Education is the missing piece in human rights legislation

One thing that is missing in the Human Rights Tribunal legislation of today is a prevention or education component.

In BC, the education component was removed and shuffled off to the Human Rights Coalition, which now operates as the Human Rights Clinic. The name basically says it all; it’s a legal clinic.

The focus on legal action detracts from the reality of discrimination in Canada today. The reality is that most people want to get along with their employees and people can be educated out of their prejudices.

However, when the employees’ only action available when their rights have been violated is to threaten a legal case before a tribunal, the tendency of employers is to dig in their heels and deny that they did anything wrong rather than to seek information about how they could do things better or to communicate with the employee about solutions.

When employers search for information, they find information about how to legally respond, rather than how to ensure that their workplace is fair and encourages participation by everyone in accordance with their skills.

With their focus on the individual, the Human Rights Tribunal is not in a position to educate on issues of human rights. They are looking for problems with the case and, if they don’t find it, problems with the individual who brought the case forward.

This does nothing to bring the parties to a closer understanding or society closer to a world free of discrimination, which is where we should be headed.

When I was a student at university in the 1990s, my classmates and I were sitting in the lobby of a building waiting for our classroom to open. One student turned to his neighbour and starting making fun of the LGB Centre’s signs around campus. Instead of laughing along, the neighbour started asking him why he was bothered by them and started challenging his prejudice in a calm, non-judgmental manner. The classmate was clearly affected and almost immediately started talking about where his prejudice came from and started reconsidering it. Amazingly, in the course of a short five-minute conversation he agreed that he would think about it before he made those type of comments in the future.

In fact, as a student I saw many of those moments occur, as people coming from small-town environments and microcosmic high schools were exposed to people from around the country and world in a learning environment. People are willing to ask questions about the things they had always been taught to be true. They just need someone to start the conversation. Although there are fewer opportunities, it’s not impossible to have those types of discussions in the world of government, work and business.

In my book, I want to examine some of the alternatives to our current focus on antagonistic legal action and propose some solutions to how to return education and cooperation to the system.



Community newspaper journalism and Halo 3 – a comparative study

The other day I was reading an article that helped explained why men in the workplace often act in a bullying way towards women.

OK, in truth the article wasn’t about the workplace. It was about the online world of Halo 3. I have never played this game and know nothing about it, but it turns out that when men are really good at the game they are courteous and complimentary to female players. However, when they stink that’s when the claws come out. Men mask their insecurity by bullying and ridiculing women.

The lead to this story called it a “research finding that should surprise no one.” Given the findings, that men who suck at stuff act like idiots, it comes as no surprise to me that the world of community newspaper journalism is ripe for sexist and belittling behaviour, such as the behaviour I experienced after Black Press bought the Grand Forks Gazette.

For one thing, the barrier to entry as a community newspaper journalist is extremely low. The qualification is generally a two-year diploma from a community college. I attended a college that allowed me to do this in one year because I had a Bachelor’s degree. After a month or two of this, I complained to the Dean that the work was not challenging and there was so much horseplay in the newsroom, I wasn’t able to produce professional work.

In response, I was told that they didn’t really expect many of their students to become journalists. They would be happy if the students just learned to read the newspaper.

For another thing, community newspapers are owned by companies that identify very little with journalism as a higher calling. They are motivated by ads and if journalism sells ads, they support it. If journalism happens to upset an advertiser, consider yourself a glorified wedding and birthday photographer until it blows over. In this environment, companies tend to hire “yes men” to run the show and don’t care for people who ask questions (which would, of course, be the journalists.)

I’m not saying that all publishers I worked with are like that. I had a very good run at the Grimsby Lincoln News where no one tried to interfere with any of my stories. Also the Grand Forks Gazette was a great newspaper when it was being run by Glacier, and I even didn’t experience problems when it was previously owned by Hollinger. I also didn’t experience any interference with my reporting when I worked for a small family-owned paper in Sturgeon Falls (that’s in Northern Ontario), although I only worked there briefly.

However, I did experience a situation like the situation with Chuck Bennett when I worked for another small paper in the Niagara region. The editor who hired me was initially complimentary about my skills, but within weeks became extremely anxious. Every time I tried to talk to him, he took it as an affront. He became fixated on minor things unrelated to journalism and made bizarre and unreasonable demands.

For example, one day he decided he needed to have a photo of a band practicing for a Christmas concert on the front page of the newspaper. He told my coworker to take a picture of four students practicing at a high school in the next town over. Granted, this is the Niagara region so towns are close together. In any case, the coworker went there and took a lovely photo, suitable in everyway. When she came back, the editor threw a tantrum on the basis that there were only three students in the photo instead of four and demanded that she drive back, drag the students out of whatever academic subject comes after band and take the photo again.

Another time, I was assigned to weekend photos. One of the photo assignments was to take photos of children at the bowling alley. This was on the weekend photo list every week and we had a stack of unprinted children bowling a mile long. In fact, in the three months I worked there, we probably ran a bowling photo twice. I made an executive decision not to take the children bowling photo that week. You guessed it, tantrum.

I moved back to Grand Forks because I missed the mountains and the friendly small town environment. I loved the activism of the town and the fact that people were actively engaged in their community.

Sure enough, what is the first thing that happens when Black Press buys the Grand Forks Gazette? New publisher becomes fixated on something completely unrelated to journalism – his demand that I take over a paper route from a child, and refuses to discuss it in a reasonable manner.

I can’t really say it any better than the study authors:

“As men often rely on aggression to maintain their dominant social status, the increase in hostility towards a woman by lower-status males may be an attempt to disregard a female’s performance and suppress her disturbance on the hierarchy to retain their social rank.”

Yes, I guess that must be it.

No chance of success

The obvious question is why would the Chair of the Human Rights Tribunal lie and say someone was fired for cause when the evidence directly contradicts it.

This is the other troubling part of the administrative tribunal system in Canada. The tribunals can’t investigate and they can’t try every case, so the reasonable thing to do is to wipe some of them from the roster.

Without a compelling reason to do so, that wouldn’t be allowed under the law as it is written, so the next obvious step is to think of a compelling reason. That’s when we come back to the inordinate focus on credibility. In this day and age, if the evidence doesn’t support the dismissal, the tribunal needs to question credibility.

In this regard, the tribunals have become, more or less, lawyers for the other side. Instead of examining evidence from a dispassionate perspective they are looking for grounds for attack, simply so they can clear the roster.

The official language they use is “no reasonable chance of success.” If the employer or service provider fails to establish that there is no reasonable chance of success, the tribunal can step in and suggest a few reasons, for example failing to steal a paper route from an eight-year-old.

At this stage, the tribunal doesn’t have to prove it, they just have to say it, and it doesn’t matter what the employee says. There is no hearing and they’ll never have a chance to respond.

Imagine working long nights for two years to meet deadlines, driving down country roads to track down your source, showing up to confront someone at an event after they ignored your phone calls and emails, proofreading that last page at 11 am six hours after the reporters have gone home refusing to do the unpaid overtime that you regularly volunteered for, and the only thing anyone would ever know about your career as a journalist is that you once questioned a whim of a new publisher to steal a kid’s paper route.

Does that seem like a system that promotes human rights in the workplace? This is my motivation for writing this book. It’s time the Human Rights Tribunal and other tribunals like it started being held to account for decisions that aren’t evidence based.

Dumbing down the debate

The other day I was reading a blog on the Georgia Straight website, written by a Vancouver lawyer, who was talking about human rights.

While we all have rights, only some of these rights are covered by the Human Rights Code. Some of them only appeal to your sense of justice, but aren’t codified anywhere. The example given is the tenant who complained that the landlord violated her rights by shutting off the water. Of course, she could probably go somewhere else to complain about that, so it’s not a great example.

In any case, I bravely scrolled down to the comments knowing exactly the sort of opinions I would find there and wasn’t disappointed.

No matter where I turn, I’m watching or reading about someone who is having their ‘human rights’ violated. It’s become a ‘knee jerk’ action now. There use to be a time, when you could tell people to ‘be quite’ or ‘you’re an idiot, get back to making my hamburger’, without landing in court over a human rights violation. It’s only going to get worse.

This is what I like to call dumbing down the debate. If people are expecting respect in the workplace and asking for it, the little guy or gal should be supporting them. After all, he or she could be next, right?

But instead, we have sad little wage slaves doing the exact opposite of what would benefit them by siding with the bullies and the employers that would rather silence dissent than create respectful workplaces.

The dumbing down happens through superficial media coverage, brought to you by corporations that are campaigning against your pension and your living wage. The more you are focused on attacking the little people, the easier it is for them.

I grew up as an idealist. Wherever there was a problem there was a solution. That’s why I was shocked when people who called themselves journalists had no interest in even asking questions about my case. They just accepted that I was ridiculous because I didn’t deliver newspapers, and that was the end of the story.

First of all, to believe that someone who had experience and was doing their job well, should be fired for one instance of not stealing a paper route from a child, takes a leap of logic. Any journalist with any integrity would be questioning it. But, instead, we have reporters who think that their job is to ridicule someone when they’re down instead of asking questions or thinking critically.

It’s no wonder the debate has sunk so low, given the quality of our media and the number of people willing to buy into a dialogue that doesn’t benefit them.

The life of a self-represented litigant

If a Tribunal makes a decision that is “patently unreasonable” or in some cases just fails on the basis of “correctness,” you can take your case to the courts.

Given that the Human Rights Tribunal said I was fired with cause for not delivering newspapers even though the employer was not even attempting to make this argument, this seemed like a good idea. One cannot simply make up a cause to justify tossing one’s case without considering the actual evidence can they?

One would think this would fail on both grounds – the “patently unreasonable” and the “correctness.”

Without getting into the gory details, there are some additional considerations around these two different things depending on whether you are talking about procedural errors or factual errors and on what tribunal made the decision.

In any case, I filed my case in the Supreme Court of BC. This is the court that is always complaining that self-represented applicants are clogging the system with their not knowing what they are doing and saying, etc, etc. Based on my experience, that’s a load of crap.

Even if I wanted to go on and on and make a lot of unrelated arguments, which is the stereotype of the crazy litigant, the judge, L.A. Loo, would not have let me.

The only times where my not knowing what I was doing could have impacted anyone’s time was in the filing of the documents, but the clerks I dealt with were very polite and helpful.

The opposing lawyer spoke for about two hours, whereas when I stood to speak, the judge was extremely impatient and rarely let me finish my sentences. I had written my arguments down and she seemed offended that I would be reading them to her. She let the opposing lawyer explain to her the standard for review (the whole unreasonable versus correct thing) and accepted the facts as the Tribunal had described them rather than how they were presented in the evidence.

The situation was nerve racking at one time I may have sounded choked up, but quickly recovered. In her written decision, Judge Loo made it sound like I was highly emotional despite the fact that I had mere minutes to speak and then was pretty much shut down.

There was a report by a University of Windsor law professor Julie Macfarlane, who stated that for self-represented litigants the system offers a “false promise of ‘access to justice.’” The National Self-Represented Litigants Project (2013) interviewed 259 self-represented litigants and found them to be a disillusioned bunch. Many complained that they were treated contemptuously by the judge and there was no oversight over the judges’ behaviour.

As a result they lost faith in the system and suffered personally through their struggles to access justice, which was time consuming and emotionally draining. Many of these litigants were earning over $50,000 a year and still couldn’t afford a lawyer or had already depleted their savings early on in the process.

Meanwhile, it’s the judges who believe it’s the people who are the problem. In my experience the judge went in with a preconceived notion about self-represented people, deferred to the Tribunal’s decision without anything resembling oversight, and overly relied on the opposing lawyer for legal direction. It seems to me with that the real problem judges have with self-represented litigants is that they don’t have a lawyer telling them about the law, which makes them have to go look stuff up.

It’s a hard life, I’m sure.


Smile, we don’t care about your skills

Yesterday, I was scrolling through the CBC website and happened to click on an article announcing a new executive director at CBC Radio.

The article says Susan Marjetti was the managing director of CBC Toronto and the Ontario region. She is replacing Chris Boyce, whom the broadcaster has determined mishandled the Gian Ghomeshi affair.

There is an unsmiling photo corporate photo of her attached to the article.

I wanted to show you what our progressive, post-feminist countrymen had to say about the appointment in the comment section below, but the blatantly sexist and discriminatory comments about her based on her photo appear to have been removed today.

All that remains today is some discussion about how people feel about the new host of Q, how people feel about popular music being played on the CBC, and these two comments based on the photo:

“Artsie photo head could use a happy pill methinks.”

“She looks like ‘Pat’ from SNL.”

Trust me it was much worse yesterday, but the gist of the matter was she wasn’t feminine enough and she wasn’t smiling. Clearly, we cannot trust our radio services in the hands of such a person can we?

The modern day corporate executive likes to smile for his photo so he can appear likeable in case he someday has to explain why his company dumped 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico or why his popular current affairs host has been arrested for assault. However, it’s not a requirement of the job, and you will still see unsmiling men and women in corporate headshots if you Google it.

What’s different is the message. You would never see a comment complaining that a man didn’t smile for his corporate photo, or wasn’t hunky enough.

If you Google it, you’ll find pages of forums, articles and discussions of women complaining that they are just going about their business when strange men on the street interrupt them telling them to smile.

What is it about women’s facial expressions that men find so disturbing? And why do men find it so acceptable to take ownership of the facial expressions of people they don’t even know.

I took offense to this type of language at work and this is another reason why the Human Rights Tribunal ridiculed me for complaining that I was fired for a job that I was good at and replaced by a male reporter with only six months experience. The message is clear. It’s not what you can do; it’s how you look. Coming from the Human Rights Tribunal, that’s a pretty disturbing message.