consensus building. She played a key role in the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history. She led the team that helped frame the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which, between 2008 and 2015, documented the wrongs visited by the federal government on Indigenous populations in Canada. In 2011, she received an award of merit from the Quebec bar for her work against discrimination and inequality.
On the line was Thermitus’s assistant. She said that André Fortier, a bureaucrat in charge of hiring senior civil servants in the province, wanted Thermitus to know she was being considered to lead the Quebec human rights commission. Created in 1976 to ensure provincial laws comply with Quebec’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the QHRC investigates hundreds of allegations of discrimination, harassment, and exploitation every year. It regulates relationships between employers and employees, pushes back on religious bias, punishes racism. But the QHRC is also fundamentally flawed in a way that is hard to overlook: its staff has been almost exclusively white. Thermitus would change that. If she accepted the nomination, she would be the first Black woman to run the institution in its forty-year history.
It seemed a hopeful time for race relations in Quebec. Months earlier, on August 10, 2016, the Quebec Liberal Party’s youth wing had demanded a public inquiry into the province’s “rampant” systemic racism. “There are situations of disparity with respect to Quebecers from diverse backgrounds that cannot continue,” the youth wing stated, according to La Presse. Philippe Couillard, then the province’s Liberal premier, declared himself open to the proposal.
For Thermitus, who devoted her law practice to exposing how oppression becomes normalized within policies and laws, running the QHRC would provide an unprecedented opportunity to highlight the experiences of anyone facing discrimination in the province, including Black people, Indigenous people, and people with disabilities. “I saw the position as a potential to continue what I’d done elsewhere,” she told me. “I have an interest in these social justice questions because there aren’t many people who have the luxury to reflect on these things.” (Most statements, interviews, and organizations in this story have been translated into English.)
Her one worry: she’d never overseen anything as big as the QHRC, which, in 2017, had an estimated staff of 150 people and an annual budget of just under $15 million. She remembers Fortier telling her not to worry. Camil Picard, the commission’s interim president, would help her transition into the job.
A couple of months later, news of her upcoming nomination spread. “A perfect candidate,” declared Stéphanie Vallée, the province’s justice minister, in December 2016. Quebec’s National Assembly officially named Thermitus to the position in a unanimous vote on February 7, 2017. In a press release, the commission praised Thermitus’s “commitment to counter discrimination and racism.” Her appointment, said Premier Couillard, “sends a very strong signal about the place that people coming from diversity must occupy in our society. Our Quebec house is large enough for everyone.”
Not quite everyone. Within months of taking office on February 20, already ostracized by much of her staff and facing leaks to La Presse about the “atmosphere of suspicion and terror” she had created at the QHRC, Thermitus became the subject of an investigation by the Quebec ombudsman, an independent organization that oversees the integrity of public services. Turmoil around Thermitus’s managerial style, both inside and outside the QHRC, continued for a year and a half until, on November 29, 2018, facing the possibility of being removed by a national assembly that had lost confidence in her, Thermitus resigned. The ombudsman’s report has never been made public, but during a press conference the same day Thermitus stepped down, Marie Rinfret—then head of the ombudsman’s office—said that Thermitus was responsible for “serious breaches in ethical and professional standards.” Parti Québécois justice critic Véronique Hivon welcomed the news of Thermitus’s departure. “I want to tell the employees and the entire team of the QHRC,” she told Le Soleil, “that finally the page will be turned on this bad chapter in the history of the commission.”
The political and journalistic consensus in Quebec was that Thermitus, far from being the perfect candidate, was a bad boss, a bully who created a toxic environment for staff. Thermitus has challenged this narrative and has called the ombudsman’s report “biased and botched.” From her first day at work, she says, she faced a race- and gender-based whisper campaign that sought to stymie and discredit her at every turn—and which only grew louder as she tried to implement much-needed changes at the commission. According to François Laberge, Thermitus’s executive assistant at the QHRC, gossip about her at the commission began the moment her nomination was confirmed. Senior employees said she thought too highly of herself, was way too ambitious, and was too focused on issues of race. “There were many people who hadn’t met her, but they already had the image of the angry Black woman who doesn’t have the skills to do the job,” Laberge told me.
Four years after Thermitus was forced out as president of the QHRC, her side of the story has yet to be told. It is a story of a leader who was hired as a saviour and then hounded as a monster. It is also a story about an organization that seemingly betrayed its most fundamental principles of right and wrong: subjecting its first Black president to the very racism it was created to eliminate.
Thermitus grew up in Sept-Îles, a town of around 28,000 on Quebec’s North Shore, where she moved at age two from her native Haiti. Her parents, fleeing the autocratic rule of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, arrived in the province in 1965 through Morocco and Chad. Her father, Gérard Thermitus, taught high school math, while her mother, Marie-Lilia Delaquis, raised Tamara and her two sisters. “We lived in a five-and-a-half, we were three in one room, and we had to get a university degree. It wasn’t even an option. My dad wasn’t a feminist in practice, but with us he was,” Thermitus told me.
At nineteen, she left Sept-Îles for the University of Ottawa, from which she graduated with a law degree in 1987. In 1993, after a stint in the revenue ministry in Quebec City, she worked as a civil litigation lawyer for the federal government. In 2003, she was appointed chief of staff to the deputy minister charged with addressing the impacts of residential schools, an abuse-ridden educational system that had been funded by the Canadian government with the aim of assimilating Indigenous children.
The following year, she represented the government in negotiations with Indigenous groups over reparations for the damage inflicted on generations of residential-school students—a difficult scenario. Thermitus impressed the other side of the table. “What Tamara brought to the process was lived experience. She had a level of understanding of what survivors actually endure. Not the sexual abuse, but the psychological abuse and racism,” Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who played a key role in negotiating the $2 billion compensation package, said to me. “That level of understanding was complementary to our thinking, our perspective, and the approach that we wanted to take in the settlement process.”
This was the type of praise that attracted the QHRC—accolades that signified a career committed to defeating inequality with empathy and compassion. These qualities also made her a good fit for an organization that, since its founding, has investigated some of the most contentious moments in Quebec’s social history. In the 1980s, the QHRC looked into cases involving police brutality, religious minority rights, agism, linguistic rights, racial profiling in the Montreal police force, and the lack of female employees at the city’s public transportation agency, among others. In 1992, the commission organized conferences to promote and discuss Black history month. Three years later, it ruled that public schools could not prevent teachers from wearing a hijab in class.
Yet the QHRC’s shortcomings were well known. In 1988, lawyers Andrée Côté and Lucie Lemonde published a study of 174 cases involving racial discrimination, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment, among others, and found that only 4.5 percent of the cases investigated by the QHRC resulted in victory for the plaintiff. The QHRC, Côté and Lemonde found, applied the definition of discrimination so narrowly that it not only restricted the number of cases it could accept but hampered its ability to win those cases. The lawyers further questioned the quality and impartiality of the QHRC’s investigative procedures. Lodging a complaint with the commission, the lawyers wrote, was “like striking water with a sword.”
Thermitus found vestiges of this same torpor nearly three decades later. The QHRC was riddled with governance problems. Thermitus was particularly troubled by the way plum managerial positions, which came with hefty $30,000 raises, appeared to be handed out as favours to long-time employees. At the time, the commission had five such managers—so-called cadres juridiques. Thermitus believed only two were needed. She wasn’t alone in her assessment. A 2018 report on the QHRC, commissioned by the justice minister, found these promotions were often given to people with “few skills.”
This cronyism, according to Thermitus, fostered a culture of negligence and unaccountability that kept staff from completing their duties. It also exacerbated, she believed, the long-standing delays that have plagued the QHRC’s processing of files. Over the years, the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), a Montreal civil rights organization, has repeatedly criticized the commission’s glacial pace. After evaluating a citizen’s complaint, the QHRC sets up a mediation process between the parties. If mediation fails, the QHRC reviews the complaint and, if it has merit, proposes a penalty, which can include financial damages. Since 1990, the QHRC has often turned to the Human Rights Tribunal, an independent judicial body, to decide on a case.
In some instances, argues CRARR, it has taken as long as ten months for the QHRC to deem a complaint valid, with many victims waiting years for a decision. In 2009, a teenager named Victor Whyte complained about racial profiling by the Montreal police force, in an incident where an officer forcefully pulled him off a bus, ripped his shirt, and tore out his earring. According to the Montreal Gazette, the QHRC ordered the department and one of its officers to pay $17,000 in 2017, eight years after the incident took place.
The tribunal has repeatedly criticized the QHRC for “a serious lack of diligence,” causing “manifestly unreasonable” delays—delays which can result in cases being thrown out. In 2020, the tribunal was asked to rule on a police intervention in 2009 in which a domestic noise complaint ended with officers pointing their guns at a Jamaican man, pepper spraying and tasering him. But, because a decade had elapsed since the incident, the tribunal decided that the case had become too compromised to proceed—police memories were no longer reliable and physical evidence had been destroyed. “It must be noted that the commission handled this file with an unacceptable slowness,” read its decision, “not only to the detriment of the complainants and defendants but also to the detriment of a society which has every interest in having human rights files diligently decided on by a Tribunal.”
Shortly after becoming president, Thermitus requested an external review of the management team under her direction—roughly ten people. That review, by strategic consultant Jean-Pierre Hotte, was delivered in May 2017, and it confirmed her worst suspicions. It described the administration as “sclerotic,” “lacking efficiency,” and “in need of organizational overhaul.” Staff members told Hotte that they were held back by having to work “in silos” and worried about a “loss of credibility” as a result of the long delays in processing cases. He recommended streamlining operations and a significant overhaul of duties.
Thermitus was determined to follow through on these instructions and signalled as much to everyone around her. “I called them out,” she says today. “Maybe I shouldn’t have done that. But they didn’t tell me my role was just to be a figurehead. If they’d told me that, I would never have taken the job. What interests me is to change things. Everywhere I went, I enacted change. So if they wanted someone to pretend, to go through the motions, to be the diversity hire, I’m not the right person.”
And, indeed, many of her employees weren’t happy with her. According to notes taken by François Laberge documenting Thermitus’s treatment by staff, complaints about her piled up. They were unhappy that she wanted vases and paintings installed in her office or that she asked for the roundup of the day’s headlines to be delivered earlier in the day. “It was always very insidious,” Laberge told me. “Tamara would go from department to department, and the details of the meeting travelled to the next. ‘She laughed, she didn’t laugh.’ ‘She looked at me, she didn’t look at me.’” (Laberge would later file his own harassment claim against the QHRC.)
According to Laberge’s notes, one senior employee said Thermitus “thought herself superior to everyone else” and the employee was unhappy that she wanted to print the AdE suffix, denoting her lawyer emeritus distinction, on her business card. The employee further complained about how Thermitus quoted one of Michelle Obama’s speeches—proof of her narcissism. According to Laberge, the employee also said, “What will we be working on for the next five years then? It will only be Black issues.” Another employee, he remembers, called out Thermitus’s “whore boots.” Laberge believes much of the pushback Thermitus received had to do with her skin colour. “It would have been better if Tamara was ugly, old, and white.”
F or Thermitus, one of the most telling moments in her tenure at the QHRC happened shortly after her arrival in 2017, when she decided to hold a smudging ceremony. The Indigenous practice of burning cedar, sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco is believed to relieve individuals of harmful thoughts and feelings and clear rooms of negative energy. In recent years, it has become a staple ritual for many Canadian institutions, including hospitals, universities, and the armed forces. Thermitus had lined up Dominique Rankin, an Algonquin hereditary chief from Quebec’s Abitibi region, to perform the ceremony. “It was a year and a half after calls for reconciliation were made,” Thermitus says, referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report. “This is a human rights commission. This is where we have to do things like this. The commission must set the example.”
Thermitus’s plan didn’t go over well. “The word inside the institution was that she wanted to ‘purify’ the employees with the smudging,” says Laberge. La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé received a tip that Thermitus wanted to perform what the source said was a “religious ceremony” within the walls of the QHRC. Such a thing is tantamount to secular heresy in Quebec, where the divide between church and state has become a political obsession. Lagacé spoke with Thermitus, who referred him to Rankin, an authority on the subject, for reassurance that the ceremony was spiritual, not religious.
The smudging ceremony never happened. Lagacé decided against publishing anything about the incident, in part because he “thought it would only awaken racist sentiments.” But the incident sharpened tensions between Thermitus and the organization she led. She spent much of her career in the federal civil service, where the Canadian multiculturalism policy and its emphasis on minority rights, religious and otherwise, were a given. Successive Quebec governments have long spurned the policy, in large part because they believe it has a dilutive effect on the province’s French identity. It was among the reasons the Parti Québécois initially threatened to block Thermitus’s nomination, with a party insider criticizing her for being “very pro-multiculturalism.”
Quebec’s official policy is instead “interculturalism,” in which integration into Quebec society occurs through a shared French-speaking culture. The concept appeared to have supporters inside the QHRC. As one of the first lawyers to raise issues of racial bias within the legal profession in Quebec, and as someone who pushed hard to provide training on these issues, Thermitus understood how discrimination was coded in such ideas, especially when a Black woman was in charge. “Racism isn’t always direct. Racism is discrediting the abilities of others,” she told me. “I’m not seen as someone who can have power over others. Black people leading white people is an anomaly.”
The smudging episode caused her to question the depth of the QHRC’s commitment to defending minority rights and made it doubly important that the organization take a strong public stand against systemic racism. For Thermitus, without the awareness of racism as a structural reality, one that many Quebec institutions were built to enforce, racial justice was impossible. It became another thing she was determined to change at the QHRC.
On July 20, 2017, the Quebec immigration minister announced that Thermitus and the QHRC would oversee consultations into systemic racism across the province. At the press conference, Thermitus was armed with statistics: nonracialized people are 60 percent more likely than racialized people to be called to a job interview in Quebec, while the unemployment rate is two to three times higher for racialized people, regardless of their educational background. Thermitus saw the consultations, which would have included public hearings, as sharing a similar objective to that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission she had collaborated on in 2006. Namely, it was a process that would have allowed survivors of abuse and discrimination “to speak freely.”
The suggestion that Quebec might be rife with systemic racism was too much for some. For at least the past five years, political debate on systemic racism has pointed forcefully in one direction: it doesn’t exist, at least not in Quebec. The province has struggled to acknowledge that racism isn’t just a lone act of wrongdoing—such as when a gunman entered the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City in 2017, killing six men—but an expression of a broader pattern of institutional practices.
While the concept has met resistance elsewhere, the debate is particularly fraught in Quebec, where an enduring resentment against the country’s English-speaking majority for decades of discrimination has led to an equally enduring sense of victimhood—and the conviction that victims can’t be perpetrators. Even the QHRC itself had yet to bring a case of systemic racism before the tribunal.
The Parti Québécois hated the idea of a Thermitus-run consultation and quickly accused the government of “putting Quebecers on trial.” Columnists from the tabloid Le Journal de Montréal added their voices. “We are preparing for a massive Quebec bashing session,” wrote Mathieu Bock-Côté. “It will be unique in that it will be sponsored by the Quebec government, which is turning against its own people here.”
On July 24, four days after the consultations were launched and barely five months into the job, Thermitus received a call from the office of the Quebec ombudsman: they were beginning an investigation of her based on anonymous complaints they had received. Thermitus was alleged to have committed “serious cases of mismanagement,” including “psychological harassment.” She was also accused of abusing her authority and “serious breaches of ethical standards.”
The call came as a shock, but in hindsight, Thermitus says, she shouldn’t have been surprised. “I was acting in good faith, but I also knew that I was working for a public organization where there were problems, with people who were hiding things,” she told me.
Thermitus thus became one of the first subjects of an investigation under the province’s new whistleblower law, which had come into effect that very May. Legislated in the wake of a years-long commission investigating institutional fraud in Quebec’s construction industry, the law was designed to shield whistleblowers who had made allegations of corruption. The province’s labour code already provided powerful recourse for employees allegedly suffering workplace harassment, but a whistleblower investigation allowed Thermitus’s accusers to keep something that a labour board would have denied them: their confidentiality.
News of the ombudsman complaints against Thermitus was leaked to the press. With stories soon appearing in Quebec media about a crisis at the commission, anonymous employees began decrying the “atmosphere of suspicion and terror” wrought by its president. In October, with the commission engulfed in a very public debate over Thermitus’s tenure, the government quietly shelved the consultation on systemic racism. That same month, Thermitus went on medical leave, and Camil Picard—a senior commission employee and her “close collaborator,” as Thermitus put it—stepped in as interim president.
Thermitus’s leave did little to stem the controversy over her leadership that continued to roil the QHRC. Months later, something happened that pushed Thermitus briefly from the spotlight, shook the organization to its core, and hinted at the extent of the forces working against her.
Among the colleagues Thermitus met in her early months at the QHRC, she says, none seemed a greater ally than Picard. A veteran of the province’s youth protection network before being named to the commission in 2013, Picard immediately placed himself at Thermitus’s side as her vice president. Aside from the occasional awkward comment—“My friends want to know what it’s like to work for a Black woman,” Thermitus remembers Picard saying to her—he seemed devoted to helping her clean up the commission’s bureaucratic bloat. (Picard denies making any comment about her Blackness.)
Picard and Thermitus texted incessantly in the months following her arrival. These exchanges, many of which she shared with me, suggest a burgeoning friendship. They shared pictures of past vacations; he asked her what perfume she wore. He took it upon himself to drive her to work, texting her when he was at her door. He sent her emoji-laden birthday wishes. Professionally, too, Thermitus and Picard were inseparable, with the pair co-signing the commission’s annual report for 2016/17—something which was rarely done. “We had a great relationship,” Thermitus told me. “He was my partner, he helped me. He said he was my office husband. It’s how he introduced himself.”
The honeymoon phase didn’t last long—tensions began over excessive vacation time she felt Picard wasn’t properly logging. But the work marriage was forever upended on March 15, 2018, by an article in La Presse that revealed Picard had been the subject of a police investigation in 2007 for the alleged sexual assault and rape of a sixteen-year-old named Yvan Côté.
In a May 2007 statement to the provincial police force, the Sûreté du Québec, Côté said he was hitchhiking in Quebec City in 1983 when a man in a late model Pontiac pulled up alongside him. He introduced himself as Camil, and he offered Côté a lift to a nearby restaurant. Côté told Picard that he was looking for work. Picard, the clinical coordinator at Mont d’Youville, at the time a home for troubled youth, said he might be able to help.
According to Côté’s statement, Picard invited him to his house a week later, where he introduced Côté to his wife. After putting his infant son to bed, he offered Côté cocaine and red wine. “He gave me a blowjob and said I should give him one, and encouraged me to do it by saying that if I wanted the job I had to go through with it. I was young and naïve, I gave in,” Côté told police. Around five days later, Picard called. Côté got the job. Picard eventually gave him money, a leather jacket, a watch, and ski tickets. The sexual abuse carried on for ten months, after which Côté left Mont d’Youville and cut ties with Picard.
After Côté’s statement to the Sûreté du Québec in 2007, police investigated. According to La Presse, they went as far as to have Côté wear a hidden camera to a meeting with Picard to gather evidence. Prosecutors, however, chose not to go ahead with the case. “My incomprehension persists as to this decision,” Côté wrote to the Quebec City chief prosecutor in January 2009. “So I’m asking you to reconsider.” The prosecutor retired the next year, and Picard was never charged. Côté died in 2012.
To La Presse, Picard not only denied the allegations but denied ever meeting Côté. The newspaper, however, obtained documents from Côté which revealed that Picard paid him $50,000 as part of a confidential settlement in 2010. In the settlement Picard signed, he refused to admit to any of the allegations, yet 2007 records from the province’s victim compensation board accepted that Côté had been sexually abused and included a psychologist’s report which stated he had been sexually assaulted “multiple times” by “a youth centre director” who “promised him gifts, jackets, trips in order to gain sexual favours.” At the time of the compensation board hearing, Picard was director general of a youth centre on Montreal’s South Shore. Six years later, in 2013, he was named vice president of youth issues for the QHRC. (Picard still denies all of the allegations in the La Presse article, and although he admits to signing the settlement, he says he never paid anything.)
Picard resigned on the very day the La Presse article was published, leaving Philippe-André Tessier as interim president. Less than a month later, in April, Richard Janda, a professor at McGill University’s faculty of law, received an anonymous email that asked questions about how youth files had been handled by “certain high-ranking officials in this organization.” Janda was one of ten part-time members at the QHRC who reviewed discrimination complaints filed to the commission. The email underscored a concern he had had since reading the revelations about Picard.
Janda knew that since arriving at the QHRC in 2013, Picard had served as vice president of youth issues. That meant that an alleged sex offender was directly responsible for the protection of minors and had influence over what cases the QHRC did—and didn’t—investigate. “Somebody who had been involved in serious allegations of child abuse at a child protection facility gives rise to concern,” Janda told me. “Is it possible that such abuse occurred at another point? And is it possible that the person who’s supposed to investigate that abuse is precisely positioned to stop the investigation?”
In April 2018, Janda wrote to his fellow commission members asking for an independent inquiry into the cases closed by the QHRC following Picard’s hiring in 2013. The following September, after interim president Tessier told Janda that there would be no inquiry, Janda resigned. (Tessier disputes this, saying that the commission examined the files itself and found nothing that warranted an external investigation.)
As it happens, Thermitus, who was still on leave, had attempted to have Picard investigated. In the fall of 2017, after their relationship began to sour, she’d started hearing rumours about Picard which she passed on to André Fortier, the senior bureaucrat who hired her. Then, after the La Presse exposé on Picard was published in March, Thermitus claims a QHRC employee told her about other potential allegations of sexual abuse of young patients by Picard in 2007 and 2008, when he was still director general of the Montérégie youth protection centre. According to this employee, the youth protection centre began investigating Picard, but that investigation ended abruptly, and two people who participated in it were fired. (Picard declined to comment on these allegations of abuse.)
Thermitus included all of these details in an April 2018 letter to the youth minister. Thermitus copied the letter to interim president Tessier and nine commissioners. She received an answer over a month later: “The ministry doesn’t have the authority to investigate the facts reported. As well, we invite you to communicate with the appropriate authorities.”
The revelations about Picard left Thermitus reeling. To be publicly humiliated by one-sided coverage of anonymous and unsubstantiated complaints about her stewardship of the QHRC—that was bad enough. But then to learn that the QHRC may have harboured a possible sex offender for years in positions nominated and approved by the provincial government? Both the Quebec City police and the Sûreté du Québec were well aware of Picard’s past, yet his career progressed. How was he afforded the benefit of the doubt for so long? And why wasn’t Thermitus, a decorated lawyer with decades of experience in human rights law, granted the same?
Soon enough, the news cycle shifted to Thermitus again. Back in the fall of 2017, months after she’d joined the QHRC, she had written to the justice minister, requesting an “exhaustive organizational diagnosis” of the entire institution—one that would go beyond what Hotte had looked at.
The report, written by former deputy minister Lise Verreault and drawing on interviews with Thermitus and employees, was finally presented to the minister in the spring of 2018, when Thermitus was still on leave. The report conceded that the QHRC was in disarray and in urgent need of an overhaul but severely criticized Thermitus’s management. While Verreault credited Thermitus’s legal ability, she nonetheless accused her of “demotivat[ing]” employees and causing “general dissatisfaction.”
When news of Verreault’s damning conclusions reached the press that spring, the Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec called for Thermitus’s resignation. In a bid to defend herself, Thermitus met with investigators from the ombudsman’s office, who were then still looking into complaints of abuse made against her from 2017. However, the ombudsman head, Marie Rinfret, left out much of Thermitus’s testimony in her final report to the minister of justice on November 13, 2018. When the ombudsman’s conclusions about Thermitus’s “reprehensible” behaviour with staff were leaked to La Presse, the national assembly felt that it had heard enough and threatened to impeach her—a move the legislature had never before used in its history. Thermitus resigned later that month.
“This is the last episode of a rather long saga for the Commission,” Tessier, the interim QHRC president, told Le Devoir. But the saga is far from over. Thermitus is today suing the ombudsman, seeking just over $1 million in damages. She claims that the ombudsman’s investigation breached principles of procedural fairness, causing Thermitus irreparable harm. Conclusions were drawn and shared with the minister of justice without Thermitus’s testimony, and Thermitus’s full response to the allegations was not included in the final report; she has rights to both under the law. Thermitus is asking for the ombudsman’s report to be quashed and for a public apology.
The ombudsman filed a motion for dismissal, arguing that Thermitus’s claims “lacked legal basis” and could themselves be considered “abusive.” In July 2019, superior court judge André Prévost denied the motion, accusing the ombudsman’s office of taking “a position on Thermitus” and saying there was enough evidence to “reasonably question” the ombudsman’s motives in sending such a biased report to the minister of justice. Too significant to overlook, Prévost also noted, are Thermitus’s claims that several witnesses who testified against her occupied the very well-paying but “unjustified” positions she was determined to eliminate. Among the QHRC employees who leaked details about Thermitus to the press, Prévost singled out “witness 5.” The witnesses are not named, yet in his decision, Prévost refers to “witness 5” as interim commission president. At the time, that person was Camil Picard. (Picard denies being one of the witnesses and claims he praised Thermitus’s work to the ombudsman.)
Thermitus now suspects that, despite their apparent bonhomie, Picard played a key role in undermining her from the moment she took over at the QHRC. She remembers how André Fortier admitted to her in November 2017—months after reassuring her that Picard was there to help her transition into the job—that Picard actually wanted the top job for himself. (Fortier doesn’t recall this conversation, and Picard denies he was in the running.) “I was fooled and betrayed,” Thermitus told me. “The government told me that he was a person I could trust, but he was just playing games the whole time.” A former QHRC employee, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, remembered meeting an anxious and resentful Picard in the president’s office days before Thermitus’s arrival. “I can’t believe I’m going to be directed by a Black woman,” the employee recalled Picard saying. (Picard denies saying this.)
“I think Tamara’s case is the epitome of systemic racism,” says Alain Babineau. A twenty-eight-year veteran of the RCMP, Babineau was appointed as an adviser to the City of Montreal’s newly formed antiracism and systemic discrimination office in May 2021. He is now director of racial profiling and public safety for Red Coalition, a Montreal-based lobbying and civil rights organization.
“I don’t think these issues in Quebec are any different than anywhere else in the country with respect to the systemic nature of discrimination, but Quebec is probably ten years behind Ontario in dealing with it,” says Babineau. “When you are a person of colour, whether you’re a manager or even a supervisor, there are people who resent you, particularly these days with the on-paper push for diversity and inclusion. And she happened to be the first Black woman in this province to lead an institution designed to protect the rights of vulnerable communities and people.”
In a 2020 column published in La Presse, Thermitus called the denial of systemic racism by Quebec’s political class “voluntary blindness” and implicitly linked that blindness to her time at the QHRC. “Injustices must be denounced,” she wrote. Two years later, in May 2022, she filed a second suit, this time against the Quebec government, seeking an additional $1.8 million for loss of salary and pension benefits and for the threats of removal that led her to resign. Both cases will likely be in court for years.
In his statement to me, Picard refused to believe that Thermitus was a victim of systemic racism. “She is very dynamic, very energetic,” he told me. “The problem was not that she was Black. The problem was her methods.” He also went on to find it “sad that Thermitus still sees this with a spirit of revenge. It’s necessary to move on in life.”
Moving on is impossible, Thermitus tells me. Fighting is the only way she knows to win back her reputation. What happens to the next person who finds herself in a similar situation? The next Black or racialized woman tokenized into a leadership position at a time of crisis and then scapegoated when she tries to make real changes? “When you don’t understand it’s systemic,” she says, “you think that it’s because of you, your inabilities, your shortcomings. But when you understand that it’s part of the social dynamic, you get to look at your life differently. It lets you live.”