I was astounded at her story. It was one of courage and tenacity. One that ended with the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in her favor. One that changed the legal landscape on sexual harassment in Canada.
I was taught in management school a 1987 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that acknowledged sexual harassment as one of the many forms discrimination against women can take, and that it is prohibited under the Canadian Human Rights Act. In addition, the Court ruled that since the Act’s purpose was to redress socially undesirable conditions such as discrimination against women, employers are responsible for maintaining a harassment-free work environment. The Court wrote: “only an employer can remedy undesirable effects and only an employer can provide the most important remedy—a healthy work environment.”
I was at a social event when I met Bonnie Robichaud, who was the focus of this case. She told me her tale of courage and tenacity.
In 1979, while she was on probation as a lead hand cleaner at the Canadian Forces Base in North Bay, Bonnie was demanded by her supervisor to perform sexual acts with him. These included masturbation, fellatio, and fondling of genitals. Married and a mother of five, she felt intimidated because he threatened to discipline her and sabotage her attempt to pass probation if she refused.
As soon as her probation was over she filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) citing sexual harassment, discrimination and intimidation. This was bold because sexual harassment was not officially recognized in the Canadian Human Rights Act and often dismissed as a “normal” interaction between men and women.
For a long period after the filing the complaint, she was disciplined by her supervisor. She was demoted and socially and physically isolated from other workers. She had basketballs hurled at her for her actions.
The investigating team at the CHRC found her allegations to be substantiated. A tribunal was appointed in 1981 and decision released in 1982. Surprisingly, the judge found the allegations to be unsubstantiated because he believe that the sexual acts performed could only be carried out with her consent.
Bonnie immediately appealed the decision and a review tribunal was appointed. It ruled in 1983 that Bonnie had a valid sexual harassment complaint. The case eventually ended up in the Supreme Court. The Court focused its attention on whether or not an employer is responsible under the Canadian Human Rights Act for the unauthorized discriminatory acts of its employees in the course of their employment.
Her claim of discriminatory treatment based on sex was the first of its kind investigated and upheld by the CHRC. Afterwards, the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended to include sexual harassment as a form of discrimination.
Bonnie won legally, morally and with financial compensation. But the eight years certainly took a toll on her. I asked her why she kept persisting. “Because it was the right thing” she retorted. Her courage is admirable. Bonnie Robichaud is an inspiration.