TORONTO: Muslim cooks win against Le Papillon Park restaurant in discrimination case
The owners of Le Papillon Park restaurant are devastated by a human rights system they feel unfairly tarred them as bigots and ordered them to pay $100,000 in compensation to three Muslim workers who said they were ordered to eat pork and threatened with replacement by “white” staff.
Paul and Danielle Bigue went to the Divisional Court to request a judicial review of the December 2013 ruling by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, arguing the hearing was unfair and biased against them.
“The allegations were false and we were treated unjustly by the HRTO,” contends the Bigues’ son Stephane. “Unfortunately, and to our surprise, there was no appeal process available. Our only recourse was to take this case to the Divisional Court not for retrial, but for review. In other words they had to figure out whether or not the HRTO had made a legal mistake in their decision.”
The court found no error.
“I am not satisfied that the tribunal’s decision and decision-making process were unfair,” Justice Douglas Gray wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel earlier this month. “The decision is reasonable and there are no grounds to set it aside.”
Now in addition to the $100,000 they owe for lost income and “injury to their dignity, feelings and self-respect,” the owners of the Leslieville restaurant must pay their former workers $7,500 for their court costs.
Their lawyer, Kate Sellar from the pro-bono Human Rights Legal Support Centre, said she’s pleased with the Divisional Court decision and her three clients, who have yet to receive any money, have now submitted a request to have their award paid out.
Meanwhile, the Bigues contend this ordeal has crushed their business and their health.
It began in 2011 when their former head chef Abdul Malik, cook Mohammed Islam and sous chef Arif Hossain approached the tribunal separately, complaining of discrimination. Malik and Hossain said they’d been fired while Islam said he had no choice but to quit.
Malik told the tribunal he was repeatedly asked by Danielle Bigue to try pork products and told it was his duty as the chef to try them. After he gave in to the pressure and tasted some pork schnitzel, he said he vomited and “felt very guilty that he had violated his religious beliefs. He could not sleep that night and was very upset.”
Islam testified that he was asked to taste the pork tortiere because it didn’t have enough flavour. When he declined because of his religious beliefs, he claimed Danielle Bigue left the kitchen saying, “You guys are crazy.”
Hossain complained he was forced to break his fast on Ramadan and wasn’t given time off for Eid, a religious holiday. The men also alleged their language was mocked as “blah, blah, blah” when they spoke Bengali together and that Danielle Bigue said she wanted white staff.
The Bigues denied all the allegations but the tribunal found in favour of the former employees. In addition to paying $100,000, they were ordered to take online human rights training and post a workplace policy.
They are still reeling, their son says.
“Our standards and integrity are what have kept us in business for 40 years in this city, and to have the public believe that we discriminated against our staff was a huge personal blow that we haven’t been able to recover from. Patrons that dined with us for years stopped coming overnight, we received menacing calls and e-mails and we continue to read hateful comments about our family and business online. This has been devastating and extremely frustrating.”
But they also received more supportive calls: other owners who said they lost their businesses after being “wrongly convicted” by a human rights system that provides free legal advice to complainants and has a suspiciously high conviction rate. “People were furious, and their stories were horrible. It’s extremely disheartening to be added to that list.
“This has been the most difficult thing we’ve ever faced as a business, and above all as a family,” Bigue says. “I suppose our greatest mistake was that we were naive enough to think that justice would prevail and it did not.”