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Québec cases we should all know about, part 1: Navigating gender-based harassment in the workplace: A look at Lippé v. Québec

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Québec case law often goes unnoticed in the rest of Canada and remains inaccessible to most workplace investigators across the country, primarily due to linguistic reasons. This situation is quite unfortunate since Québec courts, tribunals, and adjudicators render interesting and innovative decisions every year in various areas of interest, including human rights and labour law.

This fact prompted Janice Rubin and me to organize a webinar titled “Québec Cases You Should Know About” in June 2023. In this webinar, we presented a selection of Québec decisions, both old and new, that we found particularly interesting for workplace investigators and employers in English Canada. In an effort to ensure greater access to this caselaw, I decided to present some of these decisions in a series of blog posts, something I started in “Correct me not: Insights from SÉTUE c. UQÀM.

Today’s blog post focusses on the decision rendered by the Human Rights Tribunal of Québec (“QCTDP”) in Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (Lippé) v. Québec (Procureur général).1 Although this decision dates back to 1998, it is still frequently cited by courts and tribunals in Québec in cases of sexual harassment and discriminatory harassment, as it is deemed to hold undeniable interest, both because of the themes it addresses and the principles it established.

The facts

In 1991, Claudine Lippé was hired as a correctional officer at the Montréal Courthouse, a male-dominated workplace.2 Overall, Ms. Lippé enjoyed her work, despite the unwelcoming attitude, coarse language, and crude jokes of some male officers. Her first two performance evaluations confirmed that she was good at her job and that she was respected by her coworkers.

However, things took a turn the following year, when a rumour circulated after the filing of a sexual harassment complaint by two female officers, causing commotion in the workplace. By June 1992, many male officers changed their behaviour towards several female officers: they were isolated by their coworkers, they became the subject of crude language and dirty jokes, and some male officers even refused to work alone with them, “by fear of being accused of sexual harassment.”

Ms. Lippé, whom many believed to be one of the complainants, was personally targeted by hostile acts. For example, her coworkers said that she was in a lesbian relationship with another officer and made disgraceful comments about her physique. On one occasion, her personal belongings were also taken out of her locker to a chorus of mocking remarks. These events3 took a toll on her physical and mental health, leading her to go on sick leave.

Upon her return to work in November that year, Ms. Lippé was summoned by her supervisors in a public space that frequently had others present. Here, she was informed of the extremely severe results of her third performance evaluation, which was prepared during her sick leave. A few days later, she received a letter warning her that her contract would be cancelled if she failed to improve her conduct, performance, and attendance. Meanwhile, the hostile behaviour towards her continued. For example, she had to deal several times with inmates who were handcuffed backwards, slowing down her work and making inmates more impatient.

On November 23, 1992, shortly after her return to work, Ms. Lippé resigned from her position, and subsequently filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission of Québec, alleging that her resignation was the result of gender-based harassment.

The characteristics of gender-based harassment stemming from a poisoned work environment

This case is interesting because it concerns gender-based harassment that flows from a poisoned work environment, a form of harassment that, unlike “classic” cases of sexual harassment, does not involve elements of solicitation, such as advances or requests for sexual favours.

In Lippé, the QCTDP asserted that this type of harassment is characterized by the presence of words, gestures, or acts that converge to show that a person does not belong in the workplace, simply because of one or more prohibited ground of discrimination.4 In particular, gender-based harassment seeks to isolate women, emphasizing that the environment is not meant for them, that they are weak, and that they are integrating themselves in the workplace at their own risk.5

The QCTDP also highlighted that, in this context, vexatious behaviours can take various forms, ranging from the use of coarse language, vulgar jokes, intimidation, and verbal abuse to threats and physical aggression. This may include caricatures or graffiti emphasizing obvious feminine characteristics, as well as damage to the victim’s property and the premises or objects that are at their disposal. Reprisals against the victim who objects or tries to resist, as well as victim blaming, are also part of that poisoned environment. The QCTDP added that, although gender-based harassment can result from the acts of just a few in the workplace, it often takes place with the tacit consent of either management or other staff members.6

In this case, the fact that Ms. Lippé was the victim of gender-based harassment resulting from a poisoned environment was apparent. Indeed, the QCTDP found that she had to endure incidents of sexual connotations, attitudes, behaviours, and practices that reflected the hostility of her coworkers and supervisors, and that sabotaged her work, in addition to being subjected to unwarranted sanctions and reprisals.7

The employer held liable

This decision also holds particular interest because it highlights certain obligations that fall upon the employer who becomes aware of the existence of a poisoned work environment.

Indeed, in this case, even though the employer announced in June 1992 that it would hold an internal investigation to address the complaints, nothing was done to improve the work environment, which was known to be poisoned.8 Rumours were allowed to circulate, the anti-harassment policy was not adequately disseminated nor enforced, and no action was taken to protect the complainants or other female employees. Furthermore, members of management contributed to the hostilities through retaliation. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that, in this case, the QCTDP held the employer responsible and was ordered to pay $7,000 in moral damages to Ms. Lippé.

Takeaways

The Lippé case illustrates a relatively clear and explicit instance of gender-based harassment resulting from a poisoned work environment. While discriminatory harassment arising from such an environment may not be as apparent in most cases, there are several takeaways that can be drawn from this decision:

    • Workplace investigators must remember that sexual harassment does not always involve elements of solicitation. On the contrary, grounds-based harassment, such as gender-based harassment, consists of behaviours that converge to indicate that a person is unwelcome in the workplace due to one or more protected ground. It is essential for the investigator to pay heed to this distinction, and that they remain alert to the subtleties that may be at play.
    • As for employers, they must do more than simply investigate individual complaints to absolve themselves of liability… They need to ensure the confidentiality of the process – for example, by being vigilant to the presence of rumours in the workplace following the filing of a complaint – and protect the individuals involved against retaliation. When the workplace is poisoned, the employer must be proactive and take the necessary steps to restore a healthy working environment, which is something that can also be done before or during the investigation process.9

Version française >


1 1998 CanLII 30 (QC TDP) [Lippé]. Please note that this decision is also available in English.

2 At the time, less than 10% of the correctional officers at the Montréal Courthouse were women; ibid, at para 11.

3 These are only a few examples of the many hostile acts that Ms. Lippé was subjected to.

4 Lippé, supra note 1, at para 167. This reasoning also applies to the grounds of sexual orientation as well as gender identity and gender expression; e.g., Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (M.G.) c. Villemaire, 2010 QCTDP 8 (CanLII) (in French only). It can also be applied, with the necessary adjustments, in other cases of discriminatory harassment, such as racial harassment; e.g., Commission des droits de la personne du Québec (Kafé) c. Commission scolaire Deux-Montagnes, 1993 CanLII 1202 (QC TDP) (in French only); Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (Muhtaseb) c. Provigo Distribution inc., division Maxi, 2002 CanLII 36232 (QC TDP) (in French only).

5 Lippé, ibid, at paras 191-194.

6 Ibid, at paras 194-196.

7 Ibid, at paras 210-217.

8 Ibid, at paras 218-219.

9 On the subject of workplace restoration, see, “Restoring the workplace before a harassment or discrimination investigation,” by my colleague Dana J. Campbell-Stevens. We offer services to help with Workplace Remediation, including Workplace Restoration. If you wish to learn more about our services, click here.


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