An adjudicator with the Human Rights Tribunal awarded a Muslim couple $12,000 because of the couple’s claim that their Christian landlord discriminated against them based on their creed, failed to accommodate their religious practices and harassed them by creating a “poisoned housing environment”.
Over the course of two days, the Tribunal’s adjudicator, Jo-Anne Pickel, heard testimony from both sides, and on April 19, 2017, she ruled that the landlord, John Alabi, must pay $12,000 to Walid Madkour and Heba Ismail. In addition, the landlord must take the e-learning module on the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s website called “Human Rights in Rental Housing”.
The tenants had originally asked for $20,000. The landlord denied any discrimination.
The couple, who immigrated from Egypt to Montreal and later to Toronto, and who identify as Arab Muslims, testified that they practice their religion by praying five times a day. According to the husband, the prayers take between 7-10 minutes if he prays alone and up to 15 minutes if he prays with his wife. The couple prayed in the bedroom of the apartment they rented from the landlord because the bedroom was the cleanest room in the apartment. According to the couple, it is important to pray in a clean area that is free of any contamination, including any discharge from humans or animals.
According to the wife, a person cannot be absolutely certain that he or she did not step on discharge from animals or humans while walking outside. For this reason, according to the couple, practicing Muslims must remove their footwear when they pray.
The couple also testified that if someone interrupts their prayers, they lose focus and their prayers are “damaged”. The wife also said that if she was not at home or near a mosque, she would pray in her car as she always carried her prayer mat with her.
The wife, who has been wearing a hijab for approximately 20 years (since she was 13 years old), believes that she has the religious obligation to cover her hair and body in certain circumstances and that a woman should not be seen with her body or hair uncovered by men who are not blood relatives or their husbands.
The couple, who moved to Toronto in December, 2014, rented an apartment from the landlord, which was located in the same house where he lives. Approximately two months later, in February of 2015, after several disputes over apartment temperature, use of the internet, and the couple’s request for a quiet environment after 10 p.m., the landlord terminated the couple’s lease by mutual agreement and notified the couple that he will begin showing the apartment to prospective tenants after giving them notice 24 hours in advance, as required by the Residential Tenancies Act.
The husband then requested an additional “heads up” an hour before the showing in case he and his wife were “sleeping or whatever” and when the landlord replied that he had the right to show the apartment any time between 8 am and 8 pm, the husband replied that the landlord knew he and his wife were Muslim and had certain rules concerning what women wear.
The husband informed the landlord that if he came to show the apartment, he would need to wait at the door until the couple “got prepared”, and if there were any problems, the police would be the couple’s “last resort for such racism and violation of our civil rights”, to which the landlord texted: “Welcome to Ontario Canada”.
The wife testified that on January 29, 2015 she heard someone making a loud noise by pounding a shovel outside her apartment for about 15 to 20 minutes. She said she became scared because the landlord had never shoveled snow outside the apartment door before. The husband called the police because he was “concerned about the situation”. The police mediated the situation and the parties agreed that as a “courtesy”, the landlord will send the husband a text message 5 minutes before a showing, in addition to the 24-hour notice required under the Act.
On February 6, 2015, the husband added another element to the request for the second notice: he told the landlord that the couple prayed four times during the day, that each prayer took between 8 to 10 minutes, and that was one of the reasons he needed notice shortly before the viewing.
After a two-day testimony, the adjudicator ruled that:
- The landlord failed to provide notice in addition to the 24-hour notice required under the Act before entering the apartment with prospective tenants, in order to enable the couple to finish their prayers. The adjudicator felt that the landlord’s refusal to provide notice other than the statutory notice had an “adverse effect” on the couple and “discriminated against the applicants on the basis of creed”.
- The landlord made the couple feel “uncomfortable” and demonstrated religious discrimination when he failed to remove his shoes in the couple’s apartment after the couple explained to the adjudicator that “if someone wore outdoor shoes in their prayer space, they would have to wash the space several times to cleanse it”.
- The landlord failed to notify the couple by text shortly before showing the apartment to prospective tenants, even though the couple had explained to him the reason for the requesting the second notice is because they pray at the apartment four times each day and each prayer takes between 8-10 minutes.
- The landlord made “loud pounding” noises when shovelling snow outside, which the adjudicator felt were “at least partially related to the applicants’ request for accommodation”.
- The landlord’s “Welcome to Ontario, Canada” text offended the couple. Even though the landlord explained that the comment was made in a completely different context, namely the difference between landlord and tenant law in Ontario and Quebec (where the couple lived prior to moving to Ontario), the adjudicator found that by including the word “Canada” in the text, the landlord was at least in part communicating to the couple that somehow they would have to adjust their religious practices or expectations regarding accommodation request. The adjudicator found the “Ontario, Canada” comment to be “linked to the applicants’ creed and/or place of origin”.
- The couple wanted to admit into evidence a joke about a devout Arab Muslim which the landlord shared on his Facebook page. Even though the landlord explained that the only reason he shared the joke was because he found it funny, the Tribunal adjudicator felt it was “relevant to discerning his views on religiously-based accommodation requests by Muslims”.
According to the adjudicator, the tenants were “merely making simple requests for the accommodation of their religious practices” and did not attempt to “impose their way of life” on the landlord.
She accepted the couple’s claims that they felt “humiliated, disrespected and insulted” by the landlord’s actions, and the husband experienced “stress, loss of appetite and tiredness” because living in the apartment was “like living in a nightmare”.
The adjudicator took into consideration the wife’s claim that she was intimidated by the landlord’s “general demeanor”, such as failing to take off his outdoor shoes in their apartment.
She generally found the couple to be “more credible” than the landlord and preferred the couple’s evidence over the landlord’s due to inconsistencies of his evidence.
The adjudicator felt that the couple have a “sincere belief that women must wear modest attire around men who are not blood relatives or their husbands” and their special accommodation requests were sincere.
The couple were awarded $12,000 as compensation “for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect.