Hamilton Spectator |By Susan Clairmont
The McMaster University cleaner who had to resort to laying a rare private assault charge against a boss has died of cancer.
Because of her death, the court has withdrawn the charge against the supervisor.
Ljubica Savic, 56, died Tuesday morning at the Juravinski Hospital. On Thursday, a lawyer representing Uzodinma Godson Okwulehie, 50, appeared briefly in court as the charge against his client was withdrawn. Savic never had a chance to properly testify, so the court believed there was no way to proceed with the case.
Savic had to seek justice on her own after McMaster failed to react to her allegations against Okwulehie. In fact, the university failed to react to at least 10 complaints — including allegations of sexual harassment — about the night shift supervisor stemming back to 2000.
Okwulehie said while he is saddened to hear of Savic’s passing, her allegations “were all lies.”
And he said that of all the complaints against him.
“As God will be my witness, these are all lies,” he said. “Anybody who says I have made sexual advances toward them is a liar.”
Okwulehie refused to talk about the fact he has been off work since October.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with you,” he answered, when asked.
His lawyer, Matthew Tubie of Toronto, said his client is “a victim here” and he is planning a return to work “soon.”
Okwulehie, Tubie and McMaster have refused to say why Okwulehie has been off.
McMaster spokesperson Andrea Farquhar said Friday that Okwulehie is still on leave and “we aren’t aware of a plan for him to come back.”
Savic, the mother of two, came to Canada from Croatia in 1999. She worked at McMaster for six years, first as a part-time cleaner and then full-time. She began cleaning classrooms and offices, but then was assigned to clean residences. She worked steady nights, 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., Tuesday to Saturday.
Savic alleged that in March last year, at 3 a.m., Okwulehie became angry after finding her getting a snack from a vending machine and speaking Serbian with another worker.
She said she tried to walk away from Okwulehie, but he ran after her, yelling and then grabbing her by the arm. She said he spun her around, shook her and yelled at her to “Get out!”
A week later, Savic complained about the alleged incident to human resources. She was sent to talk with McMaster Security. Security later turned the matter back over to HR, which determined there was no safety risk and it was a conduct matter.
Police were never contacted.
Savic, with the help of the Building Union of Canada, which represents Mac’s cleaners, took the matter to a justice of the peace and swore a private complaint. Savic’s story was compelling and the justice of the peace laid an assault charge against Okwulehie. The case was working its way through the court system.
Five months before the private charge was laid, a McMaster internal security report identified 10 other complaints from women who worked for Okwulehie. Many complained of unwanted sexual advances and some expressed fear for their safety.
Mac’s own report concluded the supervisor “engaged in a pattern of vexatious behaviour that is unwanted, intimidating, possibly fear-inducing and is sometimes of a sexual nature.”
It also noted that “the complainants feel as though previous complaints have not been addressed.”
Yet, when Savic stepped forward with her complaint, the university did nothing.
Savic’s decision to pursue a private charge and go public with her case forced McMaster to admit it made mistakes in the way it handled complaints about Okwulehie.
The university president and vice-president were unaware of the damning security report until it was reported in the media and for years the complaints against Okwulehie were looked at in isolation.
A Ministry of Labour investigation requested by the cleaners’ union concluded McMaster has a program to deal with workplace harassment and violence. But the ministry failed to determine if the program is being implemented.
Flags were at half-mast at McMaster Friday in honour of Savic.
A notice on the university’s Daily News website said “she will be fondly remembered and greatly missed by her colleagues and many friends at McMaster University.”