Racism is on the rise as a result of the global pandemic. Concerns about its prevalence prompted Marie-Claude Landry, Chief Commissioner for the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC), to issue a statement earlier this month condemning the practice. Landry noted that minority groups, and in particular people of Asian origin, have been the victims of taunts, threats and intimidation in public and online. She went on to make clear that no one should feel threatened or unwelcome because of the colour of their skin or where they some from.
Standards of appropriate workplace behaviour have rapidly changed over the last few years, and conduct that was once deemed acceptable is no longer tolerated in the workplace. But as the following arbitration decision demonstrates, one fundamental requirement still remains: the need to demonstrate a prima facie case of discrimination or harassment before the obligation to investigate a complaint is triggered.
A few weeks ago, I was part of a panel on TVO. The discussion centred on what had changed in the two years since the #Me Too Movement had begun. Much to my surprise, I seemed to be the sole voice on the panel who thought that the needle on the sexual harassment dial had moved at all.
At the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, let me explain why I believe things have changed. I do so from the vantage point of someone who leads a large team of lawyers, lawyers who investigate complaints of sexual harassment across the country, in English and in French, and in every conceivable type of workplace.
You hear things. A whisper here and there. An overheard comment about a colleague crossing the line with another colleague. Repeatedly. Or maybe it’s more than a whisper. Maybe it’s more of a resounding chorus. And the voices are all offering alarmingly similar and compelling descriptions of a colleague engaging in a pattern of behaviour that – according to multiple reports – is decidedly unwelcome. The information may even be set out in writing in a formal letter of complaint. But the author of the letter has chosen to remain anonymous.
The concept of a “microaggression” has received significant attention in recent years, and was explored more fully in a previous post. At its core, a microaggression is a subtle, often unintentional, behaviour that is rooted in stereotypes about marginalized groups. Despite the absence of ill will, microaggressions in the workplace can nonetheless amount to discrimination or harassment.
However, the challenge for investigators arises in determining whether a seemingly innocuous comment or action was motivated by a discriminatory stereotype or bias. When examining such allegations, investigators may wish to rely on the broader context and circumstantial evidence in arriving at their conclusions.
Overt racial discrimination, such as a racial slur or derogatory comment, can be easy to spot. However, the difficulty for investigators arises where an allegation of race-based discrimination seemingly does not relate to race at all. As discussed further in this post, such forms of discrimination (often dubbed “microaggressions”) are often manifested through subtle, unintentional behaviours that perpetuate stereotypes about marginalized groups.
The question then arises: how can allegations of subtle racial discrimination be investigated, let alone proven, where there is no obvious link to race? In the case study below, we outline considerations for investigators through the following scenario.
Lorsque j’étais membre du Tribunal des droits de la personne de l’Ontario, j’ai présidé à une audience qui se déroulait en anglais où une des parties désirait être identifiée par le pronom « they ». Et si l’audience s’était déroulée en français? Est-ce qu’il y a un terme correspondant? On le sait, la langue française n’est pas neutre; tout est forcément féminin ou masculin.
French is not a gender-neutral language, which presents added challenges when referring to individuals who identify as non-binary. There is no corresponding term to “they” in French. As noted by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, deliberately misusing pronouns can be a form of discrimination under the Human Rights Code.
Grey’s Anatomy – the television show and not the textbook – has been running for more seasons than I care to count. All I know is that it has spanned several different stages of my educational and professional life and seems to have as strong a following as ever. Not unlike the legal world, mining the hospital and health care environment for inspiration can yield highly entertaining programming. One archetypal character that frequently appears in both drama and comedic form is the curmudgeonly demanding senior doctor.