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Indigenous teacher who claims white colleague threatened her over anti-racism work to get full hearing: Tribunal

by HR Law Canada

A human rights complaint filed by an Indigenous teacher with the Vancouver School Board (VSB), who alleged she was threatened by a white co-worker in connection with her anti-racism work in their school, is proceeding to a full hearing.

But the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal dismissed a portion of her claim related to retaliation.

The educator, J.B., has worked for the VSB since 2006 as part of the Aboriginal Education Enhancement initiative. She claimed that she was threatened by a white colleague due to her anti-racism advocacy.

She said that she was walking to the parking lot with the male teacher and they were exchanging pleasantries. But then he abruptly changed the subject and told her he had heard people talking about her.

“She says that he said he wanted to warn her that if she did not stop talking the way she did, then ‘bad things’ would happen to her,” the ruling stated. “When she asked what he meant – ‘lynching?’ – he explained that other teachers at the school would turn their backs on her, and she may lose opportunities to advance in her career or move into administration. He said there were two extremes of racism – not talking about it and then talking about it too much – and that she was guilty of talking about it too much.”

She further alleges that the Board’s response to this incident was inadequate and exacerbated her stigmatization as an Indigenous woman, constituting discrimination based on race, color, and ancestry under section 13 of the Human Rights Code.

Following J.B.’s complaint, two white colleagues accused her of bullying and harassment, leading to a confidential investigation by the Board. Although the investigator found these allegations unsubstantiated, J.B. was disciplined for breaching confidentiality by discussing the investigation with colleagues.

She contended this discipline was retaliatory, violating section 43 of the Code.

Tribunal’s analysis and decision

The VSB sought to dismiss the complaint, arguing she had no reasonable prospect of proving discrimination or retaliation. Additionally, they asserted the issue with the male teacher was resolved through a settlement.

However, the Tribunal found that the circumstances warranted a full hearing for the discrimination complaint.

“I do not dismiss (J.B.’s) allegation of discrimination in her employment,” the tribunal said. “This is not a finding that she was discriminated against; it is simply a decision that the issue warrants a hearing and decision on its merits.”

On the retaliation claim, the Tribunal concluded that J.B. had no reasonable prospect of success. The evidence showed the Board followed its usual process for disciplinary action due to confidentiality breaches, and the timing and nature of the discipline did not indicate retaliatory intent.

Lessons from this case

  1. Comprehensive Response Required: Employers must address both specific incidents and broader systemic issues in discrimination complaints to maintain a discrimination-free workplace.
  2. Confidentiality and Retaliation: While maintaining confidentiality is crucial, employers should also ensure that disciplinary actions for breaches are perceived as fair and non-retaliatory.
  3. Cultural Sensitivity in Investigations: Investigators should have appropriate training in cultural sensitivity to understand and address the nuances in discrimination complaints effectively.

For more information, see Bighorn v. Board of Education of School Board No. 39, 2024 BCHRT 153 (CanLII).

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