In a ground breaking 1987 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada acknowledged that sexual harassment is one of the many forms discrimination against women can take, and that it is prohibited under the Canadian Human Rights Act. It was the courageous action of PSAC member Bonnie Robichaud that led to the Court’s ruling.
In 1980, Robichaud filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission alleging that she had been sexually harassed, discriminated against and intimidated by the Department of National Defence by the actions of her supervisor who had sexually harassed her. This was a bold argument, since sexual harassment was not officially recognized in the Canadian Human Rights Act and often dismissed as a “normal” interaction between men and women.
The Human Rights Tribunal dismissed the complaint but Robichaud persisted and appealed. A Review Tribunal found that she had been sexually harassed and also ruled that the Department of National Defence was liable for the actions of its supervisory personnel.
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.
As well as recognizing sexual harassment as a form of discrimination, 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.”