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Director of B.C. massage school must pay $12K after asking client to 'certify' he's not Muslim

FILE: A massage table is seen in this undated photo. (Shutterstock) FILE: A massage table is seen in this undated photo. (Shutterstock)
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The director of a B.C. massage school has been ordered to pay thousands of dollars for discriminatory comments she made to a Muslim man who wanted to book a treatment.

In a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal decision posted online last week, tribunal member Devyn Cousineau determined Joyce Middleton discriminated against Majid Shahadat in 2019. That discrimination continued, Cousineau said, throughout the tribunal's resolution process.

The tribunal heard Shahadat is a Muslim man who was born in Bahrain and is of mixed Arab and Indian descent.

"He has lived in Canada for 25 years and describes himself as a 'proud Canadian,'" Cousineau wrote.

Shahadat reached out to Northern School of Spa Therapies, located in Fort St. John, in 2019 to book a lymphatic drainage massage. The response he got, Cousineau said, left him "understandably shocked and hurt."

Hours after booking his appointment online, Shahadat got an email from Middleton, asking him for his "credentials."

"We rarely accept new clients outside the area of Fort St. John for our own protection. I am asking you to certify you are not of the Islamic faith, which as you know has earned a bad reputation for raping and killing of infidels in Canada and elsewhere," the email sent to Shahadat said. "I apologize, this is not meant to be offensive, but I have to be watchful over my students as I am sure you will be able to understand."

Three days later, Middleton sent a follow-up email, saying the school wouldn't accept "new male clients that (they) do not know," adding they "have to protect (their), students, who happen to be all girls at this time."

Middleton then referred Shahadat to a male massage therapist, Cousineau wrote.

Cousineau said the emails showed Shahadat was denied service, at least in part, because he was perceived to be a Muslim man based on his name.

"Ms. Middleton directly invoked the harmful and pervasive stereotype that Muslim men are threatening to women, girls, and non-Muslim 'infidels', and that the Islamic religion is itself a threat," Cousineau's decision said. "These are classic features of Islamophobia."

'Deepened the extent of the harm'

After Shahadat filed his complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal, Cousineau said, Middleton reportedly launched a "defence" to "prove that her fears are rational and based on tenets of Islam which promote violence, particularly against women and children."

"In doing so she has not only proven the elements of this human rights complaint but deepened the extent of the harm to Mr. Shahadat," Cousineau wrote.

Middleton chose to not participate in the tribunal hearing and instead submitted a written statement. CTV News Vancouver has reached out to Middleton for her response to the decision and this story will be updated if a comment is received.

Cousineau explained Middleton's response claimed she "is entitled and obliged to protect herself and the 'young girls' who work at the school." Cousineau said she cited "misinformation from what appear to be far-right, anti-Muslim" websites to justify her assessment that Shahadat allegedly posed a risk to her students.

Cousineau included nearly a dozen statements from Middleton's written submission, which she said "rests on stereotype and vilification of all Muslim people."

Some of those examples showed Middleton "conflating 'jihad' with violence and terrorism," which Cousineau said "is another marker of Islamophobia."

Middleton's submissions also included a demand for Shahadat to "'denounce certain parts of the Qur'an" and to bring a police officer along with him if he gets a massage.

"Ms. Middleton has taken patently untrue ideas about Islam and Muslim men, rooted in Islamophobia, and applied them to Mr. Shahadat," Cousineau wrote. "She then acted on that stereotyping to deny Mr. Shahadat a service customarily available to the public. This is discrimination in violation of the Human Rights Code."

Cousineau said that, as "repugnant" as Middleton's views may be, it's "unlikely" anything she writes in her decision will change her views. Cousineau wrote Middleton is free to hold her views but, as a business owner, she can't use them to determine who she will serve.

'Truly shocking'

In filing his complaint, Shahadat wrote it was "truly shocking" to learn "there were people with such strong, wrong viewpoints," even after being in Canada for 25 years.

"I've actually had to work really, really hard to get to where I am with my company, with my people, with our friends. And the fact that all that hard work just goes out the window simply because someone makes a call about what you are based on my colour, my religion, my ethnicity – that was what was really hurtful," Shahadat wrote. "The fact that I've worked so hard to get to where I am, and nothing matters in the end because one look at my face and they make a judgement call on what kind of person I am."

Cousineau wrote Shahadat's submission shows the discrimination he faced destabilized his sense of belonging and deprived him of "his right to equal access to the public life of this province."

Ultimately, Cousineau ordered Middleton to pay $10,000 in compensation for injury to Shahabat's dignity, feelings and self-respect. She noted this was about half the amount Shahabat asked for, but said the discrimination was "discrete, involving a single denial of service."

Cousineau also ordered Middleton to pay $2,500 for improper conduct during the tribunal process including submitting additional discriminatory materials and threatening to sue Shahabat in B.C. Supreme Court for his claims against her.

"It is unacceptable that, for Mr. Shahadat, the price of enforcing his quasi-constitutional human rights was that he had to endure further anti-Muslim commentary and threats," Cousineau wrote. "Ms. Middleton's submissions required Mr. Shahadat to repeatedly engage with content that baselessly associated him with the most vile acts of violence for no other reason than his identity as a Muslim man." 

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