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Roberta Mazzariol holds her school board accountable, speaks truth to power, and fights injustice at work

Roberta Mazzariol holds her school board accountable, speaks truth to power, and fights injustice at work

What does it mean to fight human rights-related injustice at work? Roberta Mazzariol can teach a master class on that subject.

Roberta is a teacher who works at a school board in Southwestern Ontario.  When she was discriminated against on the basis of her disability, she knew that she had to hold the school board accountable.  She turned first to her Union, and, in 2014, her Union filed two human rights-related grievances on her behalf. 

In 2015, Roberta consulted with Franklin Law.  She didn’t have to consult with us.  Her Union was supporting her at that time.  She did so because she wanted to make sure that she was doing everything that she could to hold the school board accountable. 

In 2016, Roberta filed a human rights application at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) and alleged that the school board had discriminated against her on the basis of her disability contrary to the Human Rights Code (Code).  Again, not because she had to but because she wanted to keep all of her options open, and that meant filing an application at the HRTO before the one-year time limit ran out under the Code.

Those decisions served Roberta well.  Typically, the grievance arbitration process serves Unionized employees well.  As time went on, however, Roberta became increasingly dissatisfied with the way in which the grievances were being handled by her Union, and increasingly open to the possibility of pursuing redress through the HRTO.   When things came to a head, she took a leap of faith, asked her Union to withdraw the grievances, and focused all of her energy on pursuing redress through her application at the HRTO with Franklin Law as her counsel.    

From the outset, Roberta had to overcome significant challenges in navigating the HRTO’s process.  Even though she asked her Union to withdraw the grievances and confirmed that she had no intention of participating in the grievance arbitration process, she experienced difficulty in getting her Union to do so and had to fight the school board “tooth and nail” to proceed with her HRTO application. 

After the HRTO heard the parties’ arguments on those preliminary issues, it found in Roberta’s favour.  Its decision was powerful.  Not only did it recognize her and other employees’ agency, it stood, and continues to stand, for the proposition that in Ontario, Unionized employees currently have a choice. They can pursue human rights-related redress under the Code through the grievance arbitration process (or the HRTO) with their Union as their legal representative, or they can pursue human rights-related redress without their Union through the HRTO on their own or with a legal representative of their choosing (That decision can be found here: https://canlii.ca/t/gtqsx). 

Roberta will tell you that things continued to get worse before they got better.  By 2017, new incidents had given rise to new concerns, and she asked the HRTO to allow her to amend her application so that she could include new allegations. While largely successful, there were some setbacks in that process (The corresponding decisions can be found here: https://canlii.ca/t/h4t7b and https://canlii.ca/t/h5s8g). 

In 2019, Roberta’s ability to speak truth to power using the HRTO’s process was tested once again.  This time the dispute between her and the school board centered around the scope of her HRTO application, and what she would and would not be allowed to testify about (That decision can be found here: https://canlii.ca/t/hzczh).  Her arguments were successful, and she went on to testify in a compelling and persuasive way.  You could hear a “pin drop” as she recounted the ways in which her experience of discrimination had adversely affected her emotional and psychological health and wellbeing, and her professional, familial, and social life.  And her resilience and determination shone through when she described the lengths to which she had to go to cope with those impacts and not walk away from her chosen vocation.

In 2021, the HRTO rendered its decision on liability.  It found the school board liable for infringing Roberta’s right to be free from disability-based discrimination under section 5(1) of the Human Rights Code over a period spanning close to three years.  While not all of her allegations were substantiated, the decision spoke to many of the concerns that she had raised with the school board over the course of several years (That decision can be found here: https://canlii.ca/t/jd5mp).

In 2024, the HRTO rendered its decision on remedy.  It ordered the school board to pay Roberta $129,759.35 plus interest in lost wages – a result that we were happy about.  However, when it came to the injury that she sustained to her dignity, feelings, and self-respect, the HRTO awarded her a paltry $10,000.00 in general damages.  The general damages award was especially troubling given the dire consequences that we believed Roberta had suffered because of the discrimination that the school board subjected her to (That decision can be found here: https://canlii.ca/t/k2zq6).  With that sixth and final decision, Roberta’s eight-year campaign to hold the school board accountable through a human rights application at the HRTO came to a successful end.

As I reflect on working with, and representing, Roberta, several key points come to mind.  Her journey began as it often does for many disenfranchised Unionized employees who break with convention and seek out Franklin Law’s services.  She wanted greater control over her human rights case than her Union was able to provide, she wanted to force the school board out of its comfort zone, and she wanted to hold the school board accountable in a public and independent forum.  For her, those needs were best met outside of the grievance arbitration process.  

In Franklin Law, Roberta found experienced and committed human right counsel who were able to empathize with what it felt like to be a Unionized employee who had been discriminated against on the basis of an invisible disability and possessed an in-depth understanding of the challenges that some Unionized employees experience in holding employers accountable through the grievance arbitration process.  In the HRTO, she found a decision maker that was independent of the school board, was uniquely equipped to adjudicate complex human rights disputes, and whose adjudicative and remedial regimes held great promise. 

It goes without saying that Roberta’s experience fighting injustice at work is a testament to her determination, courage, resilience, and agency. But in truth her experience stands for much more than that.  It shows that when the grievance arbitration process does not serve Unionized employees well, they may be able to pursue human rights-related redress through the HRTO.  It provides insight into the promise, shortcomings, opportunities, and challenges associated with pursuing redress through the HRTO, especially the risk of the HRTO minimizing employees’ experience of discrimination, and under compensating employees, even when they win.  It underscores the need for Unionized employees to be fully informed about the pros, cons, and financial costs of pursuing redress through the grievance arbitration process versus the HRTO process.  For most Unionized employees, the grievance arbitration process is likely to be the most time- and cost-effective option.  For Unionized employees who are disenfranchised from their Unions, want a greater degree of control over the way that their cases are handled, settled, or argued, or have no other choice, the HRTO is likely the better option.

Finally, although the HRTO process has come to an end, Roberta continues to fight injustice at work and speak truth to power in other ways.  Having experienced what it means to successfully pursue human rights-related redress against a resource-rich school board, and having observed how daunting that process can be for other employees whose human rights have been violated, she has graciously allowed me to share the details of her story with you.  Together, we hope that we can provide other employees who have experienced, or are at risk of experiencing, human rights-related mistreatment with insight into the full spectrum of legal options available to them to speak truth power and hold their employers accountable on their own terms, using their own voice.

For more information about Franklin Law’s consultations and services, please visit us at www.franklinlaw.ca