Gender-Identity Complaint and Our Administrative Setup

Last week Tomee Sojourner, who happens to be a lesbian, filed a complaint of bias against the judge who had presided over a hearing at the Québec Rental Board of a complaint by Ms Sojourner’s landlord. In the words of the news release on the website of Montreal’s Center for Research-Action on Race (Ms Sojourner is Black):

According to her complaint with the Council, the presiding judge, Luce De Palma, repeatedly referred to her as a man (by calling her “il”, “lui” et “monsieur Sojourner”), despite being reminded by Ms. Sojourner and the landlord’s representative that she is a woman. At one point, when Ms. Sojourner corrected the judge by telling her that she should be addressed as “Madame Sojourner”, not “Monsieur”, Judge De Palma said, “it’s probably your hair …” and proceeded to call her “Mr. Mrs.”

Ms Sojourner has made allegations of other “hostile, dismissive and unprofessional attitudes” exhibited toward her at the hearing. (The story is in the Montreal Gazette and on CBC Radio One.)

This may seem like a small matter, especially because it occurred in the same week that, at the other end of the legal spectrum, the mighty US Supreme Court made a ground-breaking decision about same-sex marriage benefits at the behest of a lesbian plaintiff. And while there’s no denying the important impact the Windsor decision will have on the lives of thousands of Americans, we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance in the lives of citizens of matters dealt with at the broad and less glamorous end of the judicial pyramid — and of the manner in which those matters are dealt with.

A great many administrative tribunals govern the interactions that we have with the even more numerous bureaucracies that, in turn, regulate much of what we do and how we do it. It’s worth refreshing our sense of this from time to time, if only by visiting a CanLII page listing a province’s many Boards and Tribunals: Child and Family Services Review Board . . . Grievance Settlement Review Board . . . Human Rights Tribunal . . . Social Benefits Tribunal . . . Because administrative tribunals have great impact and practical importance — and because whenever one person has power over another there is a risk, indeed a human tendency perhaps, that the more powerful will abuse the weaker — it is important that someone can judge the judges if need be. Hence the Canadian Judicial Council and their corresponding provincial counterparts.

But when it comes to administrative tribunals, things are different, a fact brought to my attention by Ms Sojourner’s complaint. She has applied to Quebec’s Conseil de la justice administrative (Administrative Judicial Council) which:

has the mandate to receive and examine complaints concerning a breach of ethics conduct, that is, reprehensible conduct on the part of a member of the Administrative Tribunal of Québec, a member of the Commission des lésions professionnelles, a commissioner of the Commission des relations du travail or a commissioner of the Régie du logement.

But had Ms Sojourner wished to complain about similar abusive conduct here in Ontario — or in any of the other provinces, so far as I know — she would have been out of luck. There are no agencies charged with receiving complaints of “breaches of ethics” or other “reprehensible conduct” on the part of those who hold important aspects of citizens’ lives in their hands. (If you’d like to pursue this, you might take a look at Ron Ellis’s new book, Unjust by Design, (featured as a Slaw Thursday Thinkpiece this spring) — pages 235 – 238.)

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