Winnipeg ex-waitress recalls 1989 human rights case

A former Winnipeg waitress whose fight against sexual harassment changed Canadian law in the 1980s is set to share her story at a national human rights conference.

A former Winnipeg waitress whose fight against sexual harassment changed Canadian law in the 1980s is set to share her story at a national human rights conference in the city.

Dianna Evangeline's case against a now-defunct Winnipeg restaurant led to the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 1989 that sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of discrimination.

Evangeline, who now works as a financial analyst in the health-care field, will take part in a panel Monday at a national human rights conference hosted by the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

Evangeline — then known as Dianna Janzen — was a 21-year-old working at Pharos Restaurant on St. Mary's Road in 1982 when she and another waitress were sexually harassed by a male cook.

The two waitresses were also subjected to verbal abuse by the cook and no support from the manager. Evangeline left the restaurant less than two months later, while the other waitress had her job terminated.

Scolded for speaking out

Evangeline filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission in 1983 against Platy Enterprises Ltd., which owned the restaurant.

At the time, many of those closest to Evangeline believed the behaviour she had to endure was normal, and some even scolded her for speaking out against it, she said.

"They were saying, basically, 'You brought it on yourself … you were the one who moved out, you were the one who had to be independent. If you'd stayed home, none of this would have happened,'" she recalled with a laugh.

The human rights commission ruled in favour of the waitresses, as did the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench.

But the Court of Appeal overturned the lower court's decision, saying the employer "could not be held liable for the sexual harassment perpetrated by its employee."

Landmark decision

The case then went to the Supreme Court, which quashed the appeals court's decision with its landmark ruling in May 1989.

"By requiring an employee, male or female, to contend with unwelcome sexual actions or explicit sexual demands, sexual harassment in the workplace attacks the dignity and self-respect of the victim both as an employee and as a human being," the top court's ruling states in part.

"Here, the sexual harassment suffered by the appellants constituted sex discrimination for it was a practice or attitude which had the effect of limiting the conditions of employment of, or the employment opportunities available to, employees on the basis of a characteristic related to gender."

Twenty-three years after the Supreme Court decision, Evangeline said the fight against discrimination is not over, citing a conversation she had with her children last year about her legal battle.

"They were very receptive and very open — lots of questions and lots of stories about, 'Well, Mom, when I was working at the gas station, this and this and this happened and, you know, I was nervous about saying anything,'" she said.

"It opened up a conversation that's still going on."

The two-day conference, being held at Inn at the Forks in Winnipeg this week, features human rights advocates from across Canada.