Equity Watch Statement on HRM and Police Misconduct at the Old Halifax Central Library

Equity Watch is very concerned about the abrogation of Nova Scotians’ human rights. On Aug. 18, Halifax Regional Police (HRP), some who sported “Thin Blue Line” pins and some who deliberately removed their police identity badges, destroyed tent homes and sheds of residents of Halifax. These dozens of people must live “rough” in the city’s parks, in full view of empty buildings which the city and the province have refused to use to house the homeless. Hundreds of people have been turned away from shelters, cannot find affordable housing and have had little to no support during the Pandemic. This is just one symptom of a full-blown affordable housing crisis, deepening further the inequality in our province.

The most violent police conduct occurred in the front yard of the former (now empty) Halifax public library on Spring Garden Road. The library, which has been vacant for more than five years, could be home to scores of Haligonians without homes. Instead, the city has refused to create needed accommodation in the disused library. On Aug. 18, police pepper-sprayed and beat demonstrators with batons. Most were there to protect themselves, their tents, their sheds and their friends. None were armed. Police sprayed demonstrators and passers-by indiscriminately. They made at least 12 arrests; some protesters were fined more than $200.00. The police blocked reporters and camera-people.  One would think after the attacks on the homeless in Toronto parks, the police would have been warned NOT to antagonize the public, but the Halifax police provoked the homeless and their supporters.

What of the argument the mayor and the spineless city councillors made that the police were just enforcing health and safety regulations? If that is so, thenwhy was it that police removed their identification and number badges? Why did police wear the “thinblue line badges?” (These unauthorized badges, analogous to Confederate flags, are symbols of a “fuck you” attitude by some police officers.) 

Why did police use pepper spray indiscriminatelyon the citizenry which included pedestrians and children? Why were city workers not told in advance about their job of dismantling the sheds – so they could refuse the dangerous work under Occupational Health and Safety?

The police chief’s response will no doubt be that in his force there are a few bad apples. Fine, then we are waiting for those police to be named and disciplined. Residents, homeless or not, have the right to be treated with respect and not harassed or violated by police. We are watching.

Time to End the Open Season for Bullies in Nova Scotia Workplaces, says Equity Watch

Nova Scotia is now the only jurisdiction in Canada that neither has legislation nor has publicly announced the intention of introducing legislation to outlaw bullying and psychological harassment in workplaces.

On June 19, the provincial Labour Board dismissed Antigonish resident Annette Harpell’s complaint that she was psychologically abused at her job with Lawton’s Drug Stores (a division of Sobey’s) and said it was up to the provincial government to change the law to cover such a situation.

The Labour Board’s decision does not dispute that bullying injures workers and admits that other provinces have anti-bullying provisions, but says that, unlike other provinces, psychological violence is not covered under the current wording of the Nova Scotia Occupational Health and Safety Act. Rather, the Board suggests that change must come from the government:

“…(T)he decision to broaden the scope of protection to include psychological violence under occupational health and safety legislation is ultimately a legislative policy judgement, which is beyond the role of a statutory tribunal such as the Labour Board.”

“The situation is surreal and desperate,” says Equity Watch’s Larry Haiven, professor emeritus at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University, who has taught and researched labour policy for over 30 years.

“The law is supposed to protect employees from work hazards. The scientific literature shows that humiliation, harassment, intimidation and other forms of abuse are harmful like physical injuries. If a box fell on Ms. Harpell’s head, she would be covered. But here she is not. Nova Scotia is half a century behind the times.”

– Larry Haiven, Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary’s University

“This has taken so long and has been very disappointing and very traumatic to me personally,” says Harpell, I went to OH&S because I thought they could give me some measure of justice. I’ve lost this round but the next round is for the government to change the law. Let’s make workplace bullying in Nova Scotia illegal.”

Other Provinces, Territories Have Anti-bullying Legislation

Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act prohibits workplace harassment, which is defined as” a course of vexatious comments or conduct that is known, or ought reasonably to have been known, to be unwelcome.”

The Canada Labour Code protects employees in the federal jurisdiction from “any action, conduct or comment, including of a sexual nature, that can reasonably be expected to cause offense, humiliation or other physical or psychological injury or illness to an employee.”

British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut have analogous legislation. And Newfoundland and Labrador and PEI have announced their own versions.

But in Nova Scotia alone, it is still open season for workplace bullies.

International Labour Organization, with Canada’s backing, Calls for Anti-bullying Laws

On June 21, 2019, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted a ground-breaking convention (C. 190) which calls on member states to outlaw “violence and harassment” in the workplace, defined as “a range of unacceptable behaviours and practices, or threats thereof, whether a single occurrence or repeated, that aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm.” The ILO is a tripartite organization, meaning that labour, governments and employers are represented. Marie-Clarke Walker, secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress, and Worker Spokesperson on the ILO Standard Setting Committee says,

“There can be no decent work with violence at work.”

Says Haiven, “If the federal government is backing the ILO initiative and has its own protections, why is Nova Scotia out of the loop?”.

Harpell’s troubles with an abusive senior co-worker began soon after she was hired by Lawton’s in 2016 and she complained to all the managers at the store as well as the human resources department. The employer scheduled a meeting to report on an investigation it claimed to have done. When, at her doctor’s suggestion, Harpell insisted she be accompanied by a support person, the company cancelled the meeting and soon afterward fired her. Nova Scotia’s OH&S division rejected her complaint on October 31, 2018 and Harpell appealed to the Labour Board, urging it to adopt a broad definition of workplace injury that might include psychological harm.

As well as deciding not to accept this broad definition, the Labour Board unfairly chided Harpell for the way she pursued her complaint. Chair Susan Ashley said Harpell should have gone to her Joint Occupational Health and Safety (JOHS) Committee after an unsuccessful entreaty to her supervisors.

“That was a cheap shot,” says Equity Watch’s Haiven. “It’s blaming the victim. Remember that this was a non-unionized workplace and thus without expert outside advice available to employees. Annette was not schooled in the law of occupational health and safety. She believed that her Human Resources department would steer her in the right direction. It should have, but when push comes to shove, human resources departments are there primarily to help the employer, not the employee.”

“Things might have turned out differently had there been a union and a collective agreement that prohibited bullying,” says Haiven, “But Nova Scotia labour laws make it among the hardest places in the country to organize and sustain a union.”

Says Harpell, “This is only fundamental fairness in the workplace. Now that the Labour Board has laid down the challenge to government, then government needs to do the right thing.”

For a detailed summary of the case and the law, see Notes on OHS and WCB coverage.

For more information, contact Larry Haiven: (email) larry.haiven@smu.ca (phone) 902-240-2782