In a decision issued on February 24, 2021, the BC Human Rights Tribunal held that the owner of Vancouver’s Toscani Coffee Bar discriminated against four complainant patrons based on their race when she refused one of them service and referred to him and his friends as “you Arabs.”
Each of the four complainants had previously immigrated from North Africa to Canada. They speak Arabic and identify as having Arabic ancestry. The coffee shop owner is a woman of colour who was raised in a Muslim family in Indonesia. One of the complainants told the owner’s Italian husband, who also works at the coffee shop, that they were unhappy with her service. The owner felt that a few of the complainants were disrespectful towards her in her own business.
On July 8, 2019, the store owner refused to serve one of the complainants, as she did not desire to serve someone who did not want to be served by her. The owner and complainant then spoke outside. Tribunal Member Devyn Cousineau accepted the complainant’s evidence about the conversation. According to him, the owner said “I don’t want you Arabs here, and you should tell your friends that I don’t want you here. You are not welcome anymore.” The tribunal accepted the owner’s explanation for refusing service as well, stating as follows:
 I accept Ms. Conforti’s explanation for why she told Mr. Haouas, Mr. Gharbi and Mr. Ben Maaouia that she would not serve them. She felt they had disrespected her in her own business. She understood that they had talked to others about not wanting her to serve them, and that she was simply granting their wish. She was frustrated that they did not recognize her authority in her own business and went around her to her husband for service or to complain about her. As an immigrant woman of colour raised in a Muslim household, running a business that serves immigrants from all over the world, I accept that Ms. Conforti did not refuse to serve the Complainants because they are Arab.
It was therefore accepted that the owner did not refuse service due to the complainants being Arab. That did not end the matter, however. Discrimination occurred nevertheless because a racial comment was connected to a negative effect on the complainants. The Tribunal held the following about this:
 In a discrimination complaint, it is not the respondents’ intention that matters but the effect of their behaviour: Code, s. 2. In this case, the effect of Ms. Conforti’s words was to connect the Complainants’ Arab ancestry to her communication that she would not serve them. The discriminatory words were “spoken at the very same time and place” as she told Mr. Haouas she would not serve him, and they were “inextricably linked” to that communication: Gichuru v. Purewal, 2019 BCSC 484 at para. 484. The effect was discrimination.
For injury to their dignity, feelings, and self-respect, the Tribunal awarded $1,000 to each of the four complainants.
“Birth alerts” in BC refer to the controversial practice where social workers flag expectant parents to hospital staff without their consent when they believe the expectant parent poses a risk to the newborn. The birth alert directs hospital staff to alert the social worker when the baby is born. Ministry of Children and Family Development (“MCFD”) records from 2019 show that birth alerts result in the removal of a newborn from their parents “approximately 28% of the time.” Indigenous families are disproportionately affected by the birth alert system. According to MCFD’s records, 58% of parents impacted by birth alerts in 2018 were Indigenous. Birth alerts have been referred to in a report by the National Inquiry Into Missing Indigenous Women and Girls as “racist and discriminatory” and a “gross violation of the rights of the child, the mother, and the community.” Former Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond stated the following to IndigiNews about the practice:
“Apologies and amends are necessary, as there has been harm done, including promoting the stereotypes that Indigenous families require intense surveillance because they cannot safely care for their own children,”
However, the practice was not banned by the BC government until September 16, 2019.
If a newborn has been traumatically removed from your family shortly after birth, you may not even know yet that the removal resulted from a birth alert. According to MCFD, it has not advised families that their privacy rights have been breached with the issuance of birth alerts.
One spokesperson for MCFD claimed in a statement to IndigiNews that this was because MCFD did not want to “retraumatize” affected families by providing notifications of past birth alerts. In my view, this response only reinforces that the MCFD takes a discriminatory and paternalistic approach in its interactions with Indigenous families. The baby alert approach promoted a stereotype that Indigenous families are not capable of safely caring for their own children. The comment from the MCFD about retraumatization again reinforces a stereotype that Indigenous families are not capable of deciding what is best for them.
The MCFD should notify families that their privacy was breached by the issuance of a birth alert and then the families can decide for themselves whether they wish to potentially face retraumatization by going through a process of seeking an apology and amends. MacIsaac and Company is currently investigating potential claims regarding this matter.
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:
A public inquiry into Indigenous specific racism in health care in B.C with a focus on hospitals and emergency departments.
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.
Commit to structural and systemic changes to dismantle indigenous specific racism to ensure culturally safe health care experiences for Indigenous people.
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.
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.
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.
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.