Policy prof posits equitable process

Former executive director of OHRC discusses human rights claims on campus

Nancy Austin talks to students on Thursday.
Nancy Austin talks to students on Thursday.

Nancy Austin asked her audience yesterday to consider the question: what do you do if a blind professor needs a help dog, but one of his students is allergic?

This was one of several case studies Austin posed during her presentation in Robert Sutherland Hall on Thursday, where she held a talk for the School of Policy Studies.

Austin, who worked as the executive director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) from 2004-13, spoke about her experiences dealing with competing human rights claims.

The talk, which had around 30 in attendance, focused on the differences between core and peripheral human rights claims, as well as the decision processes involved.

Prior to her work with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Austin served as Ontario’s Assistant Deputy Attorney General, Legal Services.

She is currently teaching a course at the School of Policy Studies this year, after which she will return to her work for the OHRC.

Austin relates the

aforementioned predicament of the blind man to implementing human rights within post-secondary institutions across the province.

In the scenario, based on a real-life situation, a blind professor at a community college brought a seeing eye dog to each class, which a student had a severe allergic reaction to.

“The college has the obligation to accommodate both individuals, since the professor is their employee and they provide a service to the student,” Austin said.

To make the situation more complicated, she said, the student had child-care obligations which prevented her from taking the class in the evening instead.

She said each institution should approach equitable policies by first finding an agreement between the two affected parties.

If that proves unsuccessful, the institution should look to implement policies that would accommodate them equally.

If all else fails, the case should be taken to court, which will be judged within the context of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Austin also said it’s important to consider whether the “periphery” or the “core” of a right is being affected.

“The core of a right is more important than the periphery,” she said.

Her example was the Badesha case, where a Sikh man was charged with riding a motorcycle without a helmet.

The complainant argued that this was discrimination, she said, since wearing a turban was part of his religion.

However, Austin said, the court ultimately decided that his ability to ride a motorcycle was peripheral to his core religious rights, as he could still practice his religion in every other way.

“Riding a motorcycle is a privilege, not a right,” Austin said.

He could still use other means of transport, like cars, she said, without breaking Ontario’s helmet law.

The violation of human rights must be proven to a court, and not be merely speculative, Austin said

“Speculation that one right affects another is not enough,” she said. “The courts are very clear about that.”

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