The Quebec Human Rights Tribunal has awarded more than $60,000 in damages to four black workers in a case that left a judge “stunned” and “scandalized” in the wake of rampant racism on a vegetable farm.
Judge Michèle Pauzé opened her decision with the statement: “The events you are about to read happened here, in Quebec, in the years 2000 and 2001.”
Though the events happened in modern day Quebec, the racism and segregation seem out of place and more suited to the deep south of the United States in the pre-civil rights era.
The case involved the Centre Maraîcher Eugène Guinois Jr. Inc., a 1,300 acre family-run vegetable farm in Ste-Clotilde de Chateauguay, about 45 minutes southwest of Montreal. As part of its workforce, the farm — which does about $8 million in business each year and has a total workforce in the neighbourhood of 250 — employed about 100 black workers as day labourers. These workers commuted from the Montreal suburb of Longueuil. They were paid $350 per week.
Though the farm had a nicely equipped cafeteria, the black workers were not allowed anywhere near it. Instead they had to eat and change in a filthy shack that was never cleaned, had no running water and lacked heat. The building had four microwaves, but only one was functional and it was too dirty to use. The refrigerator was broken. The toilets had been condemned and the farm had set up chemical toilets outside the shack for the black workers to use.
Graffiti appeared on the farm stating “here are our monkeys” and “blacks are pigs.”
One black worker who attempted to sit on a picnic table near the clean cafeteria was told to leave by the owner’s wife because the area was for Quebeckers only. She told him to sit at a table closer to the chemical toilets. White workers had a white supervisor, black ones worked under a black supervisor.
Things came to a head for Cèlissa Michel, a black man who had worked on the farm since 1998, on Aug. 8, 2001, when he had a run-in with a white worker. She accused him of staring at her rear end. Michel told the woman he didn’t wake up at 3:30 a.m. to fool around. She told him to shut up and stuffed a handful of carrots in his mouth, he said.
He complained to her supervisor, but got nowhere. He then went to the owner’s daughter, who was in charge of human resources, also to no avail. Upset, he decided to leave. Three other workers, who normally got a ride with him, got permission to leave early because they feared they would have no other way home. (Most of the workers took buses, provided by the employer, from a Montreal subway station and there were a limited number of seats.)
Two days later the four workers were fired. They subsequently filed a human rights complaint.
During testimony the owner’s daughter admitted the facilities for the day labourers were sub par, and said the shack was built for them partially because white workers complained that their food smelled.
The employer also took the position the black workers were to blame for the conditions of the shack because they were so dirty. As a result, it had to disconnect the plumbing because the sinks and toilets were constantly clogged. There were hoses outside the shack that the day labourers could use for washing, it said.
The employer said the black workers were so dirty and that, as a result, the cleaning staff refused to enter the shack to clean it.
But Judge Pauzé said the black workers were proud, clean and neat people. She said the fact the shack was disgusting had nothing to do with the colour of their skin and everything to do with the fact nobody bothered to clean the building.
One need only look at the condition of a public washroom after a week of neglect to understand that, without regular cleaning, any such facility will quickly become intolerable regardless of who is using it, she said.
The judge awarded damages totalling $62,500 to the four workers. Michel got the highest award ($17,500) while the other three workers were awarded $15,334, $16,807 and $15,173 respectively, including $5,000 in punitive damages for each of the four workers.
It also ordered the farm to cease all discriminatory behaviour immediately. The owner of the farm apparently plans to appeal the decision.
For more information see:
Québec (Commission des droits de la personne & des droits de la jeunesse) c. Centre Maraîcher Eugène Guinois Jr inc.
, 2005 CarswellQue 1329 (T.D.P.Q.)