Human rights laws generally apply to the following five areas: 1) employment; 2) accommodation or housing; 3) services, goods and facilities; 4) contracts; and 5) membership in trade unions, vocational or occupational associations.
Employment is interpreted very broadly in human rights cases. Employment includes casual, part-time, seasonal and contract employment and extends to probationary and volunteer situations. There does not have to be a written employment agreement for an employment relationship to exist. In fact, a complaint can be filed before employment has begun if there is a reason to believe that employment was denied because of illegal discrimination.
Complaints can be filed while employment is ongoing, or after it ends so long as the complaint is filed within the timeframe required by law. Complainants are required to mitigate their damages, which means that they must use all reasonable efforts to reduce their losses by looking for other employment.
In most workplaces, the employee has a choice between filing a human rights complaint and suing an employer for wrongful dismissal in court. The main difference between these two choices is that a court cannot order an employer to reinstate an employee whose employment has been terminated. Generally, a court can only award monetary damages for wrongful dismissal, whereas a human rights tribunal can order broad remedies including reinstatement with back wages in appropriate circumstances.
Although all workplaces are equally governed by human rights laws, unionized employees may have alternatives to filing a complaint. Under labour laws, union workers may file a grievance against their employer under the non-discrimination provisions of the collective agreement between their union and employer. If unionized employees wish to complain of discrimination by their union, they may file an “unfair representation” complaint at the provincial or federal labour board.
A lawyer familiar with employment law, labour law and human rights laws can advise you about the options of suing in court, filing a grievance, bringing a complaint to a labour board, or filing a complaint with a human rights commission, and which would be best in your circumstances.
The second area where human rights laws apply is accommodation. Every person has the right to be free from discrimination and harassment with respect to accommodation, including discrimination based on receipt of public assistance such as welfare or family benefits.
Accommodation complaints may involve the conduct of a landlord, the landlord’s agents, occupants of the same premises or others associated with the building. The discrimination or harassment may be directed at the occupant or the occupant’s guests.
Typical accommodation problems involve the refusal to rent premises to members of a particular ethnic group, unequal enforcement of rules, and harassment of tenants from certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds. Although many legal problems may arise during accommodation such as rent increases and failure to repair, human rights laws do not apply unless a prohibited ground of discrimination is involved.
Services, goods and facilities
The third area is in the provision of goods, services and facilities. Discrimination and harassment in the provision of goods, services and facilities is prohibited. Public authorities, community organizations and private businesses are not “free to do business” with whoever they please if the reasons are discriminatory. Shops, restaurants, hospitals, schools, insurance companies, hotels, government programs, and other public and private providers of goods and services must serve members of the community equally. Exceptions to this rule are allowed for religious, charitable and social organizations in certain situations.
Contracts are the fourth area where human rights laws apply. If a term of an oral or written contract amounts to discrimination or harassment on a prohibited ground, that term is illegal and unenforceable. Even if a contract is voluntarily entered into or signed, if it contains a provision that is discriminatory, the provision is unenforceable.
Membership in a trade union or vocational association
Last, refusal to provide membership or equal treatment within a trade union or vocational association is illegal if the refusal is related to a prohibited ground.