There is no shortage of comic relief in a recent decision recent decision by the BC Human Rights Tribunal, in which it fined a Victoria
businessman $10,000 for practicing his self-described religious obligation to “dispel negative energy” – by hugging his female employees against their will. The complainants were three sisters who all worked for the defendant at food stands in the harbor. They claimed that they were subject to repeated and unsolicited hugs from their employer, Clint Petres, which amounted to sexual harassment and subsequently thousands of dollars in reparations.
It all began when one of the three sisters felt she had a grievance because she wasn’t paid double-time for working on Canada Day. When she sought help on how to get her employer to pay up, some student lawyers convinced her to get back at him with a human rights complaint. A few months later, she hit the jackpot.
Let’s start with the Tribunal’s most outrageous – and funny – violation of judicial ethics. Under the Introduction, point 5, the decision lists all who testified on behalf of the complainants: the three sisters and another individual listed as Luke Skywalker. The testimony of Mr. “Skywalker” appears throughout the decision to corroborate the complainants’ version of events. In a real court, a witness who refused to properly identify himself would be inadmissible. In a human rights tribunal, it appears anything goes.
Mr. Petres was also accused of discriminating on the basis of religion by asking his employees to display religious symbols. The complainants also believed their religion, atheism, was discriminated against by his request that they read a new-age book titled The Secret. The decision responded by taking great pains to determine if the beliefs of Mr. Petres are religious in nature. Incredulously, they found that his beliefs were not. Mr. Petres described himself as “qualified Reiki practitioner”, which is a “vibrational healing modality involving the transfer of universal life force to a recipient”.
In other words, if Mr. Petres was displaying a cross or a menorah, he would have been found guilty of discrimination on this point, but not if he displayed crystals in a specific way to allow “positive energies to flow around them”. Mr. Petries can pressure his employees to read a new-age book recommended by Oprah, but not suggest the Bible or the Koran. This inconsistency and bias is a frequent hallmark of Tribunal decisions.
As for the sexual harassment, Mr. Petres was found guilty, and as Kevin Libin of the National Post agrees, he well might have been guilty. But is this the forum in which serious allegations of molestation should be heard? Can Luke Skywalker be a credible witness when a man’s reputation and livelihood are at stake? Should “the right to choose whether to be hugged or not” be added to our human rights code? Is a $10,000 fine plus the time and expenses of the hearing an appropriate penalty for making someone feel “uncomfortable”?