When Ahmed Assal and his family were emigrating to Halifax from Egypt, they learned a lot about their new home at the airport. “I didn’t know anything about Canadian rules,” recalled Assal during testimony at his recent human rights inquiry. Then an airline employee approached him at the gate to say “because you have small children you will board first.” It was a formative encounter with how things work in Canada. “Everything here is freedom,” Assal said. That flight was in the year 2000. Before he tried to get a satellite dish at his Clayton Park condo. Before Halifax Condominium Corporation No. 4 imparted its own lesson: Freedom doesn’t grow at Sutton Gardens.
The human rights Board of Inquiry, which ran for three days last August, was Assal’s chance to argue that the ban on satellite dishes at the Sutton Gardens complex discriminates against his religion. As Muslims, he testified, he and his family sought the guidance of religious programming afforded by a special ArabSat dish. “The rules of Islam are too many,” Assal’s wife, Hanan Ahmed, said during her testimony, “you need professionals to explain.” Although Assal was well aware of the condo corporation’s anti-dish by-law before he bought his unit in 2002, he figured it was up for negotiation. “Everything is reasonable,” he said. “Canadians get laws changed.”
After the condo corporation’s board ignored his pleas for a dish exemption for almost two years—the property managers kept telling him to put the request in writing, and he never did—Assal went ahead and got a dish installed. An old-school dish, huge and white, plunked in Sutton Gardens’ communal backyard because the signal wasn’t strong enough in Assal’s yard proper. This triggered a predictable letter from the condo board, and the less predictable response from Assal. He went to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission for help. Soon the condo was facing a human rights complaint, which lead to last summer’s inquiry.
Through it all, the dish stayed up. From late 2003 to the 2006 inquiry, then for several months while inquiry chair Royden Trainor deliberated on his ruling, the dish had a good run. But it’s down now.
With his decision, released just last week, Trainor explains a discrimination case has two main parts: First the Complainant—here it’s Assal—has to show discrimination, as defined by the Human Rights Act, happened. Then the Respondent tries to justify its actions, such as the condo corporation saying the no-dish rule is to make the property look good, not to stop Muslims from moving in. During the satellite dish inquiry, the lawyer for the Human Rights Commission focused more on the condo’s actions than Assal’s allegations. This may be inevitable. Rights laws across the country are designed to be sensitive to minority needs, and the typical Complainant is victim of behaviour that, by definition, most people don’t even notice. Yet although Trainor writes of taking “a large and liberal approach with respect to the interpretation and application of the Human Rights legislation,” he doesn’t think Assal or the Human Rights Commission made the case that discrimination happened.
There was no doubt at the inquiry that the family really wanted the convenience of a dish. Assal is a geologist who’s often away for two-week stretches at the Sable Island gas project, and his wife said the dish relieves some of the pressure she feels to raise three kids who are in touch with all aspects of their culture. But a law as powerful as the Human Rights Act should only be invoked in cases of need, otherwise it risks becoming a cartoon.
In dismissing the complaint, Trainor issues a good decision. He writes that showing discrimination “requires more than being able to draw some connection to religion and the impugned by-law. The Complainant family’s ongoing devotion to the practices and tenets of their faith and cultural identity will continue unimpeded, uninterrupted and undiminished with or without access to a particular satellite dish and service.” In other words, it doesn’t matter that the condo board is being an asshole, or that allowing the dish would ultimately be painless; when you play the religion card, you’re not allowed to bluff.
You can always play the electronic card: firstname.lastname@example.org