Human rights complaint process: A guide for complainants

printable pdf version of this guide is available.

Alberta human rights law protects you
       
The Alberta Human Rights 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.

The Commission is a neutral party. This means that the Commission does not take sides or advocate for either party in a complaint. It works with both the complainant and the respondent to resolve a complaint. The Commission follows defined processes and steps to ensure that both parties are treated in a fair, respectful and professional manner.

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.

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

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 complaint.

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, hotels, hospitals, schools, municipalities and many other businesses.

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.

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.

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 complaint.

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.

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.  

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 the state of being homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual. 

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.

How do I make a human rights complaint?

When you call or come into the Commission's offices, you will likely speak to a human rights officer about your complaint. If the human rights officer believes the situation may have involved a contravention of the Act, they will talk to you about the complaint process.

The Commission must have a written record of your complaint. To make sure that you include all the details, we ask you to fill out a Human Rights Complaint Form, or write a letter that answers all the questions asked in the form. If you have any letters, memos, email messages or other documents that support your position, you may wish to attach copies of them to your complaint form. The accepted written complaint will be shared with the respondent.

Due to confidentiality concerns, the Commission cannot reply to complaints of discrimination by email. Please contact the Commission by phone or regular email if you have a specific complaint. You may fax your complaint to the Commission, but you should still send the Commission your original complaint.

Please remember to include the Complainant Contact Information form so we can reach you. If you do not maintain current contact information with the Commission, your complaint may be closed or dismissed. We do not share your contact information with anyone outside the Commission.

How much time do I have to make a complaint?

The Commission must receive your completed complaint form or letter within one year after the alleged contravention of the Act. The one-year period starts the day after the date on which the alleged contravention of the Act occurred. For help calculating the one-year period, contact the Commission. We encourage you to submit your complaint form as soon as possible following 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.

Who can help me make a complaint?

You can get someone to help you write your complaint or to write the complaint for you. Someone else may also make a complaint on your behalf, or you may make a complaint on behalf of another person. Please note that you can have someone help or represent you, including being the contact person for your complaint, however, you would still be the complainant.

When necessary, Commission staff will help a person prepare a complaint if they need help because of barriers such as literacy difficulties or a disability.

You do not need to hire a lawyer to make 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 respondent.

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 meant to be a legal opinion on the Alberta Human Rights Act or your rights.

Can a person be fired or evicted for making a complaint?

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

If anyone tries to pressure you to drop your complaint, or threatens you, contact the Commission.

If you feel your safety or the safety of anyone you name during the complaint process is at risk, please call your local police service first, and then let the Commission know.


The Commission has received my complaint. What happens now?

The Commission assesses all the information to decide if it can accept your complaint. For a complaint to be accepted, it must meet requirements set out in section 20 of the Act, and it must also meet the definition of a complaint, as defined in Commission bylaws. Commission staff may ask you for additional information as part of the assessment process. The Commission will accept your complaint if the complaint falls under the Commission's jurisdiction, which includes:
  1. you have reasonable grounds for believing that the Act may have been contravened (someone may have discriminated against you or another person);

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

  3. you have made the complaint within one year of 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.

If the Commission refuses to accept your complaint, we will notify you in writing and give you our reason(s) why the Commission cannot accept your complaint. If you do not agree with the Commission's decision to not accept your complaint, you can appeal this decision to the Regional Director and, in turn, to the Director of the Commission.

If your complaint is accepted, the Commission sends a copy of the complaint to the party or parties that you have made a complaint against (the respondent). The Commission will ask the respondent to provide a written response to the complaint and explain their point of view about the alleged contravention of the Act. We also ask the respondent to suggest how the matter might be resolved. We send you a copy of the written response provided by the respondent. We may request additional information from you and the respondent. Additional information gathered from one party may be shared with the other party.

The respondent may have a lawyer or someone else advising them. These people may also see your complaint.

What happens after I receive the respondent's written response?

You should carefully review the written response. At this point, one of four things may happen:

  1. At any time, you may choose to withdraw your complaint in writing for any reason. The respondent's explanation may be all you want. Or you may simply not want to continue with the complaint for your own personal reasons.

  2. The Commission may offer conciliation, which is a voluntary step to try to resolve your differences with the respondent 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 respondent 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 the complaint or continue the complaint, including referring the complaint to a tribunal.

Can't I just deal with the respondent 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 respondent directly. Respondents must not retaliate against you for making a complaint under the Act, against anyone providing information about the complaint, or against anyone helping you. Retaliation is a contravention of the Act and may become the basis for another human rights complaint against the respondent.

How does conciliation work?

Conciliation is a voluntary, non-adversarial way to resolve disputes quickly. The success rate of conciliation is high: more than half of complaints are resolved at the conciliation stage. The Commission will assign a conciliator to work with you and the respondent. The conciliator is knowledgeable about human rights law and the Commission's complaint process. The conciliator will help you understand the human rights issues in the complaint and what types of resolutions are common in such complaints.

The conciliation process is not adversarial; it is an exchange of information about how each party sees the situation. You and the respondent may meet together with the conciliator, or each of you may meet with the conciliator separately or over the phone. The conciliator's job is to make the respondent's position clear to you and your position clear to the respondent and search for common ground.

The conciliator does not take sides or investigate the complaint. If you and the respondent cannot resolve the complaint, you will be asked if you want your complaint to be investigated. If you do, the complaint will normally be scheduled for assignment to an investigator, 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 was discussed during conciliation.

How does investigation work?

Investigation allows you the opportunity to share information that you believe is important to your complaint and to name people who may have useful information about your complaint. The respondent has this same opportunity.

The Commission advises the parties that it is collecting information and normally assigns an investigator. The investigator will thoroughly and impartially assess the information and consider related law. Throughout the process, the investigator will be in contact with both you and the respondent.

If the respondent or you want to try to resolve your differences at any point in the investigation process, the investigator can return the complaint to conciliation. You may also withdraw your complaint in writing at any time and for any reason. After an investigation is completed, an investigation report is normally provided to both parties.

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 to refer 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.

If an investigation report is produced, it will either support your 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.    


Human rights staff are experienced in helping people resolve complaints. They are neutral, meaning they do not take either your side or the respondent's side. They receive specialized training in investigation and conciliation.
                   


What happens if there is a reasonable basis to proceed?

If there is a reasonable basis to proceed, the Commission may ask you and the respondent to attempt to resolve the complaint.

A remedy can be financial or non-financial compensation for losses that you experienced. A remedy is intended to restore you to the position you 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. For more information about remedies, please see the Commission's Remedy information sheet.

If you and the respondent agree to resolve the complaint, you should document and sign the agreement and provide a copy of the signed agreement to the Commission. Alternatively, you can choose to provide the Commission with a signed withdrawal of your complaint. Once the Commission receives either of these documents, it will close your complaint.

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

If the respondent does 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 respondent are unable to resolve the complaint. The Chief of the Commission and Tribunals then appoints a human rights tribunal to hear your complaint.

What if there is no reasonable basis to proceed with my complaint?

The information provided by the parties may show that there is no reasonable basis to proceed with your complaint.

You can withdraw the complaint in writing at any time and for any reason, and the complaint will be closed. All information provided by the parties during the complaint process will remain confidential.

Where information does not support a reasonable basis to proceed with the complaint, your complaint will be sent to the Director of the Commission with a recommendation to dismiss the complaint. The Director will review the complaint and make a decision under section 22 of the Act.

What if I disagree with the Director's decision to dismiss or discontinue my complaint?

If you disagree with the Director's decision to dismiss or discontinue your complaint, you have 30 days after you receive notice of the dismissal or discontinuance to submit a written request for review (commonly referred to as an appeal) of the Director's decision to the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals. Only you as the complainant can request a review of the Director's decision to dismiss or discontinue your complaint.

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.

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 you if you want to take the complaint to a human rights tribunal. If you choose to take your complaint to a human rights tribunal, then the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals appoints a tribunal. If you do not choose to take your complaint to a tribunal, then the complaint is closed.

A decision by the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals whether 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 judicial review must be requested by the complainant within six months of the decision of the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals.

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 open to the public.

If your complaint is to be heard by a tribunal, the tribunal coordinator will send you a guide that describes the tribunal process.

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 your complaint has been accepted by the Commission.

The respondent is the employer, service provider, landlord, organization or individual you are 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.

When you fill out the Complainant Contact Information form, remember to provide complete contact information. The Commission will keep this information confidential. If you do not maintain current contact information with the Commission, your complaint may be closed or dismissed.

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

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.

 

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

May 2014

 

 


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

Due to confidentiality concerns, the Commission cannot reply to complaints of discrimination by email. Please contact the Commission by phone or regular mail if you have a specific complaint.

You can access information about making FOIP requests for records held by the Commission on our Contact us page.

The Commission will make publications available in accessible formats upon request for people with disabilities who do not read conventional print.