When Winnipeg lawyer Yude Henteleff tried to change the way in which sexual harassment was viewed in Canada 25 years ago, he had hoped for more change by 2014.
At the time, he was the judge appointed to a case that involved a waitress who was being sexually harassed by another employee at the restaurant where she worked. After going to the owner of the restaurant and asking for his help and getting nowhere, she turned to the courts. While her case followed another with similarities, which ruled that the accused was not guilty, her case landed in Henteleff’s courtroom.
In Janzen v. Platy Enterprises Ltd. (1989), Henteleff found in favor of the plaintiff. His verdict was 144 pages long and included substantial evidence to support his decision, which he hoped would help the case stand the test of time.
The case went through appeals that won but, in the end, it went on to the Supreme Court of Canada, where the verdict was reinstated. It has since been referred to more than 500 times in cases and verdicts throughout Canada.
Henteleff would be the first to say that we have a long way to go until sexual harassment disappears from the Canadian landscape, as it “continues to happen every day to hundreds of thousands of girls and women around the world to an extent that never seems to diminish.
“There are many instances that one can point to, which seem to indicate that, at least in Canada, as a result of the decision in Janzen v. Platy and other decisions which have since occurred dealing with the issue of sexual harassment, that, indeed, positive transformation has occurred – and that is marvelous,” he said.
“On the other hand, when you read recent studies, you really have to sit up and take notice that so much more has to be done, that sexual harassment is still rampant and widespread. We have legislation passed against bullying and the like, but why do these attitudes still persist to such a degree that it’s still so much to the continued disadvantage of women and girls?”
At the time of his Janzen v. Platy decision, Henteleff awarded lost wages plus exemplary damages to each of the two women. He did so because he “felt the economic consequences, amongst others, to women being sexual harassed was quite severe and no previous case I’d read had taken that into account. And, I thought it was about time that employers realized that, not only would they lose a case, but they would lose money out of their pocketbooks.
“Ultimately, I felt it was the strongest message one could give to potential harassers – that, hey you know what, this is going to cost you and you better think twice about doing what you’re doing or think twice about not speaking with your employees in such a way, that they wouldn’t continue to harass co-employees.”
Henteleff added, “When it was appealed to the Court of Queen’s Bench the first instance, they reduced it [the financial aspect] quite considerably,” he said. “When it went to the Court of Appeal, they reduced it even more, to the point where it just became a light slap on the wrist.
“The fact that, for the first time ever, the Supreme Court of Canada not only dealt with this issue, but dealt with it in a way that made it very clear sexual harassment was simply not acceptable.”
Henteleff views the current legislation and policies at various workplaces as quite adequate. But, he said, “Where the fault lies is in attitude. Attitudes have to be changed. The only way you can change it effectively is within the school system and that isn’t being done. But, it also has to be with society as a whole. Why school systems have been so resistant, why faculties of education have been so resistant, is a real puzzle to me.”
While Henteleff acknowledged that nowhere else in the world is doing a better job than Canada with respect to dealing with sexual harassment, he said, “We know it’s bad enough here and that should be enough for us to say we need to do much more than we’ve been doing so far to deal with this problem.”
As for Dianna Janzen, she continues to share her experience, because she knows from her work with Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund that the issue is very much alive.
“She is an example of how a young woman who wasn’t the least bit active in this area has become active because of her own personal experience,” said Henteleff about Janzen. “She isn’t afraid to share all the nuances of it, which shows a great deal of courage on her part.
“On the other hand, we know of thousands of women to whom this happened that are scarred forever, who remain silent, where it continues to eat at them because of how horrible that experience is to them psychologically, emotionally and physically. There are many statistics as to the long-term consequences, the negative ones, the serious ones, on women who suffer sexual harassment. They still have to deal, for the rest of their lives, with this horrific, horrible experience.
“One of the greatest problems facing mankind and womankind,” he continued, “is exemplified by the continued horrible violence against women – and this is because of attitudes rooted in thoughts and ideas that should no longer be parts of who we are as a society.
“Human beings have been searching for human rights, harmony, equality, respect and dignity for all. What we’ve done post-Janzen v. Platy falls far short of achieving these objectives for women and girls.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.