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Calling Catholic groups ‘cult-like’ does not amount to discrimination: Ontario Human Rights Tribunal

The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has dismissed a complaint against a women’s studies professor who fought a Catholic volunteerism program at Brock University, saying her anti-Catholic comments were offensive, but not akin to discrimination.

Although the complainant was treated differently due to his religious beliefs, the tribunal wrote: “I cannot see how the respondent’s comments about him were vexatious, or known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome, no matter how personally offensive and hurtful he found them to be. Accordingly, the respondent’s comments did not amount to substantive discrimination.”

The discord began last November when the school’s Women’s Studies Program Committee recommended the university terminate its Solidarity Experiences Abroad (SEA) program, which places students from the St. Catharines school in volunteer jobs in Latin America.

The committee opposed the program due to “documented cases of physical and psychological abuse, classism, sexism, racism and homophobia.” Catholic groups connected to the program were described as “far right” and “cult-like,” according to women’s studies professor Ana Isla, one of the chief opponents of the program.

SEA was largely administered through the Catholic chaplain, and the committee argued it was an inappropriate program for a secular, publicly funded university.

As a result of the claims, the school’s Internationalization Committee launched an investigation into the motion. The committee “heard an argument [from opponents] that all student experiential and educational trips involving students from the so-called ‘geo-political-economic North’ to the ‘geo-political-economic South’ were inappropriate and extensions of colonialism.”

The Internationalization Committee rejected the recommendation, but Germain McKenzie, assistant chaplain at the school’s Catholic chaplaincy, then filed human rights complaints.

I don’t really know what is in her motivations. I mean, I want you to know that I completely support academic freedom

The complaints were filed within the school’s Human Rights and Equity Services and Respectful Work and Learning Policy, and at the provincial tribunal.

The complaints were filed within the school’s Human Rights and Equity Services and Respectful Work and Learning Policy, and at the provincial tribunal.

He sought compensation of about $ 14,000 in return for being treated differently due to his creed.

The volunteer filed his claim against Ms. Isla, an assistant professor who teaches feminist thought and environmental justice to undergraduates at Brock.

According to the ruling, Ms. Isla sent letters accusing SEA of having connections to Christian Life, an organization that opposed abortion and expanded rights for gays and lesbians.

“I don’t really know what is in her motivations. I mean, I want you to know that I completely support academic freedom,” said Mr. McKenzie on Wednesday. “I don’t know if she wanted to target personally at me, or the program. The problem is the result of her opinions being spread at the university was the poisoning of my work environment.”

Mr. McKenzie said he was offended his pro-life beliefs were associated with sexism. He said his colleagues had avoided him as a result of the dispute.

In February, according to the Catholic News Agency, SEA fundraisers were harassed by protesters while trying to solicit donations.

“I was looking forward to teaching at some point at the university as a teaching assistant. But I had to abstain myself going ahead with that because of the situation because I didn’t know how this would end,” Mr. McKenzie said.

Ken Bhattacharjee, the vice-chair of the tribunal, dismissed his claim, saying the comments levelled against Mr. McKenzie and, by extension, Catholics involved with the program, did not amount to discrimination.

Ms. Isla said she was unable to comment on the tribunal proceedings pending the Human Rights and Equity Services and the Respectful Work and Learning Policy’s review of Mr. McKenzie’s complaints.

Previous Ontario human rights tribunal decisions have been criticized for broadly interpreting perceived discrimination.

In 2009, Maxcine Telfer of Mississauga, who runs Audmax, a service that helps newly arrived immigrant women settle in Canada, was fined $ 36,000 when an employee was fired after six weeks on the job.

There was no substantive evidence of discrimination, although the court noted claims of inappropriate attire and a dispute about the smell of the employee’s lunchbox. Ms. Telfer said the complainant was fired for being disrespectful and untrustworthy.

Ms. Telfer’s home was almost auctioned off to pay the fine, but the Ontario Superior Court struck down the fine in 2011.

Also in 2009, the tribunal awarded $ 5,000 to a black newspaper carrier named Sharon Abbott after a police officer arrested her in Toronto. Although the tribunal concluded there was no evidence the officer was consciously racist, it ruled that he was motivated by deep-seated prejudice, and that white authority figures have “an expectation of docility and compliance” for the black people they encounter.

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