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Couple appeals Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission decision at Nova Scotia Supreme Court

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Irving shipyard employees Shannon Sampson and Liz Cummings were devastated when informed that the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (NSHRC) was not pursuing their discrimination complaint. Now they are appealing that decision at the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

Sampson and Cummings are electricians who work for Irving Shipbuilding Incorporated (ISI) at the Halifax Shipyards. They’re married.

Liz Cummings at the NSHRC offices on Spring Garden Road. Photo Facebook

After reporting a serious safety violation by a contractor, the couple suffered physical and verbal abuse by several employees of that contractor. The couple were called “rats” and “dykes”, and Cummings on separate occasions was purposely bumped into and stepped upon. Cummings and Shannon felt intimidated.

After Irving no longer allowed the couple to work together, Cummings and Shannon, already under severe stress because of all that had transpired, feared for their safety.

“Shannon and I worked directly together for two and a half years before all this. Now they have separated us. It’s frustrating, given that together we were extremely efficient, we barely needed to talk,” says Cummings. “We are reminded daily why we are separated. It is on our mind every day, we have to live with this every day.”

The couple filed complaints both with the Labour Board and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. When the Labour Board dismissed their complaints the Human Rights Commission promptly followed suit.

This is the crux of their current issue with the Commission and the reason for their Nova Scotia Supreme Court appeal, Cummings says. The two tribunals look at the circumstances of the case through different lenses. The Labour Board’s focus is on workplace safety, a Human Rights Commission considers issues of discrimination.  

“While at the Labour Board our focus was primarily on labour board issues. Our questioning and witnesses would have been different if it had been about the discrimination we experienced, the poisoned work environment, the spousal policy (which turned out not to be a policy), the lost wages,” says Cummings.

Even the Labour Board decision suggests as much.

Whether (Irving’s) practices are “discriminatory” in the human rights sense is not the issue for the Board. There are other forums in which this might be addressed,” the Labour Board decision states.

Cummings and Shannon further argue that the Commission failed to consider all evidence they submitted, did not interview key witnesses, and did not question evidence submitted by ISI, among other complaints.  

The couple also feel that throughout their ordeal they received no guidance whatsoever from the Human Rights Commission. In fact, the couple say that they weren’t even informed when the Human Rights Commission’s investigation was put on hold pending the Labour Board tribunal, apparently at the request of the Irving lawyer.

“The Human Rights Commission failed to give us a forum. If somebody at the Commission had told us at the time that the investigation was put on hold and that the human rights case would be dismissed, I guarantee you that we would have dropped the Labour Board case and proceed exclusively with the human rights case,” says Cummings.

The NSHRC declined to comment on the case as the matter is before the courts.

Neither Cummings nor Sampson have any expertise in legal issues whatsoever, and the fact that they can’t afford a lawyer has hampered their interactions with the Human Rights Commission, and makes their Nova Scotia Supreme Court appeal challenging. That said, their union, Unifor MWF Local 1, has been supportive throughout.

When you launch a human rights complaint you’re on the hook for all legal costs, no matter that your case may well serve the public good. At this time the couple can’t afford a lawyer.

But one recent development gives Cummings and Sampson a glimmer of hope.

Just recently the couple became aware of Equity Watch, the group founded by Liane Tessier after she won her human rights case against the City of Halifax. Equity Watch is a relatively new organization that aims to call out public and private employers who allow bullying, misogyny and systemic discrimination within their workplaces.

Tessier herself had to appeal a Human Rights Commission decision not to pursue her case. She won at the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, and was recently vindicated when Halifax Fire issued an apology for condoning a misogynistic work environment.

“Shannon and I have lived this for a long time now, and it is difficult when you feel you are alone. You self represent. You feel like you’re the only one going through this, That changed when we went to the Women’s March where we heard Liane (Tessier) speak about Equity Watch,” says Cummings.

“Next we went went to the meeting, and I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders when I witnessed the entire room going through the same thing, It just gave me so much strength, they’re always there.”

See also: Continuing Care Assistant battles employer and Human Rights Commission after sexual assault by client  

Join the Equity Watch Facebook (closed) group.

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