A Whitehorse woman has been ordered to pay two of her former employees a total of $5,000 for calling them derogatory names while they were seeking payment for a job.
The Yukon Human Rights Board of Adjudication found that Rhonda Sallows harassed sisters Suzannah and Bobbi-Jean Simon.
The board also found Sallows discriminated against them on the basis of sex and ancestry after they quit her cleaning company, White Tornado Cleaning Services.
Sallows called the sisters “squaws,” “FAS kuds (sic)” and “pill poppers” in text messages and a voicemail sent to the sisters as they were arranging to pick up their final paycheques.
Sallows’ language was “abusive in tone and content and was repeated.”
Because the sisters were still in a work relationship with Sallows, the comments also violated the Yukon Human Rights Act, the board said in its decision dated last Thursday.
The Simon sisters worked for Sallows cleaning up after construction at the old F.H. Collins Secondary School in July 2015.
At a hearing before the board in January, the sisters testified that Sallows swore and yelled at employees on the job site.
The siblings both walked off the job on July 23, after having been yelled at by Sallows, according to board documents.
It was after quitting that the sisters’ relationship with Sallows went south.
The sisters testified that Sallows attempted to change their rate of pay from $15 per hour to $10.80 with less than the required two weeks’ notice. This prompted them to go to the Employment Standards office.
At the Employment Standards office, the sisters were advised to send a text message to Sallows explaining that their pay rate had been changed without fair warning, and that Sallows was obligated to pay them $15 per hour.
They said they would file a formal complaint if Sallows didn’t comply.
This message set off a string of inappropriate texts from Sallows.
In them, she called the sisters offensive names and used other language that the board said amounted to “vexatious conduct” toward the women.
The board was provided with a recording and transcription of a voicemail left on Bobbi-Jean’s phone in the summer of 2015, in which Sallows allegedly calls the women “you two squaws.”
The sisters are Gwich’in, of the Inuvik Native Band, and have been living in Whitehorse for a number of years.
In an interview with the Star in February, Sallows said she is a member of the Carcross-Tagish First Nation, and that she didn’t consider “squaw” to be a pejorative term.
“It was used here all through my upbringing. I didn’t find it derogatory,” she said.
Sallows declined the Star’s repeated requests for comment about the board’s ruling.
Sallows’ identity as a First Nations woman does not preclude her from discriminating against others based their First Nations identity and/or their gender.
In human rights cases, the impact of an action is given greater weight than the intent, Emma Hanes, a spokesperson for the Yukon Human Rights Commission, explained in February.
The commission points out that actions may be considered harassing, whether or not they were intended to harass.
Both Simon sisters said Sallows’ behaviour was distressing.
Bobbi-Jean testified that the FAS comment was particularly hurtful because her brother lives with the disorder.
The sisters could not be reached for comment on the ruling before today’s press deadline.
The sisters gave their testimony separately at a public hearing held at the Canada Games Centre on Jan. 28.
Sallows did not attend the hearing, and could not, therefore, give evidence or be cross-examined.
In February, Sallows said she was out of the territory on Jan. 28 and that the board could have “rebooked” the hearing.
However, Colleen Harrington, counsel for the commission, said every effort was made to have Sallows participate in the process.
In cases where the respondent is absent, it’s especially important to scrutinize the credibility of the complainants, said the board in its decision.
The board found that the Simon sisters gave evidence that was “straightforward and reasonable,” and consistent with each other’s accounts.
A reasonable person should know that the kind of name-calling deployed by Sallows is offensive and would be unwelcome, said the board. Even over text message, Sallows’ conduct was hostile.
The board found that Sallows’ words stemmed from racist stereotypes about First Nations peoples, and were “unquestionably derogatory.”
The comments amounted to discrimination based on race and sex, and caused the sisters “injury to their dignity, feelings and self-respect.”
The commission asked that Sallows be ordered to pay each sister $7,500 as a remedy.
The board ruled in favour of the Simon sisters, but disagreed with the commission on the amount of compensation.
The board determined that while the comments were offensive, the harassment took place over a short period of time.
“The Board must bear in mind that the purpose of remedies under human rights laws is to compensate the complainants for the harm of the discrimination, not to punish the respondent,” reads the decision.
Sallows was ordered to pay each sister $2,500 in compensation.
In an email today, Harrington said that if a respondent doesn’t comply with an order of the board, the order “may be filed in the Supreme Court and it shall then be enforceable as an order of the Supreme Court.”
The Board of Adjudication is a quasi-judicial body that is distinct from both the human rights commission and the Yukon government.