Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Human rights process repeats victimization

Last week, the Edmonton Journal ran a follow-up story about a human rights complaint filed by a transgendered teacher. The short version is the teacher (Jan Buterman) claims the Greater St. Albert Catholic School Board removed him from the substitute teacher list four months after he informed the Board he was changing gender.

Buterman filed a human rights complaint in late 2009. In the meantime, Buterman began graduate study at the University of Alberta. Human rights complaints in Alberta move through a process of conciliation before a formal hearing. In 2010, the school board offered Buterman a cash settlement and a teaching job in exchange for dropping the complaint and agreeing to no longer talk about the complaint or the incident.

Buterman has declined the school board’s offer, in part because his graduate study includes research about this very issue. But refusing the offer allows the school board to move for dismissal of the complaint because a “fair and reasonable” offer was put on the table. The Alberta Teachers’ Association has stopped paying Buterman’s legal fees based upon its evaluation of the likely outcome of the case (read: the case is going to get tossed if Buterman does not accept the offer).

It is interesting how the conciliation process of the human rights tribunal creates a perverse outcome. Specifically, the process facilitates an employer buying the silence a victim of discrimination by threatening dismissal of the complaint (and thus the loss of compensation) unless the victim knuckles under.

This seems a rather odious dynamic. First, a complainant is (allegedly) victimized by the employer. And then the employer can simply buy its way out of the mess by including a confidentiality clause in its offer that the human rights commission process effectively forces on the victim—victimizing the complainant again.

How can silencing public discussion and academic research into human rights violations be consistent with the broad mandate of the human rights commission to “foster equality… through public education…”?

-- Bob Barnetson

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