August 30, 2021
The Alberta Human Rights Commission has dismissed a pair of complaints filed by two men who say they were discriminated against when they didn’t wear masks inside retail stores last fall.
One incident took place at a Costco store last November and the other at a Peoples Jewellers store in October.
The decisions were released Aug. 16, 2021, signed by Michael Gottheil, chief of the commission and tribunals.
In both cases, Gottheil found the companies were reasonable in insisting customers and employees wear masks to protect public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Nov. 17, 2020, Peter Szeles went into a Costco in Edmonton and told staff he had a disability that exempted him from wearing a face mask.
An employee suggested Szeles could wear a face shield instead, but he refused. Szeles argued that a face shield was stigmatizing, was meant to single him out as a person with a disability and would subject him to humiliation.
An altercation ensued, the police were called over and Szeles was removed from the store, the written decision says.
A clip of the interaction is also posted on Szeles’s Facebook page. The video shows Szeles on his knees, refusing to stand up and leave the store, with two officers carrying him out and putting him in a police van.
Costco submitted several arguments in response to Szeles’s complaint, including that it provided appropriate alternatives, like the option to wear a face shield in the store and various online shopping and home delivery options.
In the second case, James Beaudin was blocked from entering a Peoples Jewellers store in Edmonton. He said health reasons prevented him from wearing a mask.
The store staff pointed out alternatives, including phone and online shopping, with free delivery or curb-side pickup. Beaudin objected, but the store staff was firm, and he was told to leave, the written decision says.
Balance of rights
Jessica Eisen, a University of Alberta law professor specializing in human rights, said the commission’s decisions are understandable based on the Alberta Human Rights Act.
According to the decisions, the companies showed they were responding in good faith to the seriousness of the pandemic, she said.
“They presented lots of evidence to the effect that there was a really good reason for these policies — they were needed to protect their employees and to protect the other customers in the stores,” she said.
Eisen said human rights laws are based on balance.
“I think a lot of people are under the misconception that human rights acts and codes generally protect people’s right to do whatever they want in all circumstances,” Eisen said. “In fact, human rights laws are designed to protect fundamental interests in a range of circumstances.”
Discrimination on the basis of race, religion and disability is covered in human rights legislation, but in these cases, businesses showed they were trying to do the right thing in protecting people’s health while providing options to customers, she said.
The two decisions are among more than 100 complaints the Alberta Human Rights Commission has received since March 2020 related to mandatory masks and vaccines. Cam Stewart, a spokesperson with the HRC, said the commission has accepted them as formal complaints and is in the process of reviewing them.
Most complaints are resolved in conciliation, investigation or at the director’s office before going to a tribunal hearing, he noted.
While investigators are going through the complaints process, the details of the complaints are confidential, Stewart said.