ER Staff “Game” of Guessing Indigenous Patients’ Blood-Alcohol Levels is Potential Human Rights Code Violation

Fontaine

CEO Daniel Fontaine of the Métis Nation of British Columbia (MNBC) and the British Columbia Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres (BCAAFC) advised  the BC government this week that they have heard emergency room health care staff are playing a “game” of guessing the blood-alcohol concentration levels of Indigenous patients. The allegation became public today, when Provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix held a news conference to advise that he had been made aware of the allegations yesterday and the MNBC issued a media release stating that the “game” is unacceptable.

According to Fontaine, it has been reported that hospital staff called the game “the Price is Right.” They try to guess the blood-alcohol levels as close as they can, without going over. Fontaine stated that the practice is “deeply disturbing and must immediately come to an end.” Dix stated that “if true, it is intolerable, unacceptable, and racist and its effect on patient care is intolerable, unacceptable, and racist.” The MNBC and BCAAFC have called upon the Ministry of Health to accept the following four recommendations:

  1. A public inquiry into Indigenous specific racism in health care in B.C with a focus on hospitals and emergency departments.
  2. Ensure that all front-line staff are required to take mandatory First Nations, Métis and Inuit training that results in increased health professional personal accountability in the delivery of safe health care.
  3. Commit to structural and systemic changes to dismantle indigenous specific racism to ensure culturally safe health care experiences for Indigenous people.
  4. Ensure that Indigenous governments play a stronger role in the development and implementation of anti-racism programs and training throughout BC.

If the allegations are true, there is potential for this abhorrent conduct to give rise to a representative complaint under the BC Human Rights Code. The BC Human Rights Tribunal Form 1.3 – Complaint for Group or Class allows complainants to file complaints about discrimination on behalf of a group or class of people. A “group” is a “number of individuals who are or easily could be identified by name. For example, people who work for the same employer, or people who are members of the same society or association.” A “class” is a “number of individuals who can be identified by characteristics that they share. For example, residents of Vancouver who are visually impaired.” I would argue that the Indigenous targets of these acts are members of both a group and a class. If the staff members who played this “game” and times during which they did so are made available, the patients who they saw at those times could potentially be identified. Those patients would be members of a “group.” Additionally, Indigenous residents of the identified Health Authority, or of the province, may constitute a “class.”

The BC Human Rights Code is meant to prohibit discrimination in certain areas of daily life based on someone’s race, colour, ancestry, or place of origin, among other characteristics. Indigeneity, of course, falls within the protected characteristics. One of the areas of daily life that are meant to be protected is the provision of accommodation, services, and facilities customarily available to the public. As such, the provision of health care services falls within the code-protected areas of daily life.

Dix has appointed Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond to investigate the matter and make recommendations about an immediate long-term response. She is a former judge and the former Representative for Children and Youth of BC, among many other accomplishments. She is now a professor at UBC and senior counsel in the area of Aboriginal Law.

In addition to Turpel-Lafond’s investigation or in response to her recommendations, it’s possible that a representative human rights complaint could be made.

BC Premier John Horgan Scorns COVID-19-Related Racism

While announcing the province’s “Restart Plan,” the Premier of what is now known as British Columbia, John Horgan, expressed serious concern over COVID-19-related racism. He stated as follows:

When I heard about people of Asian descent being pushed to the ground and buildings being defaced with anti-Chinese slogans, I was angry. Hate has no place in British Columbia. Period. We need to stand together united against that type of racism whenever we see it. COVID-19 does not discriminate. British Columbians shouldn’t discriminate either. If we’re going to get through this, we have to stop finger-pointing, put our differences aside, and work together to get it done.

Previously on this blog, we also posted about the BC Human Rights Commissioner’s statement on COVID-19. Commissioner Govender asserted that in addition to the BC Human Rights Code protecting people with the virus from being discriminated against, it also protects people from being discriminated against based on the ethnicity, place of origin, race, colour, or ancestry. This means employers, landlords, and service providers “cannot discriminate against someone on the basis of whether a person comes from (or appears to come from) a COVID-19 hotspot such as Italy or China.”

These are important reminders for folks in the Province to be kind to one another, though it is sad that such reminders are necessary and though Premier Horgan has a lot of work left to do regarding racism in BC. No one should ever be subjected to discrimination or violence on the basis of their ethnicity.

COVID-19 Amounts to Disability & Employers Must Accommodate Employees Amidst the Crisis, BC Human Rights Commissioner States

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On March 23, 2020, BC’s Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender released a statement on COVID-19, saying that in her view, COVID-19 amounts to a disability. While she recognized that in the rapidly changing circumstances, there has not been time for courts of the BC Human Rights Tribunal to weigh in on the matter, she was prepared to provide her opinion. She gave the following reasoning:

The seriousness of this illness – and the potential stigma that attaches to it – make it more akin to the legal protections that apply to HIV than to the common cold. Therefore, discrimination on the basis of someone having (or appearing to have) COVID-19, is prohibited under the Code except where the duty bearer can justify such treatment (for example, to prohibit or diminish the transmission of the virus).

Commissioner Govender also asserted that in addition to the BC Human Rights Code protecting people with the virus from being discriminated against, it also protects people from being discriminated against based on the ethnicity, place of origin, race, colour, or ancestry. This means employers, landlords, and service providers “cannot discriminate against someone on the basis of whether a person comes from (or appears to come from) a COVID-19 hotspot such as Italy or China.”

Additionally, she stated, discrimination based on family status is protected. This means that with the closure of daycares and schools, duty bearers must accommodate parents so that they can ensure their children are cared for.

According to Commissioner Govender, employers have a number of duties in the midst of COVID-19. They cannot make discipline or firing decisions based on someone having (or exhibiting symptoms of) COVID-19 (although they can lay employees off if there is not enough work for the as a result of the impacts of COVID-19). They must accommodate employees that may have COVID-19, or are particularly vulerable to COVID-19 (for example if they are elderly or immunocompromised) by providing flexible arrangements, such as working from home.

Commissioner Govender also presented a survey for citizens to complete in order to assist her with carrying out her duties and advocate for people facing discrimination during the pandemic. The survey asks about how your human rights are being impacted during COVID-19 and you are encouraged to fill it out.

Legislation Allows BC Employees Unpaid COVID-19-Related Leave

On Monday, March 23, 2020, the British Columbia Government amended the BC Employment Standards Act with Bill 16 – Employment Standards Amendment Act (No. 2), 2020  to grant BC employees the ability to take a job-protected unpaid COVID-19-related leave.

This leave was mentioned in our previous post regarding human rights, employment law, and COVID-19, however, the legislation and details contained within it were not known until March 23, 2020.

In introducing the new legislation in parliament, the Honourable Michael Farnworth stated the following:

Bill 16 amends the Employment Standards Act to provide unpaid job-protected leave to employees in British Columbia during the COVID-19 crisis. COVID-19 is an unprecedented public health emergency for British Columbians and for people across Canada and around the world.

The most important part of our work is protecting British Columbians. During this crisis, no employee will lose their job or be fired for following an order of the provincial health officer or for needing to care for a child whose school is closed.

According to section 52.12(2) of the legislation, employees are entitled to unpaid leave if, in relation to COVID-19, any of the following situations apply:

  1. the employee has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and is acting in accordance with their doctor or an order of a medical health officer;
  2. the employee is in quarantine or self-isolation in accordance with an order of the provincial health officer (Dr. Bonnie Henry – her Orders are available here), an order made under the Quarantine Act (for example, the most recent emergency order requiring persons entering Canada from elsewhere to self-isolate for 14 days), guidelines of the BC Centre for Disease Control (available here), or guidelines of the Public Health Agency of Canada (available here);
  3. the employer, due to a concern about exposing others, has directed the employee not to work;
  4. the employee is providing care to their child due to the closure of the child’s school, daycare, or similar facility; or
  5. the employee is outside the province and cannot return to BC because of travel or border restrictions.

These circumstances outlined in section 52.12(2) are quite broad, as they allow people to follow not only the provincial health officer’s orders, but her recommendations as well. For example, when the legislation was being debated, MLA Sonia Fursteau asked for confirmation that it protects a cashier with significant respiratory issues from needing to attend work. Someone in this position is protected because the provincial health minister has recommended that they not attend work.

Section 52.12(3) of the legislation allows the leave to carry on for as long as the circumstances in section 52.12(2) apply to the employee.

The Employment Standards Act, as amended, allows the employer to request proof the the above circumstance exists; however, the employee is not required to provide a doctor’s note. What kind of proof is required will thus vary according to the circumstances and is yet to be seen. If an employee needs to take the leave due to their child’s daycare being closed, for example, a letter from the daycare notifying parents of the closure may be sufficient proof.

The Employment Standards Amendment Act also came with transitional provisions that make employees eligible for the leave as of January 27, 2020 (the first day a coronavirus case was reported in BC). This means that if an employee is already off of work because of an eligible situation set out in section 52.12(2), they cannot be terminated. It also means that if an employee was terminated after January 27, 2020 but before March 23, 2020, due to the circumstances outlined in section 52.12(2), the employer must offer the employee re-employment in the same or a comparable position.

Presumably, if an employee is terminated in the above circumstances, for example when they need to stay home and care for a child who has lost childcare, a human rights complaint could still be available as well.

COVID-19 and International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

Today on the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Prime Minister Trudeau called our for us to be kind to one another, rather than discriminatory, in the face of fear. Fear is a powerful emotion that unfortunately can bring up so much prejudice and hate. Shame on President Trump for continuously calling COVID-19 a “Chinese” virus. This Coronavirus has resulted in a pandemic. It does not discriminate, and neither should we.

Covid-19 Raises Employment and Human Rights Concerns Across BC, Government Announces Novel Protections

From both the employer and employee perspectives, the coronavirus pandemic raises real concerns for folks’ health and livelihoods. While the world worries about humanity’s future, individuals worry about the futures of their families and businesses. To combat some of these concerns, Premier John Horgan assured British Columbians today that their jobs will be protected and amendments are coming to BC’s Employment Standards Act in the interest of workers.

Given the complex nature of these issues and continual efforts to strike a balance between health, economic, and human rights concerns, there is a potential for an influx of employment and human rights law claims across BC. Employees terminated prior to the new legislation coming into effect, or despite it, may be entitled to severance above the minimum amounts required under the current legislation. And employees who are not accommodated or are terminated due to health issues, family obligations, ethnicity, or place of origin, may have claims under the BC Human Rights Code.

On Wednesday, March, 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized the coronavirus as a pandemic. It stated that “there are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people have lost their lives.” British Columbia (BC) has confirmed a total of 186 cases of the coronavirus in the province as of March 17, 2020, with seven people having perished.

Today, BC’s provincial health officer declared a public health emergency. This gave her the power to order that all bars and clubs are to close down, which she did. Numerous businesses have closed voluntarily across BC and Canada. British Columbians fear that a lack of travel restrictions on their neighbours in Washington State, one of the US hotspots for the virus, puts them at risk.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is currently self-isolating, due to his wife Sophie having tested positive for the virus. He stated on March 16 and 17, 2020 that as much as possible, folks should stay home. He assures Canadians that the federal government is working to keep businesses and employees afloat during this time of crisis and that while parents are working from home, they can “let their kids run around a bit in the house.” Measures are being put in place to speed up employees’ access to Employment Insurance benefits. And, as stated, Premier John Horgan assured British Columbians today that their jobs will be protected and amendments are coming to BC’s Employment Standards Act.

Of course, however, employers and employees are experiencing barriers as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Employers are concerned about running debt, or worse, going out of business. As a result, some employers are terminating employees. Others are requiring employees to come to work in-person and due to that, may expose themselves and others to the risk of contracting the virus. There is also potential that employers could expose themselves to negligence lawsuits from those who contract the virus from other employees required to come to work, despite exhibiting symptoms.

Employees face difficult decisions about whether they should go to work in order to provide for themselves, or stay home according to federal and provincial recommendations. They are also dealing with taking care of their children, as many spring break and childcare programs have shut their doors. Today, BC Premier John Horgan announced school closures for the indefinite future, and parents have concerns about child care for the weeks, and possibly months, ahead.

Unfortunately, some employees even have concerns that they have been discriminated against for their ethnicity or place of origin and its assumed connection with the origins of the covid-19 pandemic.

From both the employer and employee perspectives, there is real concern here for folks’ livelihoods and well-being. We are facing a pandemic that has the potential to seriously effect the global population on an unprecedented level and we all have a moral duty to slow the spread of the virus. At the same time, people need to put food on the table and keep roofs over their familes’ heads. Bills continue to accumulate for everyone; rents and mortgages need to be paid.

The WHO, the Canadian federal government, and the provincial and territorial governments across Canada recognize the complex nature of these issues. According to the WHO, “all countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimizing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights.”

Given the complex nature of these issues and the continual efforts to strike that balance, there is a potential for an influx of employment law and human rights claims across BC.

One common misconception is that employers need a legitimate reason to terminate employees. This is not currently the case, although this may change with the upcoming employment standards legislation in response to covid-19. At present, employers are generally free to terminate employees without cause, so long as they are not breaching employment contracts, union obligations, or human rights laws. They only need to provide adequate notice, or adequate pay in lieu of notice. This will likely change soon with the novel legislation.

Another common misconception is that employees are only entitled to severance amounts required by the BC Employment Standards Act. The Courts have commonly awarded severance amounts greater than the minimum requirements in the legislation. For example, it is possible a court could award someone severance representing 3 months’ pay after they work for their employer for three years, despite the provincial legislation requiring employers to pay a minimum of only 3 weeks’ pay.

The BC Human Rights Code protects British Columbians from being discriminated against in their employment based on a physical or mental disability, their family status, their ethnicity, and their place of origin. This means that if an employee is terminated because they were unable to come to work as a result of being sick from the coronavirus, there is potential for a claim based on discrimination in the area of disability. Whether suffering from the coronavirus constitutes a disability under the Human Rights Code is yet to be determined.

Given that many employees are having to stay home to take care of their children as a result of losing childcare, there is also the potential for discrimination claims based on family status. There are limits on an employer being able to terminate an employee due to their having to meet family childcare obligations.

Lastly, employees terminated due to an assumed connection between their ethnicity or place of origin and the origin of the coronavirus pandemic may also have been wrongly discriminated against under the BC Human Rights Code.

MacIsaac & Company recognizes the complex nature of employment and human rights law concerns in the face of this pandemic. We remain available to help you navigate these issues during this challenging time.

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
contravention;
c. $20,000 as compensation for injury to her dignity, feelings, and self‐respect;

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