Landlord Ordered to Pay Indigenous Tenant $23,000 for Discrimination Over Smudging

On February 28, 2020, in Smith v. Mohan (No. 2), 2020 BCHRT 52, the BC Human Rights Tribunal issued its reasons for deciding that a landlord contravened the BC Human Rights Code by making discriminatory statements to his Indigenous tenant and attempting to evict her after learning that she smudged in her apartment.

The tribunal member who made the decision found that complainant Crystal Smith, a member of the Tsimshian and Haisla Nations, was a credible witness, and the Respondent Parminder Mohan was not.

In making her arguments, Ms. Smith relied on the evidence of an expert who wrote a report and testified about the impacts of smudging on air quality and human health. Social context evidence that she relied on included the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume One and Social Determinants of Health: Aboriginal Experiences with Racism and its Impacts. Ultimately, the tribunal member did not rely on this evidence.

Ms. Smith’s description of smudging is set out as follows:

[50] To smudge, Ms. Smith testified she lights the sage in the abalone shell and fans it with the eagle feather to create smoke. She testified the smoke cleanses negative energy from a person or space. She explained different methods for smudging a person, where you use the smoke to wash over yourself – your head, your eyes, your heart, your whole body; whereas for
a house, you start from the left and smudge the whole house. Ms. Smith testified that a typical smudge lasts for around 10 minutes and there is no ash, except what is left in the shell. She testified that in her experience, the sage creates a white smoke that has a smell that lasts for a few hours, and that after burning the sage she would put what remained in a jar to return to the land.

The tribunal stated the following about a landlord’s ability to prevent a tenant from smudging:

[245] In my view, a policy that prohibits an Indigenous tenant from smudging entirely due to concerns about “nuisance” or “property damage” unless they can persuade their landlord the smudging would not create a risk of nuisance or property damage would adversely impact Ms. Smith and persons with her protected characteristics in and of itself.

Mr. Mohan was ordered to cease contravening the BC Human Rights Code and pay Ms. Smith the following damages:

i. $1,500 for compensation for wages lost as a result of the contravention;
ii. $1,800 as compensation for expenses incurred as a result of the
c. $20,000 as compensation for injury to her dignity, feelings, and self‐respect;

for a total of $23,300 plus post-judgement interest.

Supreme Court of Canada Rules that BC Court Can Hear Human Rights Lawsuit Over African Mine

In a landmark decision released on Friday, February 28, Nevsun Resources Ltd. v Araya, 2020 SCC 5, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a lawsuit over a mine in Eritrea could be heard in British Columbia.

The mining company, Nevsun, brought a motion to strike the plaintiffs’ pleadings on the basis that British Columbia did not have jurisdiction to hear the matter. The motion was dismissed all the way through to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The plaintiffs in the action are three Eritrean mine workers who claim they were conscripted through Eritrea’s military regime and forced to work in the mine, where they were subjected to violent, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment treatment there.

In delivering reasons for the majority of the Court, Justice Abella stated the following:

Modern international human rights law is the phoenix that rose from the ashes of World War II and declared global war on human rights abuses. Its mandate was to prevent breaches of internationally accepted norms. Those norms were not meant to be theoretical aspirations or legal luxuries, but moral imperatives and legal necessities. Conduct that undermined the norms was to be identified and addressed.

Nevsun has not demonstrated that the Eritrean workers’ claim based on breaches of customary international law should be struck at this preliminary stage. The Court is not required to determine definitively whether the Eritrean workers should be awarded damages for the alleged breaches of customary international law. It is enough to conclude that the breaches of customary international law, or jus cogens, relied on by the Eritrean workers may well apply to Nevsun. Since the customary international law norms raised by the Eritrean workers form part of the Canadian common law, and since Nevsunis a company bound by Canadian law, the claims of the Eritrean workers for breaches of customary international law should be allowed to proceed.

Complaint About Hair Salon’s Alleged Refusal to Provide Hair Cut to Transgender Woman Dismissed

In reasons for decision regarding X v Hot Mess Hair Salon (No 2), 2020 BCHRT 42, the BC Human Rights Tribunal dismissed a complaint against Hot Mess Hair Salon for allegedly refusing to provide a transgender woman hair style and cut services.

When complaint X inquired on a hair stylist’s Facebook page about pricing for a style and cut, the stylist replied that she only does women’s hair. When the complainant stated “actually I’m a girl ha, ha (it happens a lot lol)” and then went on to ask about availability, she received no answer. It appeared to her that the stylist blocked her from Facebook.

X then searched for the stylist on the internet and found that she worked for Hot Mess. X contacted Hot Mess to express her frustration, the owner apologized, assured her that she had not been blocked (she said the stylist’s Facebook page had been “locked”), and offered her a free hair style and cut. The stylist did the same. X refused and filed the Human Rights Complaint.

Ultimately, the tribunal dismissed the complaint, finding that X did not establish a connection between her gender identity and her inability to schedule a hairstyling appointment. It stated the following:

[32] In order for the complaint to succeed it would be necessary for the Tribunal to draw the inference that her gender was at least a factor in her being prevented from making an appointment to have her hair styled and cut. I am unable to draw such an inference for the following reasons.

[33] I have the evidence of X that she is satisfied that the stylist was not actually locked out of Facebook. Unfortunately, her reasons for reaching that conclusion are not supported by any expert evidence with respect to the use of Facebook or Instagram. Combine that with apparent efforts by the stylist to have a conversation with X and to book her in for a style and cut and then an attempt by Ms. Simpson to do the same, and I am not in a position to conclude that the events of March 5 were precipitated by X’s gender. It is just as probable that they were precipitated by the stylist’s expressed inability to respond to X via Facebook.

Landlord’s Harassment Forces New Mother to Vacate Suite 12-days after C-Section

In a decision issued on February 19, 2020, Valdez v Bahcheli, the BC Human Rights Tribunal held that a landlord’s conduct amounted to discrimination on the basis of sex and family status, in violation of section 10 of the BC Human Rights Code.

A few days after Germaine Valdez gave birth, her landlord Meltem Bahcheli texted her saying that she would need to find a new place to live. The day Valdez returned from the hospital, Bahcheli came to the suite and began yelling at her. Bahcheli told Valdez that if her family did not cooperate and agree to vacating the suite, she would be evicted and refused a reference. Further, Bahcheli would not allow Valdez to stay present in the suite while it was shown to prospective tenants. This meant Valdez would have to walk around outside in the cold with her baby for two hours while recovering from her recent c-section. Her baby was 11 days old.

The Tribunal ordered that Bahcheli pay Valdez $1,923.56 for moving expenses and $9,000 as compensation for injury to her dignity, feelings, and self-respect.

In delivering reasons, the Tribunal held as follows:

[30] Ms. Bahcheli’s behaviour was having a serious impact on Mrs. Valdez. She was frequently crying. She was having to physically exert herself more than she should have been, immediately following a c‐section. As a result, she experienced some unusual bleeding that required medical attention. Mr. Valdez testified emotionally about this time. He explained that all he wanted to do was make sure his wife was safe, but they had very limited resources. He was working and going to school and so could not be at the apartment all day to intervene with Ms. Bahcheli. They could not afford to hire movers and he wanted to make sure Mrs. Valdez was doing as little physical activity as possible.

[40] There were no issues in the Valdezes’ tenancy until Mrs. Valdez told Ms. Bahcheli that she had given birth. A person’s family status includes the size and composition of their family: Fakhoury v. Las Brisas Ltd (1987), 8 CHRR D/4028 (Ont. Bd. Inq). It includes having a baby: Cha v. Hollyburn Estates Ltd., 2005 BCHRT 409. In the housing context, the protection from discrimination based on family status “exists precisely to protect families, and others who may be screened out of tight housing markets, from being unjustifiably excluded from safe and secure housing”: Abernathy v. Stevenson, 2017 BCHRT 239 at para. 15.

[43] The birth triggered Ms. Bahcheli to begin what would become a torrent of accusations that the Valdezes had lied to her and misrepresented themselves. Over the next few weeks, she refused to meet and deal with the Valdezes in a professional way, threatened to start legal action against them and charge them sums of money for wasting her time, and insisted on frequent, uninterrupted access to their apartment at her own convenience. I am satisfied that Ms. Bahcheli’s conduct over this period constituted harassment at a point when Mrs. Valdez was particularly vulnerable. The harassment was directly connected to the birth of Mrs. Valdez’s child.

Kayla Bergsson – MacIsaac & Company Associate

I completed an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree (with distinction) and a Juris Doctor degree at the University of Victoria. During my law degree, the law school’s journal Appeal published an article of mine and the Law Students’ Society presented me with its Scales of Justice award for the student who best demonstrated a balanced approach to their legal education. I was called to the BC bar in September, 2019.

MacIsaac & Company’s Human Rights Law Group is headed by me. I began working for the law firm of MacIsaac & Company after graduating from high school in 2008 and I have continued working for the firm in various positions between University semesters ever since. This gave me a wealth of experience serving clients prior to becoming an associate lawyer with the firm. I have a specific interest in practicing Human Rights Law because it merges my passion for social justice with the valuable experience I have gained from working on personal injury law files over the years.

Apart from work, I enjoy spending time with my family, getting outside, and singing and song writing. My toddler brings me so much joy and inspires me to live in a good way.

I grew up on WS’ANEC’ (Saanich), Lkwungen (Songhees), Wyomilth (Esquimalt) territory in what is now often referred to as Victoria and I am primarily of English, French, Scottish, and Danish descent. I have always been told by my mother that my great great grandmother was Coast Salish and I am in the process of learning more about which Coast Salish Nation my great great grandmother was from. Since indigeneity is only a small part of my identity and I have no connections to my great great grandmother’s community, I consider myself a settler and an ally to Indigenous peoples. Being an ally is a process and I am constantly learning more about how I can do better.