The Canadian Human Rights Commission -  
a Misnomer? 

by Charlotte Hutchinson 
UPdate Winter 2000

     Remember me? The disabled employee with environmental illness (EI) that Environment Canada (EC) turfed out because a bevy of their engineers couldn't apply some relatively simple recommendations by Health Canada (HC)? 
     In the last issue of the UPdate I told you some of the bad news about the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC).  They took my complaint of discrimination and harassment against EC in the Halifax office professionally. But from the time it hit the Ottawa office, the incidences of lack of knowledge, training, competence, professional behaviour and accountability were frequent. My experiences were obviously not unique. The Lawyers Weekly coverage of the 1998 Auditor General's Report on the CHRC headlined, "Auditor General slams CHRC record." 

     The Auditor General, Denis Desautels said, "We should all be concerned that the fundamental rights of Canadians who have problems with human rights are not being handled in a manner they are entitled to expect." Desautels expressed concerns that the Commission doesn't always follow its own standards to ensure quality investigations, and there is a high turnover among its staff (14 of 22 investigators have less than one year's experience). 

     Anybody who has read an Agatha Christie mystery or watched an episode of Law and Order would almost certainly have conducted a more competent investigation than their investigator. I offered her documents, tape recordings and photographs
which she didn't want. I asked her is she had certain other documents -- she wasn't sure. But she eventually told me she wasn't buying EC's story so I relaxed. Then she rendered a decision 180 degrees opposite a few weeks later. 

     Of all the amazing things in her report, one of the most startling was that she couldn't confirm that EC had ordered me to work out of a warehouse in 1995. She had the letter where EC ordered me to do so. I had offered her photographs of the
inside and outside of the warehouse. EC and Public Works and Government Services Canada had records of its lease.  Someone from the local CHRC office could have gone to Dartmouth to view it and say, "Yup, it's a warehouse." With all those options she was still left wondering. 

     I talked and wrote to her supervisor and her no avail. So I wrote a huge rebuttal to her report. I quoted documents. I referred to tape recordings, photos and the respirator. I suggested witnesses and spoke of physical evidence...all
to no avail. 

     Through the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act, I found out that the 6 Commissioners rubber stamped mine and 62 other cases the same morning. They had the two prior weeks, at $325 per day, to review the less than 1000 pages they
were sent on the 63 cases. For mine they had only the investigator's report and my rebuttal. They apparently didn't ask for even one piece of evidence regarding my case -- nor did they ask any questions, raise any concerns. 

      I also found out that my case was one of five in the investigator's first batch. She received no training or written instructions prior to handling them. Her contract with the CHRC specified no qualifications -- not education, training, experience...nothing.
The only criteria were that she was available to do the work (she was) and she could do it in the specified time (she didn't). 

     I also made some inquiries as to the training of the Commissioners. The only evidence of any training was for the newest Commissioner. He had 1/2 day training after, not before, his committee ruled on my case and the 62 other cases. 

     Well, I told you the bad news about the CHRC. What's the good news? 

     In April 1999, as a result of the Auditor General's report, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada announced "a review of human rights protection in Canada." It was a travelling road show, hearing submissions from across Canada. Web site: The report in due April 2000. 

     So if you are a federal employee getting sick from the indoor air quality (IAQ) at work, I have renewed hope that you might get help through the CHRC. 

     If you are a Canadian worker, disabled through EI/MCS, federal and provincial human rights legislation provide protection from harassment and discrimination. You are entitled to accommodation up to the point of undue hardship from your employer.  Most employees don't know this. Neither do most employers. Both the Canadian and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commissions recognize employees with EI/MCS as being disabled, and both have accepted complaints on that basis. 

     Caution -- the complexion of "accommodation up to the point of undue hardship" varies with the circumstances and the resources of the employer. The greater the ability of the employer to provide suitable accommodation, the more they are
expected to do. And according to Sandra Smith Muir of the Halifax office of the CHRC, "Sometimes if the steps that are taken to accommodate people with disabilities are things that can benefit all employees, or customers as well, then that is really less of a hardship as far as the accommodation issue is concerned." 

     With regard to the air quality at your workplace, don't accept the worn-out and uninformed retort, "The air quality studies say that everything is fine. Everything meets the standards." The studies don't mean the air is safe; they don't mean you won't get sick by working there. Studies vary. Standards vary. None consider all the toxins/hazards. None use instruments as sensitive as the body of someone with EI/MCS. In 1995 Dr. H.K. Lee, an IAQ specialist with HC reported, "Environmental
hypersensitivity is beyond the scope of acceptable IAQ objectives. It is recommended that the EH cases be treated as individual medical problems, and be turned over to the occupational health physicians for further processing." 

     The ideal situation for an employee having this kind of problem is to work with an enlightened and compassionate employer to find a suitable solution to safe office space. You must cooperate by providing medical information as to your condition and needs. You must also cooperate in the search for suitable accommodation. You may want to involve your union and/or your safety and health committee. Your applicable labour, health and public works departments may be able to provide good advice. If your doctor can't come up with parameters for a suitable office, Operation: Safe Office Space can help. 

     Document everything. Include dates. What are your symptoms? When and where do they happen? How are you at home? In other locations? See a doctor and tell them what is happening. Keep notes of all the communication with your employer. Put your requests for accommodation in writing, being as specific as possible. 

     Don't accept just any solution. Accommodation for those with EI/MCS means an office where you don't get sick. Your health is precious. It will be a big factor in how well and how long you live. 

     Don't agree to telework (work from home) unless that solution is preferable for you, or your employer's resources limit you to that solution. There are significant negative impacts to working at home. Smith Muir says, "The preferred alternative as far as accommodating someone with a disability is concerned is something that maximizes that person's dignity, their autonomy and their integration into the workplace and into society -- something that minimizes their discomfort or inconvenience and addresses their needs most rapidly." 

     If you are getting sick from the air quality at work and haven't been able to work out a satisfactory solution with your employer, contact the human rights office which applies to you. Don't hesitate. Their raison d'etre is to help you.