Impartiality keys Taylor's success

May 13, 2004, vol. 30 no. 2
By Roberta Staley



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If you're looking for a buddy, you've come to the wrong place.

But if you're looking for wrongs to be righted, then the human rights office (HRO), headed by Brenda Taylor, is a good place to start.

As SFU's human rights coordinator for six years, Taylor is gatekeeper to the often-confusing issues of discrimination and harassment that may occur on campus.

Increasingly, deans, chairs and graduate chairs consult her on sensitive managerial issues, to ensure they don't overstep a line of discrimination that is always, it seems, being redrawn.

If a university can be considered a microcosm of society, how well it treats its minorities is a barometer of how democratic principles are being upheld on campus.

Taylor ultimately sees her role as upholding the B.C. human rights code and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, especially the ideal that our society, as a multicultural mosaic, celebrates and accommodates differences.

Still, some misconstrue Taylor's role as protecting “young female co-eds against older, lecherous predatory male professors. And that isn't what I do,” says Taylor, an alumnus of Dalhousie law school in her native Halifax and a long-time human rights advocate.

“That misconception is rooted in an ideologically driven victim-feminist paradigm,” says Taylor, who reports to John Waterhouse, VP-academic. Her job may be high profile, but her powers are limited. “I have the power to investigate mediate, inform, persuade, report. Those kind of powers aren't really powers.”

More than anything, Taylor must be scrupulously impartial. “Lots of complainants,” says Taylor, “walk in the door expecting I'm going to be mom, I'm going to be their friend.”

That isn't going to happen. “I question complainants rigourously. I make sure there is a proper foundation. I say to complainants, ‘It's not my job to support you. I'm not here to be a shoulder for you to cry on.' How would a respondent expect me to treat them fairly if I'd just spent four or five hours holding the hand of a complainant?” Taylor asks. “I administer the policy in a fair and careful way and I owe the same duty to the respondent that I do to the complainant.”

Growing awareness of human rights issues means Taylor's workload is ever increasing at SFU. Her 2003 annual report reveals a 19 per cent increase in cases in 2003 from the previous year, to 153 from 129. There was also a 76 per cent increase in management consultations to 65 cases in 2003, up from 38 in 2002.

Few issues of discrimination are clear cut. This is especially true in a post-9/11, terrorism-wary world. Some visible minorities now face greater discrimination.

“As a society, we say we don't agree with things like racial profiling while at the same time there is a need for increased vigilance. What we need to ensure is that our approach is reasonable and interferes as little as possible with people who find themselves in that position.”

Once, not that long ago, addressing society's wrongs meant giving the majority in society - women - the vote.

Identifying and addressing discrimination is less simple today, and involves a duty of accommodation, as set out in human rights legislation. This now includes things like gender-neutral bathrooms for transgender students.

Such special measures, says Taylor, “raises the consciousness of the student body that not everybody is the same.”

And that is as sound a principle as any for ensuring that campus remains free from discrimination and harassment for everyone.

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