Who’s to blame for human rights apathy?

When the BC Human Rights Tribunal was created, the educational role of the Tribunal was handed off to another organization, which is now the Human Rights Clinic and doesn’t appear to be doing anything in the role of advocacy.

Who’s to blame for the fact that Human Rights Tribunals don’t want to be perceived as being advocates for human rights?

If we take the belief that they are to blame, that would explain why the media looks for things like crazy cases and does very little analysis. If no one agrees to an interview, there is not much for the media to hang a story on, so they are unlikely to follow the actions of the Tribunal very closely. Reporters these days don’t have time to sit through a hearing. If there were a communications director available to go on the record, one would see a renewed interest. People could question why the Tribunal came to certain decisions and the Tribunal could explain the rationale. This would provide workplaces and individuals with more insight.

If we take the belief that the media is to blame, that would explain why the Tribunal has taken on a more apathetic role, even going so far as to lie to dismiss cases. No one is performing a watchdog role and the media only pays attention when a decision seems odd or outrageous. As the public appears disinterested there is no reason for the tribunal to champion human rights.

If we believe that it’s the right-leaning government that’s to blame, this would also explain the apathy. “Activist” judges are a buzzword among certain people who don’t like to see individual rights upheld that might conflict with more powerful interests. If a human rights tribunal takes on an activist role they may attract positive interest from the community, but they may also attract negative interest, causing the government itself to start questioning whether their appointments have become an embarrassment or are creating an environment that’s seen as not “business-friendly”. To survive in such a culture, the Tribunal members might think its politically expedient to stay below the radar and take as few cases as possible to a hearing to avoid attention and accusations of “activism.”

The reality is it probably is a combination of the three. I want to explore how both the political environment and the internal apathy of the people appointed contributes to a negative climate for human rights in BC.


How to spot a lie in an administrative tribunal decision

I mentioned (once or twice) that Bernd Walter, chair of the Human Rights Tribunal, stated that I was fired with cause for not delivering newspapers. I also mentioned that the employer signed an affidavit that this was not the case, and Walter also had evidence that I had offered to deliver the papers with the carrier, so that I would not be stealing an eight-year-old’s job, or even worse, the job of a person with a disability. Many of our carriers were adults living with learning disabilities who clearly deserve their pay cheques.

However, that was not the only minor fib in the report. Walter was also untruthful about the time period between my being fired for no good reason and a reporter with only six months experience being appointed to my job. He said it was a month even though I had stated that I had learned about it through the grapevine only two weeks after I had been fired.

It would appear that the lack of a reason for the termination and the immediate appointment of a substantially less qualified individual was what was required to establish that there was a prima facie case for discrimination. Otherwise, why pick these two things to lie about?

It’s pretty bad when you can establish a prima facie case by examining what the tribunal chooses to lie about.

However, outright lies aren’t the only way that tribunals dismiss valid cases. I think I have enough experience to establish some patterns. For one thing, they will simply not mention facts that are central to your case. Sometimes they will avoid noticing entire documents. They also twist what happened to make it reflect poorly on the employee, rather than the employer (hence the newspaper delivery scandal). They will also report background information and pretend that’s the thing you identified as discriminatory. Let me give you an example, to show you what I mean:

Mary says she accidentally broke the photocopier and entered her boss’s office to tell him. When he heard the news the boss, called her a “dumb blonde.”

The Tribunal would then report this as, the boss got upset with Mary for breaking the photocopier. No mention will be made of the “dumb blonde” comment and, of course, the Tribunal will say that the incident was not discriminatory.

In fact, in my analysis of cases for my book, I’m focused on this very type of thing as this is the easiest way to determine if the Tribunal is lying or trying to obfuscate the facts. I’m trying to find cases, where the thing alleged, or the tone in which an incident is recounted in the decision, reflects poorly on the employee and the event, out of context, doesn’t seem to be discriminatory.

It’s quite possible if you scratch the surface you’ll uncover a lie and a valid case that was unfairly dismissed.

Legislation provides a false front for tribunals

When I first moved to Vancouver in my twenties, I was looking for any type of job to pay the rent. The first one to come along was offering samplings of ciabatta bread at Costco. I admit the bread was delicious. However, the problem was the owner of the bakery promoting the bread.

I was among six women who filed a complaint with Employment Standards BC about his failure to pay. It took over a year for the case manager to investigate our claim. To this day, I don’t know what she was investigating. The guy pretty much admitted that he didn’t pay us. His excuse was that we didn’t provide some sort of time sheet, which I actually had provided to him. Even if I had not provided it, the legislation is quite adamant that not filing a piece of paperwork cannot be used as an excuse not to pay. Why was the investigator not able to wrap this up in a week with six claimants and an employer that admitted guilt? That remains a mystery to this day.

In any case, after more than a year, I had moved back to Ontario and received a letter stating that the employer had no assets so we would never receive our pay. Not only that, the investigator argued that it had been a really long time since the event had occurred so he shouldn’t have to pay up anyway.

I find it highly unlikely that someone could open a bakery and sign a contract with Costco without any assets. He’d have to have tens of thousands just burning a hole in his pocket or he’d have to have applied for a loan citing his assets.

Secondly, if he couldn’t afford to pay his creditors, he should have had to declare bankruptcy. Why was the BC government helping this creep stay in business when he can’t even pay his employees?

Thirdly, how can the government possibly rationalize blaming the delay on the claimants, when it was the investigator who didn’t perform her job in a timely manner?

My point in bringing this up is to demonstrate that a lot of the legislation that is passed to protect workers offers nothing more than a false front. People believe the law is there and most people, out of human decency, won’t do anything to breach it. But the reality is the law is not on the side of the worker and it’s a mere fluke when the minimal standards are actually enforced by the administrative tribunals that have been put in place to uphold the legislation.

Although I admit to being the type of person to blame this sort of thing on neo-liberalism, in this case, the government was NDP at the time and BC was still known as a leftist province across the land. Really the problem comes down to apathetic bureaucrats. It’s far easier to blame the employees than the employer, even when the employer is clearly in the wrong.

What needs to change is an acceptance of the fact that the employer is not always in the right and there are a lot of poorly run organizations out there. We’d all be better off if these laws were enforced. If administrative tribunals are not going to uphold the laws, governments should be looking at the type of people they are posting to these positions and making sure that they know the legislation is enacted for a reason.


Human Rights Tribunal chair feeds jerks on the Internet

Harassment of women online is so common that the phrase “online while female” is sometimes used (a play on the phrase “driving while black”).

A woman online is considered a target for harassing behaviours such as threats and ridicule. The goal of the harasser is to tell women that they either have to repeat what men believe or they’ll be silenced, or to exercise power over women through threats and sexualized language, or to tell them they aren’t welcome in professional life by denigrating their skills and achievements.

While one would believe that most fair-minded people would ignore this conduct, the reality is this is not the case. Employers don’t want to take a chance on someone who’s been harassed online for fear of attracting that negative attention their way. Many women will gang up with the harasser to target the person being harassed, because they want to identify with a more powerful group and divert negative attention away from themselves. Many more people will stay silent and avoid getting involved.

The results are much different for the harasser, of course, because normally they stay anonymous, and even if their friends know who they are, they are more likely to get a pat on the back for their aggression than they are to be criticized.

In my case, the person harassing me clearly worked at the Vancouver Courier. I met with the publisher, now retired, who was very polite. She claimed that the reporters didn’t know who was responsible for the anonymous blog. I didn’t really believe her, because as soon as the anonymous bully left a post, they were all over it commenting. She gave me a book about the history of Vancouver. She Googled me and told me she could only see good things, such as my bio and articles I’d written. However, she was sitting on the other side of the desk, so I couldn’t see her screen. She told me that in time, the result would be buried and I shouldn’t worry about it.

However, I thought about it for about a week, and called back. I still thought that it was clear that it was Courier employees involved, the behaviour was unethical for journalists to engage in and the newspaper should do something about it.

However, by this time the nice publisher had retired and Dee Dhaliwal had taken over. All she did was argue with me and insist that she wasn’t going to do anything about it. Her level of hostility clearly indicated that she knew it was her employees involved and instead of dealing with it she was trying to silence and intimidate me.

At first I thought it was the editor because he never returns his phone calls and doesn’t appear to have too much to do. In fact, you’re not even allowed to leave him messages. That’s right: you’re not worthy to have your voicemail ignored and must submit to having your email ignored.

However, having been exposed to a number of articles by Mike Howell, I’m more inclined to attribute it to him. The reason is that the anonymous blog and Howell’s articles for the Courier are written in the same style, which is an unusual style for a journalist covering city hall – first person with a strong helping of sanctimonious judging.

My experience covering City Hall is that if you want to have real stories you should maintain an air of objectivity so you don’t burn bridges. If you do burn your bridges, all you are left with is, well, the ability to sit in meetings and judge sanctimoniously.

I decided it was a waste of time to focus on his sanctimonious judging and decided to take up yoga instead. The world is a much happier place when you don’t read what aggressive men have to say about you or anyone else for that matter.

However, I also realized that I have to get this story out there, because the role of the Human Rights Tribunal in creating this unhealthy situation cannot be understated. By lying about my case and diminishing me as an editor and journalist, the chair of the Human Rights Tribunal, Bernd Walter, fed the jerks-on-the-Internet beast and should be held accountable. These are our tax dollars that are going to an organization that cannot even tell the truth about women at work.


BC Human Rights Tribunal has questionable approach to privacy laws

The BC Human Rights Tribunal has a bizarre notion about what constitutes protection of privacy.

If you file a complaint, the complaint itself is private until the case goes to hearing. If the opposing party files an application to dismiss, this and any evidence and submissions are also considered private.

However, the Tribunal will make a decision based on this evidence and post this on the website. This decision will inevitably contain names, information about people’s employment, information about their health and relationships, etc.

But still, the actual evidence and submissions received by the Tribunal are kept private and won’t be released unless the media or someone else is able to convince the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to release them. (I will at some point attempt this as part of my research but I need to identify the right type of case first. Once I do, I will blog about it.) As far, as I know, no media outlet has attempted this in an application to dismiss.

To return to the issue of the Tribunal releasing private information on their website of people involved in cases that didn’t go to hearing, it’s hard for me to accept that the public interest is served. For one thing, the public and the media can’t act in an oversight role because they don’t know what information was presented and what was left out. They have no context, so they don’t gain any knowledge from reading these cases, or at least they gain nothing by knowing the personal information.

For another thing, in my case, the “facts” reported in the Tribunal’s decision bore no relationship to the actual facts in the evidence. They falsely reported that I was fired with cause for not delivering newspapers when the employer had not made this argument. Obviously making false statements about someone’s employment and hiding the evidence that you are lying does not protect their privacy.

Either the Tribunal should adhere to the truth (which is highly unlikely), make the submissions open to the perusal of media and the public, or omit the names from cases that don’t progress to a hearing.