Do Changing Social Attitudes Change What May Be Deemed Discriminatory?
Whereas The Goals of the Human Rights Code Are to Encourage Understanding With Mutual Respect For the Dignity and Worth of Each Person So to Enable a Sense of Welcome Within Society Adjustments Are Constantly Necessary to Accommodate What May Be Felt As Discriminatory.
A Helpful Guide On How to Determine What May Constitute As Discrimination In Our Ever Evolving Social Climate
Within the social climate of current times, what may be felt offensive by some may be significantly different than what was previously accepted without concern or what perhaps even what went unnoticed. Essentially, what just a few years ago would be viewed as completely innocuous may now be a sensitive issue. For example, and although deemed as an abuse of process and thus an unfortunate waste of resources, was the case of Doe v. A&W Canada, 2013 HRTO 1259 wherein a proceeding was initiated against the corpoate entity for A&W restaurants in Canada. Within the matter, discrimination allegations were framed as based upon a variety of Human Rights Code, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.19 protected concerns relating to sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, and family status, for failing to represent non-conventional families and individuals within family oriented menu options. Specifically, the allegations were:
 The Application alleges discrimination with respect to goods, services and facilities because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, family status and marital status contrary to s. 1 of the Human Rights Code, R.S.O, 1990, c. H.19, as amended (the “Code”). The narrative describes the allegations and their effect as follows:
On May 31, 2013, I attended the Cornwall Square Mall and ordered a hamburger meal from the A&W in the foodcourt. It was my first time ordering from a fast food establishment of that sort. I noticed that the hamburger meals were given names of various family members (e.g. “Mama Burger”, “Teen Burger”, “Grampa Burger”, etc.) The sizes of the hamburgers increased with maleness and seniority in the heteronormative family (i.e. Papa Burger bigger than Mama or Teen burger… etc.). I wanted a light burger so I ordered the “Mama Burger” meal.
As a lesbian feminist, the whole notion of labelling a burger patron as a “Mama” or “Papa” or “Teen” based solely on the choice of meal is highly degrading and an attack on my womyn identity. The level of humiliation and degradation I felt exceeded that which I felt when I was raped. The whole heteronormative, phallocentric marketing scheme of A&W is highly degrading to non-traditional families, especially members of the LGBTQ2S community. Since that visit, I have found myself isolating and I have started doubting my own self-worth.
Despite that the Application was dismissed by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario as an apparent prank and being deemed as an abuse of process for various reasons, the case does raise awareness regarding certain sensitivities that may currently exist and present possible legal risks; even if the risks involve only the costs for a defence to the allegations.
As socially sensitive issues constantly evolve and change whereas what may be appropriate today may be inappropriate tomorrow, diligent review of all potentially offending concerns within the operations of a business is appropriately necessary in efforts to reduce the risk of allegations involving discriminatory human rights violations. It is appropriate to appreciate that which may offend some people and to adjust accordingly in the interest of protecting against the cost of, even successfully, defending a human rights proceeding, the cost of harm to the business reputation, and loss of established public goodwill.
What was socially acceptable yesterday may be socially unacceptable today as sensitivities are constantly changing. To help reduce the risk of discrimination allegations as Human Rights Code violations, a business should implement regular review of various operational activities and messages with a keen eye watching for concerns that may present as offensive and discriminatory to some people.