Liam Richards / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Transgender rights: Supporters rally outside of a bridal boutique in Saskatoon. Rohit Singh, not pictured, a transgender bride who was not allowed to try on wedding gowns. (May 4, 2013)
A male labourer at a Mississauga paper box factory who was fired while undergoing sex change therapy has been awarded $22,000 and eight months pay by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.
The case of Maria VanderPutten and Seydaco Packing Corp. is the first of its kind in Ontario looking at how employers must deal with issues related to transgendered employees. These include harassment by other workers and facilities where they can change discreetly as their gender changes from one sex to the other.
The company has not appealed the decision.
VanderPutten began working for Seydaco as a general labourer in 2003. The company makes boxes for such things as prepared foods, cakes and pies found in grocery stores and indoor plant bulbs, according to its web site.
VanderPutten was dismissed in 2006 because of conflicts with co-workers. These included episodes where bundles of boxes were thrown in anger, nearly hitting co-workers. VanderPutten was rehired within several months when her supervisor left the company and the owner gave her another chance.
In 2008, Vanderputten started the sex reassignment process at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. She began arriving at work dressed as a woman before changing into the unisex jumpsuit that all employees wear on the plant floor.
According to testimony at a tribunal hearing, once she started dressing as a woman other employees began verbally and physically harassing her. She was asked whether she was a man or a woman, shoved and shunned by other workers.
A picture of a transvestite with her name on it was posted on a company bulletin board. The company also told her to continue using the men’s washroom and changing room.
Court documents reveal that Vanderputten was fired again in May 2010, after a co-worker alleged she threw a wooden skid at him. Vanderputten said at the hearing that she dropped the skid in shock when a co-worker called her a “faggot.”
Vanderputten filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal claiming that she was fired due to discrimination based on sex. She asked for $25,000 in damages, plus compensation for loss of wages for the two year period between when she was fired and the date of the hearing in May 2012.
Adjudicator David A. Wright’s decision was released in October 2012, but because both parties were self-represented, the case has not been widely reported.
Wright said that VanderPutten was a more credible witness than those that appeared on behalf of the company, in part because she readily admitted when her conduct was inappropriate.
Wright found that Vanderputten was subject to a poisoned work environment and the company contributed to this by insisting she be treated as a man until she completed surgery and requiring she change with men.
He also decided the company did not properly investigate her reports of harassment including the one that led to her dismissal. Wright suggested that in a plant Seydaco’s size, the company could have made minor renovations to give her privacy. He awarded Vanderputten $22,000 for injury to her dignity and self-respect. The award for lost wages was limited to eight months.
A month after the hearing in June 2012, but prior to the release of the decision, an Ontario private member’s Bill supported by all parties amended the Ontario Human Rights Code to add “gender expression” and “gender identity” as prohibited grounds for discrimination.
Nicole Nussbaum, a London, Ontario lawyer with a background in transgender legal issues says these new grounds for discrimination are substantive. She believes they enhance protection for transgendered people because employers, service providers and landlords can read the legislation and more clearly understand their obligations. Transgendered people can also better understand their rights, she says.