Posted on May 4, 2010

Minding Our Societal Manners: When Human Rights Meet the School Lunch Room

Lysiane Gagnon, Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 30, 2010

Damages of $17,000 awarded in exchange for a rude remark by a teacher? It appears that as long as there’s the slightest hint of “racism,” whether it’s real or perceived, one’s chances of success at a human rights tribunal are good indeed.

The story in a nutshell: In April, 2006, Luc Cagadoc, then a seven-year-old Filipino boy, was allegedly told by a lunch-room monitor at his Montreal elementary school that he ate “like a pig” and was ordered to sit at a table by himself. The boy ate with a fork and spoon, in the Filipino tradition, and his slurping noises, as well as the spilling of food, disturbed the other kids. The school employees thought he was clowning with his food (which might have been true, since this is something many a seven-year-old boy likes to do). His mother was also reportedly told that Luc should “eat like a Canadian.”

Now these remarks certainly are, in today’s parlance, insensitive. Yet I can’t remember how many times I heard the expression addressed to youngsters by loving parents who wanted their child to learn table manners: “Stop eating like a pig!”

As for the remark about eating “like a Canadian,” the school board representatives maintain that nobody ever said that. But even if these infamous words had been uttered, would it have been a truly denigrating remark? It’s a fact that young Luc was indeed in the process of becoming a Canadian, and that it’s useful to learn the eating habits of the country you’re living in.

In any case, Maria-Theresa Gallardo, the mother of the boy, was furious when her son reported the incident. She argued that eating with a fork and spoon was an integral part of the Filipino cultural identity and that any attempt to force her child to use another set of cutlery amounted to discrimination, if not racism. There were many angry exchanges between the teacher, the school principal and the mother.

This tiny quarrel should have been solved quickly. Perhaps the school representatives should have acted more delicately with the outraged mother. Perhaps they were guilty of digging in their heels when they found themselves faced with what they saw as an unfair accusation of racism.

Ms. Gallardo, meanwhile, filed a complaint with Quebec’s Human Rights Commission, which investigates and decides whether there are grounds to forward a case on to the Human Rights Tribunal. The commission dismissed the case, saying it was an isolated incident and that the events were impossible to judge since the dispute was based on two contradictory versions of events. The commission also wrote that it was quite possible that Luc Cagadoc had been disciplined for clowning around rather than for using a fork instead of a knife.

However, in Quebec, under certain circumstances, people can apply directly to the Human Rights Tribunal, even if the commission previously rejected their complaint. And so the tribunal agreed to hear the Cagadoc family’s case, even though the evidence was murkier than what would have been deemed acceptable by a small-claims court. Last week, that tribunal ruled against the school board, arguing the boy had been discriminated against because of his ethnicity.

Ms. Gallardo had asked for $24,000 in damages, but she’s satisfied with the $17,000 award. “Hopefully, it’s all over and we can move on,” she said. As for Luc Cagadoc, at the tender age of 11, he’s mastered the language of victimization: “I’m always going to remember how I was humiliated and discriminated against,” he said.