Direct Evidence Of Discrimination Not Required: Ontario Human Rights Tribunal

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Direct evidence of discrimination is not required for an employee to succeed before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, the Tribunal has decided.  The decision provides guidance as to what evidence is required to prove discrimination.

In Islam v. Big Inc., 2013 HRTO 2009, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ordered a Toronto restaurant to pay nearly $100,000 in damages to three former kitchen employees.

The former employees alleged discrimination in employment contrary to the Ontario Human Rights Code after their employment ended (two of the employees were dismissed while the third quit). The applicants were immigrants from Bangladesh who spoke Bengali and were practising Muslims. They alleged discrimination by their employer on the grounds of race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, ethnic origin and creed. Their complaints included allegations that the owners mocked them when they spoke Bengali, implemented an “English in the kitchen” rule, insisted that two of the employees taste pork even though it was against their religious beliefs, and forced one worker to taste the food he was preparing while he was fasting during Ramadan.

In its decision, the Tribunal discusses what evidence is required to prove discrimination:

Direct evidence of discrimination, such as testimony from a witness to discriminatory conduct, is not necessary to establish a breach of the Code. The applicant may rely on circumstantial evidence, which may include evidence of actions or omissions on the part of the respondent that raise inferences that a Code provision has been breached. The inference drawn need not be inconsistent with any other rational explanation to provide evidence of discrimination. Rather, it must be reasonable and more probable than not, based on all the evidence, and more probable than the explanation offered by the respondent. Evidence must always be sufficiently clear, convincing and cogent to satisfy the “balance of probabilities” test stated by the Supreme Court of Canada in F.H. v. McDougall, 2008 SCC 53 (CanLII).

In this case, the parties disagreed as to whether many of the alleged incidents had occurred at all. The Tribunal held that “finding that it is more probable than not that a contested event occurred or did not occur is not the same as finding that any particular witness is not speaking the truth”. There is a difference between credibility (i.e. a willingness to speak the truth as the witness believes it to be) and reliability (i.e. the actual accuracy of the witness’s testimony). The Tribunal outlined the following factors to be considered in appraising reliability and credibility of witnesses:

  • The internal consistency or inconsistency of evidence;
  • The witness’s ability and/or capacity to apprehend and recollect;
  • The witness’s opportunity and/or inclination to tailor evidence;
  • The witness’s opportunity and/or inclination to embellish evidence;
  • The existence of corroborative and/or confirmatory evidence;
  • The motives of the witnesses and/or their relationship with the parties;
  • The failure to call or produce material evidence.

Despite the fact that the Tribunal found “[t]here is little uncontested or objectively verifiable evidence available to guide [it] in making findings of fact”, the Tribunal ordered the respondent to pay to the three applicants close to $28,000, plus interest, to compensate for loss of income. In addition, the Tribunal awarded damages to the three employees, in the amounts of $37,000, $22,000 and $12,000 respectively, to compensate for violations of the inherent right to be free from discrimination, and for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect, including the continuing stress caused by failure to investigate his complaints of discrimination.

Islam v. Big Inc., 2013 HRTO 2009

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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