The human rights complaint process: A guide for respondents

A printable pdf version of this guide is available.

Alberta human rights law protects you 

The Alberta Human Right Act (the Act) protects people from discrimination in Alberta under specific protected areas and grounds. Under the Act, a person may make a complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission if they believe that someone has contravened the Act. A contravention of the Act can include discrimination based on one or more protected grounds in one or more protected areas.

The Act does not allow a person to make a human rights complaint to the Commission with malicious intent. If a person makes a complaint with malicious intent and the complaint is also frivolous (having no merit whatsoever) or vexatious (made with the sole purpose of harassing another person), the respondent can make a human rights complaint against the complainant.

Once a complaint is accepted, the Commission keeps all parties to a complaint informed and welcomes questions at any time. The complainant is the person who makes a complaint. The respondent is the person, organization or association against whom the complaint is made. Together they are called the “parties” to the complaint. A brief outline of the human rights complaint process is provided below. For more detailed information, please contact the Commission

The Commission works with both the complainant and the respondent to resolve a complaint. Resolving a complaint takes time. At every step, the parties are encouraged to find a resolution that is fair to both parties and in keeping with the Act.

The Commission follows defined processes and steps to ensure that both parties are treated in a fair, respectful and professional manner. 

This guide is for the respondent. It explains the complaint process and tells you about your rights and responsibilities. The Commission also has a guide for complainants.

Someone has complained to the Alberta Human Rights Commission about my organization or me. What does this mean?

If someone has made a human rights complaint against your organization or you, they are alleging that your organization or you have discriminated against them by contravening the Act.

When the Commission receives a human rights complaint, we assess the complaint to determine if the Commission can accept it. We accept a complaint if the complaint falls under the Commission's jurisdiction, which includes:

  1. the complainant has shown that there is reason to believe that the Act may have been contravened (you may have discriminated against someone);

  2. the alleged contravention of the Act occurred in Alberta and is not within the authority of the Canadian Human Rights Commission; and

  3. the complaint was made within one year after the alleged contravention of the Act. Neither the Director of the Commission nor the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals has the discretion to extend the one-year limit defined in the Act.

What kinds of discrimination does Alberta human rights law cover?

The Act prohibits discrimination in the protected areas described below. Please note that the descriptions below are not legal definitions. They are guidelines to help you make your written response.

Employment applications or advertisements applies to the use or circulation of any job application form or job advertisement that expresses any limitation, specification or preference based on a protected ground under the Act. It also applies to the written or oral questions asked of any applicants for employment.

Employment practices applies to refusals to employ or to continue to employ any person due to a protected ground under the Act. It also applies to discrimination related to any term or condition of employment.

Equal pay applies to situations where an individual receives a lower rate of pay than employees of a different gender even though they do similar or the same work for the same employer.

Goods, services, accommodation or facilities applies to goods, services, accommodation or facilities customarily available to the public, such as those provided by restaurants, retail stores, hotels, hospitals, schools, municipalities and many other businesses and organizations.

Statements, publications, notices, signs, symbols, emblems or other representations applies to the publication, issue or display before the public of any statement, publication, notice, sign, symbol, emblem or other representation that is discriminatory, shows an intent to discriminate, or is likely to expose anyone to hatred or contempt. Section 3 of the Act shall not be deemed to interfere with the free expression of opinion on any subject.

Membership in trade unions, employers' organizations or occupational associations applies to situations where a person is excluded from becoming a member, is being expelled or suspended from membership, or is discriminated against as a member.

Tenancy applies to being denied occupancy of a self-contained residential dwelling unit or a commercial unit that is advertised or otherwise in any way represented as being available for occupancy by a tenant. It also applies to being discriminated against in any term or condition of the tenancy.

The Alberta Human Rights Act protects people from discrimination in Alberta based on the protected grounds listed below, whether the protected grounds are real or perceived. A complaint must be based on at least one of these protected grounds. Except where noted, the descriptions below are not legal definitions. They are guidelines to help you make your written response.

Age - as defined in the Act, means 18 years of age or older. Age is not protected in the area of tenancy or in the area of goods, services, accommodation or facilities. Age is protected in all other protected areas. Please note: Sections 4 (goods, services, accommodation or facilities) and 5 (tenancy) of the Act are currently being amended to include age as a protected ground. The Act will be amended on or before
January 6, 2018. Until the amendments are in place, the Commission will not accept human rights complaints based on the protected ground of age in the protected area of goods, services, accommodation or facilities or the protected area of tenancy.  

Ancestry - includes belonging to a group of people related by a common heritage. 

Colour - includes the colour of a person's skin.

Family status - as defined in the Act, means the state of being related to another person by blood, marriage or adoption.

Gender - includes the state of being female, male, transgender or two-spirited. The ground of gender also includes pregnancy and sexual harassment.  

Gender expression - refers to the varied ways in which a person expresses their gender, which can include a combination of dress, demeanour, social behaviour and other factors.
 
Gender identity - refers to a person’s internal, individual experience of gender, which may not coincide with the sex assigned to them at birth. A person may have a sense of being a woman, a man, both, or neither. Gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation, which is also protected under the Alberta Human Rights Act.

Marital status - as defined in the Act, means the state of being married, single, widowed, divorced, separated or living with a person in a conjugal relationship outside marriage.

Mental disability - as defined in the Act, means any mental disorder, developmental disorder or learning disorder, regardless of the cause or duration of the disorder. 

Physical disability - as defined in the Act, means any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes epilepsy, paralysis, amputation, lack of physical coordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, and physical reliance on a guide dog, service dog, wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device.

Place of origin - includes place of birth and usually refers to a country or province.

Race - includes belonging to a group(s) of people, usually of a common descent, who may share common physical characteristics, such as skin colour. 

Religious beliefs - as defined in the Act, includes native spirituality. 

Sexual orientation - includes gay, lesbian, heterosexual, bi-sexual or asexual.

Source of income - as defined in the Act, means lawful source of income. This ground includes any income that attracts stigma to its recipients.

For more information about protected areas and grounds, see the Commission information sheet Protected areas and grounds under the Alberta Human Rights Act or contact the Commission. 

I have just received a copy of the complaint. What do I do?

Now it is time for you to tell your side of the story to the Commission. You have 30 days to respond to the complaint in writing, from the time you received a copy of it. You can respond in writing on the response form, which you received with the copy of the complaint, or you can write a letter that answers all the questions asked on the form. Commission staff will work with you if you need help to prepare your written response. When necessary, Commission staff will help a respondent prepare a written response if they need help because of barriers such as literacy difficulties or a disability.

Whether or not you choose to use the response form, be sure to include your full name, telephone number and mailing address. If the complaint was made against a corporation or organization, give its name, business address and telephone number. Be sure to include all the information requested on the form in your written response.

If you have any letters, memos, email messages or other documents that support your position, you may wish to attach copies of the documents to your written response. At any time, you may contact the Commission for more information about privacy laws as they relate to human rights complaints.

In your written response, tell us in your own words what happened. If you think the complainant is wrong or there has been a misunderstanding and there was no discrimination under the Act, explain why.

If you agree that there has been discrimination, think about how this matter could be resolved. Is there some action you can take to help resolve the problem? Include your suggestions in your written response. If the complainant accepts your suggestions, the complaint may be resolved, and the Commission may be able to close the complaint.

You do not need to hire a lawyer to respond to a human rights complaint. However, if you choose to have someone give you legal advice or represent you, you are responsible for any legal costs. The Commission does not pay legal costs for you or for the complainant.

The Commission will provide information about the human rights complaint process, but Commission staff do not provide any legal advice to either complainants or respondents. Information provided in this guide is not a legal opinion or legal advice on the Alberta Human Rights Act or your rights.

Can I fire or evict someone for making a complaint?

It is unlawful for you to retaliate against someone for making or attempting to make a human rights complaint under the Act. It is also unlawful for you to retaliate against someone who provides information about a complaint or helps in the investigation of a complaint made under the Act.

Can't I just deal with the complainant myself?

Once the Commission has accepted the complaint, you may propose a resolution at any time by contacting the Commission for assistance.

You may choose to contact the complainant directly, but respondents must not retaliate against the person making a human rights complaint, against anyone providing information about the complaint or against anyone helping the complainant. Retaliation is a contravention of the Act and may become the basis for another human rights complaint against you.

What happens after I respond?

The Commission will give a copy of your written response to the complainant. The complainant may have a lawyer or someone else advising them. These people may also see your written response.
The complainant will review your written response. One of four things may happen:

  1. The complainant may choose to withdraw their complaint for any reason. Your explanation may satisfy the complainant, or the complainant may simply not want to continue with the complaint for their own personal reasons.

  2. The Commission may offer conciliation, which is a voluntary step to try to resolve your differences with the complainant with the help of a conciliator assigned by the Commission. It is your choice whether to try conciliation.

  3. The Commission may also begin investigation of your complaint. This normally happens if the complainant or you do not want to participate in conciliation, or if conciliation is unsuccessful.

  4. At any stage of the complaint process, the complaint may be referred to the Director of the Commission for the Director's review and decision. The Director may dismiss or discontinue a complainant or continue the complaint, including referring the complaint to a tribunal.

Conciliation

Conciliation is a voluntary, non-adversarial way of resolving differences. The Commission may assign a conciliator to try to help the parties resolve their differences. The success rate of conciliation is high: more than half of complaints are resolved at the conciliation stage. The conciliator will help you understand the human rights issues in the complaint, human rights law and what types of resolutions are common in such complaints.

The complainant and respondent may meet together with the conciliator, or each of you may meet with the conciliator separately or over the phone. The conciliator does not take sides or investigate the complaint. If the parties resolve their differences, the complaint is closed. If the parties cannot resolve their differences, or if one or both of the parties decline conciliation, the complaint may go to the investigation step of the complaint process, or it may be referred to the Director for review. Under section 22 of the Act, the Director may, at any time, dismiss or discontinue the complaint or continue the complaint, including referring the complaint to a tribunal.

All offers of resolution made by the parties during conciliation are made on a "without prejudice" basis. The investigator will not know what offers of resolution were discussed during conciliation.

Investigation

The purpose of investigation is to gather information related to the complaint, share collected information with the parties, seek their comments, and assess whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with the complaint. The Commission will inform the parties if an investigator is assigned. The investigator is neutral and will thoroughly assess all information and consider applicable law. 

If the parties want to try to resolve their differences at any point in the investigation process, the complaint may be returned to conciliation. The complainant may also withdraw the complaint in writing at any time and for any reason. 

If an investigation report is produced, it will be provided to both parties. The investigation report will  either support the complaint and recommend to the Director of the Commission that there is a reasonable basis to proceed, or it will recommend to the Director that there is not a reasonable basis to proceed.

Alternatively, during the investigation, the complaint may be expedited to the Director of the Commission, who may decide at any time to dismiss or discontinue the complaint or continue with the complaint, including referring the complaint to a tribunal. The Commission will notify both parties if a complaint is expedited to the Director for a decision under section 22 of the Act. 

What happens if there is a reasonable basis to proceed?

If the information provided by the parties during any stage of the complaint process shows that there is a reasonable basis to proceed with the complaint, the Commission may ask the parties to attempt settlement (commonly referred to as resolution).

A remedy can be financial or non-financial compensation for losses that the complainant experienced. A remedy is intended to restore the complainant to the position they would have been in if a contravention of the Act had not occurred. It is not intended to punish the respondent. Examples of remedies include money, an apology or a change in policy.The respondent may also be directed to participate in a human rights education activity. If a complaint is resolved, the Commission will have the parties sign an agreement. For more information about remedies, please see the Commission's Remedy information sheet.

If the parties agree to resolve the complaint at any time, the parties should document and sign the agreement and provide a copy of the signed agreement to the Commission. Alternatively, the complainant can choose to provide the Commission a signed withdrawal of the complaint. Once the Commission receives either of these documents, it will close the complaint.

If the complainant refuses to accept an offer from you to resolve the complaint that the Director of the Commission thinks is fair and reasonable, the Director can discontinue the complaint. If the complaint is discontinued, it will be closed unless the complainant requests the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals to review the Director's decision (commonly referred to as an appeal).

If you do not offer a remedy that the Director of the Commission considers fair and reasonable, the Director may report to the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals that you and the complainant are unable to resolve the complaint. The Chief of the Commission and Tribunals then appoints a human rights tribunal to hear the complaint.

What if there is no reasonable basis to proceed?

If the information provided by the parties during any stage of the complaint process does not show that there is a reasonable basis to proceed with the complaint, the Director of the Commission may dismiss the complaint under section 22 of the Act.

What if the complainant disagrees with the Director's decision to dismiss or discontinue the complaint?

If the complainant disagrees with the Director's decision to dismiss or discontinue the complaint, the complainant can make a written request to ask the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals to review (commonly referred to as an appeal) the Director’s decision. The complainant must make the request within 30 days of receiving the Notice of Dismissal or Notice of Discontinuance. This 30-day deadline cannot be extended by either the Director or the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals. For more information about how to request a review, see the Commission’s information sheet Complaint Process.

If the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals agrees that the complaint should have been dismissed or, in the case of a discontinuance, that a proposed resolution was fair and reasonable, then the Director's decision will be upheld and the complaint will be closed. 

If the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals decides that the complaint should not have been dismissed or, in the case of a discontinuance, that the proposed resolution was not fair and reasonable, then the Director's decision will be overturned. The Chief of the Commission and Tribunals will then ask the complainant if they want to take the complaint to a human rights tribunal. If the complainant chooses to take their complaint to a human rights tribunal, then the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals appoints a tribunal. If the complainant does not choose to take their complaint to a tribunal, then the complaint is closed.

A decision by the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals to uphold or overturn the dismissal or discontinuance of the complaint is final and binding, subject only to judicial review by the Court of Queen's Bench. A judicial review involves particular legal principles and is not simply an appeal of the decision. A complainant must bring an application for judicial review within six months of the decision of the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals.

Referral to Tribunal

A complaint may be referred for hearing to a human rights tribunal if: the parties are unable to resolve a complaint and the Director has determined there is a  reasonable basis in the evidence to proceed; if the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals overturns the Director’s decision to dismiss a complaint; or, in the case of discontinuance by the Director, if the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals believes that that the proposed resolution was fair and reasonable.

If the Director finds that there is a reasonable basis in the evidence to proceed with a complaint and refers the matter for an appointment of a human rights tribunal, there is no authority in the Act for the  respondent to  “appeal” the Director’s decision. The Chief of the Commission and Tribunals must appoint a human rights tribunal in these circumstances.

A human rights tribunal is made up of one or three Members of the Commission, who are appointed by the Lieutenant Governor in Council. The tribunal acts as a quasi-judicial body-that is, they have the power to hear sworn evidence and decide a complaint, but their hearings are less formal than a court hearing. Tribunal hearings are usually open to the public.

More information about the tribunal process can be found on the Commission website

Glossary

A complainant is the person who makes a complaint to the Commission because they have a reasonable basis to believe that someone has discriminated against them or that the Act has been contravened. A complainant may also make a complaint on behalf of someone else. Completing the complaint form or making a complaint does not mean that the complaint has been accepted by the Commission.

The respondent is the employer, service provider, landlord, organization or individual the complainant is complaining about.

Protected areas are the situations in which discrimination is prohibited under the Act. These descriptions are not legal definitions. For more information about protected areas, contact the Commission.

In Alberta, people may not be discriminated against because of a protected ground listed in the Act. Except where noted, these descriptions are not legal definitions. For more information about protected grounds, contact the Commission.

Without prejudice is a legal term that means any offer or admission made during conciliation is only for use during conciliation and cannot be used anywhere else.

A remedy is compensation for losses that the complainant experienced. It can be financial or non-financial.

For more information about human rights law and the complaint process, please contact the Commission.

March 2017 


The Alberta Human Rights Commission is an independent commission of the Government of Alberta.

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