Bigotry takes subtle forms, B.C. tribunal notes in case involving Indigenous woman

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      Prejudice manifests in many ways.

      It can be blatant, like the anti-Asian hate crimes happening in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

      Bigotry can also be subtle, which often does not attract public attention.

      A B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has something to say about indirect manifestations of discrimination.

      “Given the subtle, insidious way that prejudice or more subtle bias takes shape…,” tribunal member Emily Ohler wrote, “it is particularly important to shine a light on such incidents.”

      Ohler made this note in her reasons for decision in a case involving Rhonda Grant, an Indigenous woman.

      Grant was employed as an esthetician by Absolute Spa Ltd., a beauty and wellness company based in Vancouver and with a number of locations.

      According to Grant, she was discriminated against in her employment because of her race and ancestry.

      “She says that throughout her employment as an esthetician with the Spa, her coworkers treated her poorly – relegating her to cleaning tasks, speaking to her in negative tones, failing to give her a locker, and generally treating her differently from other coworkers – and that management did little to address her concerns, which she shared a number of times,” Ohler related about claims made by Grant.

      Ohler recalled that there was one alleged overt act of racism against Grant.

      Grant claimed that a coworker told her: “Go get drunk and have one in my name while you’re at it.”

      It was an expression of one of the stereotypes for Indigenous persons.

      According to Ohler, the allegations raised by Grant were “serious”.

      “She alleges that she was driven to leave a job that she had dreamed of and obtained one year of education for after months of being treated differently – more poorly – than her coworkers and having little action taken by management in part because she is an Indigenous person,” Ohler wrote.

      Ohler related that Grant claimed that her experience at Absolute Spa “drove her to financial insecurity, a sense that the industry had no place for her, and depression”.

      “There can be no question that Ms. Grant belongs to a historically marginalized group that continues to face barriers throughout many facets of society, and the allegations she raises, if proven, could amount to such a barrier in employment,” Ohler said.

      Ohler stated that she accepts that the “events giving rise to this complaint impacted Ms. Grant deeply”.

      However, Grant will not have the chance to prove her allegations in a hearing.

      Ohler recounted that an April 4, 2018 letter from Grant’s legal advocate to the spa “took the position that the Spa had constructively dismissed Ms. Grant, and as such she was entitled to severance pay under the Employment Standards Act”.

      “It also set out its view that Ms. Grant had grounds for a claim before this Tribunal,” Ohler noted.

      The letter likewise stated that Grant would “forgo further action upon receipt of a) a letter of apology; b) a written reference letter …; and c) $468.75…” representing severance owed.

      The spa on April 25, 2018 accepted those terms, issued an apology, made a letter of reference, and cut a cheque of $468.75, “in agreement that Ms. Grant will not take any further action regarding this matter…”.

      On May 3, 2018, Ohler related, Grant’s advocate sent another letter “with respect to claims specifically arising under the Employment Standards Act in exchange for the previously enclosed letter of apology, letter of reference, a bank draft totaling $468.75”. 

      “The Spa replied that it understood the original offer as having been made in good faith when it said that Ms. Grant would ‘forgo further action’ in exchange for the terms set out,” Ohler recalled.

      The spa “rejected the revised offer that referred only to Employment Standards”.

      “In the meantime, Ms. Grant cashed the cheque and retained the funds,” Ohler stated.

      Grant filed a complaint before the human rights tribunal “sometime after”.

      The spa, and individual respondents Bhangu, vice president Kristen Martin, and supervisor Amanda Kuiack applied to have the complaint dismissed without a hearing.

      The respondents argued that the matter has been settled with their acceptance and compliance to the terms in the demand letter from Grant’s advocate.

      Grant “contests that there is a valid and binding settlement agreement on the basis that she kept negotiating after the terms of the first letter were fulfilled; that the apology letter that was provided by the Respondents was ‘inadequate and insincere’, and there is no evidence Ms. Grant intended to release the Respondents from liability”.

      Ohler was not swayed by Grant’s position.

      “I find there was a valid settlement agreement between the parties,” according to Ohler.

      Ohler noted that she would not have dismissed the complaint on the mere basis that it didn’t have a chance to succeed, because the complaint is “serious”.

      However, proceeding with a hearing will not further the purposes of the B.C. Human Rights Code, given the settlement that was already made.

      In dismissing the complaint, Ohler noted that the “settlement arose not from a Respondent offer or even a negotiation, but from a single offer – or rather demand – to settle in exchange for Terms set out by Ms. Grant’s advocate on her behalf”.