Today, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed that harassment in the workplace is no less harmful if it comes from co-workers or independent contractors instead of from a boss.
The Court released its judgment in Schrenk v BC Human Rights Tribunal, a case about the scope of human rights protections against discriminatory harassment in the workplace. The Court ruled in the complainant’s favour, finding that human rights law prohibits discrimination in the workplace, regardless of whether it is perpetuated by an employer or a co-worker.
West Coast LEAF intervened in this case, in which the Court was called upon to decide whether a human rights complaint should proceed in situations where the complainant and the respondent are employees of different companies on the same construction site, and the respondent is not in a position of authority over the work of the complainant. The complainant had reported being the target of racist, Islamaphobic, and homophobic attacks by the respondent.
In its submission to the Court, West Coast LEAF argued that limiting the scope of human rights protections against discriminatory harassment – as the BC Court of Appeal did – turns back the clock on 30 years of workplace equality rights.
Narrowing the scope of who may be a “harasser” under the Code by focusing on workplace hierarchy alone ignores the reality of modern workplaces and the myriad ways in which power is understood, negotiated, and acted upon in society.
The negative effects of harassment go well beyond economic burdens to encompass harms to dignity and self-worth and reinforcement of the perception that some among us are less deserving of respect. Harassment is toxic whether it is coming from a supervisor, a co-worker, a subordinate, or an associate working at the same site.
We are pleased that the Supreme Court of Canada appreciated that sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination are expressions of power that do not always map onto workplace hierarchies.