Alberta transgender teacher fired in 2008 loses case in appeal court

It's been nearly nine years since Jan Buterman was fired as a substitute teacher by the Greater St. Albert Catholic school board after notifying them he was transgender. On Friday, Alberta's highest court dismissed his appeal.

Jan Buterman challenged if board broke law by firing him, but says case quashed on 'procedural side issues'

The Alberta Court of Appeal has dismissed an appeal filed by Jan Buterman nearly nine years after he was fired as a substitute teacher. (CBC)

When a transgender teacher reached a deal in 2010 with the Greater St. Albert Catholic School District, he gave up his right to have his complaint heard by the provincial human rights commission, the Alberta Court of Appeal has ruled.

Jan Buterman said he was disappointed by Friday's ruling.

"My quick read of it is this looks like probably we've come to the end of this long and gruelling process," he said. "But I don't know. There might be other possibilities I'm not aware of. We'll be assessing every option available to us and then deciding at some point which one to pursue."

In a written statement, superintendent David Keohane said the school board has been advised of the decision and had no further comment.

Nearly 9 years of legal wrangling

In October 2008, Buterman was removed from the board's roster of substitute teachers after he notified them he was a transgender person in the process of transitioning from female to male.

"Since you have made a personal choice to change your gender, which is contrary to Catholic teachings, we have had no choice but to remove you from the substitute teaching list," the board wrote at the time.

A year later, Buterman filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

The next day, the board offered him $78,000 if he'd agree to withdraw his complaint. The board asked him to promise not to make any further complaints to the human rights commission and agree to keep the deal confidential.

Buterman rejected the offer. 

It is surprising, I think, to many that this has been kind of all on procedural side issues.- Jan Buterman

In Sept. 2010, the board made a different offer to Buterman. That offer was also rejected, but Buterman's lawyer replied in writing that his client was willing to accept the original offer.

The same day, the board confirmed the original offer still stood, and the two parties went back and forth about making minor changes to the wording.

In January 2011, Buterman's lawyer returned the money and the unsigned settlement documents, noting it had taken longer than expected to consider and discuss the issues with his client. By April 2011, Buterman was without a lawyer, so the board sent the draft documents directly to him.    

Buterman never responded directly to the board. Instead he told the media he had rejected the board's settlement offer due to the confidentiality clause.

More than three years passed. Then the school board applied to the human rights commission to determine if it still had jurisdiction to hear Buterman's complaint. The board argued the parties had entered into a settlement agreement.

After a three-day hearing on that point, the commission determined it had no remaining jurisdiction over the complaint because a deal had been reached and Buterman "had relinquished his human rights complaint in favour of a settlement."

That decision was upheld by the Court of Queen's Bench and on Friday by the Alberta Court of Appeal.

Human-rights complaint never heard

After years of legal wrangling, Buterman said he is bitterly disappointed a public body has never heard evidence on the key issue in the case, whether the board broke the law by firing him because he is transgender.

"It is surprising, I think, to many that this has been kind of all on procedural side issues. But those side issues are more than enough to derail the ability to actually interrogate the question of whether or not someone has the right to be fired for being trans."

Buterman said the $78,000 settlement from the school board is currently being held in a trust fund.

"We weren't really expecting this particular decision to come down right now. We haven't had any discussions on what might be happening with that, where it might go and what fees it might need to cover, and all of that kind of thing."


Janice Johnston is an award-winning journalist in Edmonton who has covered the courts and crime for more than two decades. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @cbcjanjohnston