Manitoba

Woman banished from Manitoba First Nation wasn't discriminated against: human rights tribunal

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has dismissed a complaint from a Manitoba woman who claimed a “vulgar” social media post and a banishment order from a First Nation constituted harassment and discrimination.

Tracy Polhill alleged discrimination in 2014 complaint against Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation

Tracy Polhill filed a human rights complain in 2014, alleging discrimination by Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation administration against her. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal dismissed her complaint in a decision delivered this month. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has dismissed a complaint from a Manitoba woman who claimed a "vulgar" social media post and a banishment order from a First Nation constituted harassment and discrimination. 

Tracy Polhill filed a human rights complaint against the Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation, a community located about 240 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, near Riding Mountain National Park, in 2014.

She alleged she was denied federal income assistance benefits by the First Nation and suffered various acts of retaliation as a result of her relationship with a band member because she is non-status, meaning she isn't registered with the federal government under the Indian Act. 

However, she told CBC News following the tribunal's hearing last year that she has Anishinaabe heritage in her family. The tribunal's decision says she identifies as Indigenous.

Polhill also alleged discrimination was behind a 2013 band council resolution that effectively banished her by preventing from entering the reserve, or communicating with any member of the First Nation.

In a written decision dated Oct. 9, Canadian Human Rights Tribunal member Gabriel Gaudreault said he ultimately found Polhill did not meet the burden of proof required to show that either the denial of services, or the band council resolution, indicated she was discriminated against based on race or ethnic origin.

"Based on a balance of probabilities, the evidence filed by Tracy and the [Human Rights] Commission does not demonstrate that the band council resolution, the tool that resulted in the benefits being stopped, was based on discriminatory considerations," Gaudreault wrote in his decision.

"This proves to me that if you want your human rights, you need to fight for them," Polhill, who called the ruling unfair, told CBC News on Thursday. "I'm appealing this." 

Turmoil began in 2012

Pollhill told the tribunal that turmoil began between her and some band members in the community shortly after she started a relationship with a band member in 2012 and moved into his home.

She said some community members did not want her living on the First Nation and alleged another band member with close ties to the chief and council asked that she be banished.

The First Nation denied race played a role in its decision to banish Polhill, arguing the decision was focused on safety, with the band saying it had received complaints she was harassing others. 

As a result of the order, Polhill's federal benefits were cut off in September 2013 and she moved off-reserve, only to move back the following spring. At that point, the issue of her benefits resurfaced and resulted in an altercation between Polhill and a member of the First Nation's administration in the band office.

Polhill alleged a band administrator used vulgar language and hurled insults at her while telling her to leave the building. The administrator denied that, and others who were in the office at the time said they didn't hear the insults either, but did hear both people raise their voices. 

"The evidence about this incident is contradictory," Gaudreault wrote in his decision. "I heard four witnesses who gave accounts of the incident … the four versions were not similar in every respect." 

The tribunal heard the incident then led to a member of the administration venting frustrations on Facebook, referring to "white trash" who "think they can live on the reserve and get what ever they f--kin' want."

The tribunal heard a member of Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation's administration made this Facebook post, which the adjudicator deemed 'mean and vulgar.' However, tribunal member Gabriel Gaudreault determined there was not sufficient evidence to prove Polhill was discriminated against by the band. (Facebook)

While the decision said the post did not identify Polhill by name, the timing between the altercation and when the post was made suggested it was about Polhill. 

The Facebook comments "were mean and vulgar. I strongly deplore this type of post made on Facebook," Gaudreault's decision read. "Facebook is a public forum and it is unfortunate that individuals vent their ill-feelings and anger on such a medium."

Post was not racist: tribunal 

The tribunal found, however, that while the administrator Polhill got into the altercation with was in a senior administration position, that person had no power over the income assistance program, or who was denied benefits.

While the post made "disturbing comments" about Polhill's perceived race, Gaudreault found, it did not constitute racism. 

Shortly after Polhill complained to the human rights tribunal, her benefits were reinstated. 

The tribunal also examined allegations that Polhill was denied funding to attend her son's funeral, that the band allowed her partner's home to fall into disrepair, and of an allegedly toxic relationship the couple had with another band member, with whom Polhill's partner had previously been in a romantic relationship.

"Frankly, my decision cannot include everything that they may have said about each other," Gaudreault's decision said. "I heard evidence about love triangles, extramarital relationships, gambling, alcohol and drugs addiction, alleged criminal acts, theft, harassment, violence, abuse, vandalism, stalking, and so on." 

The tribunal also found Polhill's partner interfered with two of the First Nation's witnesses by urging them not to testify. 

But ultimately, Gaudreault dismissed all aspects of Polhill's complaint.

"I don't think it was a fair judgment," said Polhill. "It's not being happy or sad or vindicated or whatever. I mean it's not a fair evidence, based on the fact.

"I'm looking for a fair judgment, I'm looking for justice," Polhill said, adding that she will speak with her legal adviser before filing an appeal. 

Keeseekoowenin Chief Norman Bone issued a statement on the ruling through the First Nation's lawyer. 

"We are pleased with the tribunal's decision and happy that this matter can now be put to rest," the statement said.

"We have always maintained that Keeseekoowenin did not commit the alleged acts of discrimination, so we are happy that the truth won out in this case.

"We will certainly take this experience as something to learn from and try to improve our administrative operations in ways that can help ensure that this kind of situation does not arise again," the statement went on to say. 

Polhill has 30 days to appeal the decision. 

About the Author

Riley Laychuk is CBC's reporter based in Brandon, covering rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback: riley.laychuk@cbc.ca.