Nova Scotia's opposition parties say they would be willing to consider tabling legislation to strengthen human rights processes in the province after a woman's sexual harassment complaint was dismissed last week due to an administrative error and limitations in the Human Rights Act.
Christine Shupe contacted the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission in 2018 to report that she was sexually harassed at her former workplace, Beaver Enviro Depot.
But when staff at the commission wrote the official complaint, they didn't use the employer's legal business name, 2557617 Nova Scotia Limited.
By the time the error was discovered — after the complaint was already referred to a Board of Inquiry — it was too late. A board chair wrote in his decision last week that boards are not permitted under the Human Rights Act to amend complaints.
And since the respondent, Beaver Enviro Depot, doesn't legally exist, the complaint could not go forward.
Shupe's allegations have not been proven in court, and her former employer denies that harassment took place.
Opposition parties willing to work on changes
PC MLA Karla MacFarlane said her party is interested in meeting with the Human Rights Commission to discuss what amendments are needed in the act and what other changes are necessary "so that this will never, never happen again."
"I feel so bad for her. My heart goes out to her," she said.
MacFarlane said it's also worth considering what resources the government can provide to equip the commission to do its job successfully.
NDP MLA Claudia Chender called Shupe's case heartbreaking and infuriating.
"There's lots of folks who have suggested various changes and we are absolutely open to them and open to tabling them, in so far as that makes that process as accessible as possible for the people for whom it is designed," she said.
"We're absolutely committed to making that process open and transparent and expeditious, and we're looking at ways to do that."
The minister responsible for the Human Rights Act, Randy Delorey, did not accept an interview request from CBC News.
Instead, a spokesperson sent a statement to be attributed to Delorey that described the function of the Human Rights Commission.
It also said the government regularly considers "enhancements to help strengthen our legislation and protect the rights of Nova Scotians, with the appropriate stakeholder consultations."
Question about business name arose earlier in investigation
Benjamin Perryman, the board of inquiry chair who made the decision to dismiss the case, wrote that the correct business name could have been confirmed by checking the Registry of Joint Stocks, and questioned whether the commission had "performed standard due diligence."
But according to the Human Rights Commission case file, the issue of the business name was flagged just three months after Shupe approached the commission, and that the Registry of Joint Stocks had been searched.
On July 6, 2018, a human rights officer emailed Shupe asking if she had a record of employment or pay stub from Beaver Enviro Depot. "Can you look and see if it is a numbered business on the ROE or pay stub as the issuer?"
Shupe replies with a photo of a pay stub that does not appear to have a business name on it.
The case notes also indicate a human rights officer who was initially responsible for the file "attempted to contact the respondent but was unsuccessful due to the fact that no listing in joint stocks could be identified."
Contact information for Beaver Enviro Depot is readily available online and was available in the printed phone book. A subsequent officer used the company's public Facebook profile to find a telephone number for the business.
The Human Rights Commission declined an interview on Thursday.
Watchdog group 'outraged'
A spokesperson for Equity Watch, a group that monitors the Human Rights Commission, said she was not surprised to hear about the mishandling of Shupe's case.
"I was outraged, of course, on Christine Shupe's behalf, particularly," said Judy Haiven. "But I also was furious. I was furious that they couldn't do the very basic thing of trying to find out who really owned the business and what was the registered name of the business. This is what, I would say as a former university professor, we get first-year students to do in the business school."
Haiven questioned whether the performance of commission staff in the case was an issue of morale or effective training.
Shupe's case, like many, was passed from investigator to investigator, with at least three different human rights officers being in charge of the file over the three years.
In an October 2019 email to Shupe, commission counsel Kymberly Franklin — who is now the director and CEO — notes that investigators typically handle 40 to 50 files at a time and says one of the investigators "just has not had enough time to get to" Shupe's case.
The Human Rights Act states that complaints must be filed within one year of the last instance of discrimination. Since Shupe left the job in 2018, and the decision to dismiss her case wasn't made until March 22, 2021, Shupe is not permitted to file a new complaint.
Haiven said she would like to see that 12-month window extended for all complainants.
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