Casual observers of the news can be forgiven for seeing economy, environment and infrastructure as the most important issues in this year's provincial election.
Though I've played a role in making those topics into issues, I think human rights ought to figure as a sticking point for voters leading up to May 12. Human rights, I should say, or misconceptions thereof.
I'm speaking, of course, about the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal (BCHRT), a semi-judicial body that operates at arms-length from government. It was created in 1996 under the auspices of the B.C. Human Rights Code, legislation that sought to create a "climate of understanding and mutual respect" as well as "prevent discrimination" within the province.
In essence, the tribunal allows people to combat discrimination without having to seek redress through B.C.'s prohibitive judicial system.
As a complainant, you don't have to pay for a lawyer and the costs of the process are essentially downloaded on to the respondent. You can go to the tribunal if you feel an employer or landlord has discriminated against you on the basis of factors such as race, religion, marital status, disability or sexual orientation, among other things.
Laudable goals, all of them - except that the people adjudicating these tribunals have made decisions that even Soviet lawyers would find laughable.
I have elsewhere written of Beena Datt, a 23-year McDonald's employee with a skin condition that made it painful to wash her hands. The fast food restaurant made numerous attempts to accommodate her, but being in the business of serving food, it needs to adhere to the strictest health standards. So it let her go because she couldn't wash her hands enough.
BCHRT Tribunal member Judy Parrack disagreed. She wrote that the company wasn't innovative enough in accommodating her, and ordered McDonald's to pay her $50,000.
Try to imagine the impact of this ruling. You're scarfing down a Quarter Pounder. Suddenly you realize you're eating something that's been handled by an employee who's dipped their hands in oil and McChicken sauce. They haven't washed their hands because the tribunal said they didn't have to.
Who would you sue? The restaurant or the tribunal that forced this health hazard upon you?
It just gets worse. Other rulings have ordered Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter to pay $7,500 to Kim Nixon, a male-to-female transsexual who was denied work as a rape counselor when it was discovered she didn't share the life experiences of the women she'd be counseling - namely, growing up as a woman.
The tribunal ordered the shelter to pay her the money for "hurt feelings." The process in total cost the organization about $100,000, and that's with lawyers doing pro bono work, meaning they didn't even charge hourly fees.