Fight continues in British Columbia after discrimination findings

Canadian veterinary community fractured by decade-old battle

Published: December 28, 2015
By Rianna Hidalgo

Photo courtesy of the BC Human Rights Tribunal
The College of Veterinarians of British Columbia is appealing a recent finding that it discriminated against Indo-Canadian veterinarians.

Dr. Bryce Fleming took more than one power nap while reading the recent legal decision of the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, which found the veterinary medical association he belongs to systemically discriminated against Indo-Canadian veterinarians practicing at low-cost clinics.

The ruling alone is nearly 500 pages. Include the appendices, and it's about 1,500 pages more.

By all accounts, the case is big. It encompasses a decade-long trial that alleged racial bias and discrimination on the part of the British Columbia Veterinary Medical Association (BCVMA). In October, the Indo-Canadian veterinarians won their case when the human rights tribunal awarded 13 India-born-and-trained veterinarians up to $35,000 each plus interest for "injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect," and another $45,000 total for various lost wages and expenses.

The BCVMA played dual roles in the province, acting as a regulatory and membership body, until 2010, when it was renamed the College of Veterinarians of British Columbia (CVBC) and its oversight was limited to regulatory issues. In addition to the monetary awards, the tribunal ordered the CVBC to review certain disciplinary complaint files cited in the case, post an anti-discrimination policy on its website and host a one-day training program on racial discrimination for employees and volunteers.

Getting veterinarians in the province to talk openly about the case isn't easy. In private, many express resentment and anger, relaying rumors of tactics so dubious, they could spring from a spy novel. In its ruling, even the tribunal referenced shady circumstances with phrases such as "webs of deceit," "fishing expeditions," and "loyal lieutenants."

Fleming refers to the ordeal as a "manure fight."

"Like a plugged and overflowing toilet, this little battle has spread outside the association and is now leaking under the outhouse door into the public view," he said in an interview.

The initial complaint against the CVBC was brought in 2004 to the tribunal, a nine-member quasi-judicial body responsible for adjudicating human rights complaints in the province. Hearings began in 2007, and didn't end for four years. Deliberations lasted another four years before tribunal member Judy Parrack, a former lawyer with the British Columbia Public Interest Advocacy Centre, issued her Oct. 8 decision.

Parrack concluded that race-based stereotypes and negative, generalized views about the credibility and ethics of Indo-Canadian veterinarians affected the association’s dealings with the complainants in a variety of areas, from its decision to increase English language standards to its pursuit of disciplinary complaints and facility inspections.

"I find there was clear evidence of such views held by persons of influence in the BCVMA, that the BCVMA was aware, or ought reasonably to have been aware of this, and that it largely ignored and condoned the expression of such views," she stated in the ruling. "The result was a poisoned relationship between the BCVMA and the complainants, which the BCVMA then blamed entirely on those individuals claiming that they were 'playing the race card.' "

For those hoping to see the end of a drawn-out battle, the decision was welcome. But the saga continues.

On Dec. 7, CVBC officials filed for judicial review of Parrack’s decision in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The petition denies the overall finding of discrimination, questions Parrack’s methods and the tribunal's jurisdiction.

"We feel, and our counsel feels, that this is certainly justified and warranted," CVBC President Dr. Nick Shaw said. "Based on our lawyer’s advice and the finding of fact and testimony, we feel that the tribunal member [made] some significant errors in law and in findings of fact, and we think it needs to be reviewed."

Clea Parfitt, a lawyer for the Indo-Canadian veterinarians, said a review will likely take a year or more.

The role of rumors

For complainant and Haney Animal Hospital owner Dr. Bhupinder Johar, who was awarded $30,000 in the case, the ruling brought emotional relief. It's also brought new business, he said. Johar suspects that rumor-based fears about his services had deterred some potential clients.

"It was a huge for us because for years, we have had to live under the stigma that we were inferior doctors not doing a good job," Johar said. "Having that decision in our favor gives us relief that at least people see that we have been discriminated against."

Rather than race, some in the profession believe the problem stemmed from the low-cost, high-volume business model adopted by veterinarians who immigrated to Canada in the early 1990s. Dr. Hakam Bhullar, a complainant in the case, said that in 2005, he charged $45 to spay a cat when the BCVMA's fee guide recommended about $140 — a price difference riled more-established practices.

An eventual spike in complaints against Indo-Canadian veterinarians kicked off a narrative that their low-cost services translated to substandard care.

According to the petition, nearly 200 complaints were filed by the public, employees or other veterinarians against the complainants between 1999 and 2006. About 25 percent of those pertained to advertising guidelines, while the rest involved veterinary medicine, professional conduct or failure to provide medical records. Three were opened by the then-BCVMA.

Now the CVBC, the organization maintains that race was not a factor in pursuing disciplinary concerns about the complainants. Rather, the regulatory body was investigating real concerns about the businesses and their practice of veterinary medicine.

In her decision, Parrack said it was outside of her jurisdiction to determine whether those complaints were valid or whether outcomes of investigations were accurate. Her duty was to decide whether systemic discrimination played a role in the process.

Complainants testified that actions taken by regulators were meant to rein in the ability of Indo-Canadian veterinarians to practice in the province. Parrack found in her decision that reasons for discrimination went beyond economic tension or competition.

"The original irritant may have been the business model," she said, "but even the business model has a cultural basis, and it very quickly descended into race-based negative commentary about the training people had, the medicines they were using, whether or not they were kind to the animals and all sorts of allegations that had to do with people's prejudice."

The tribunal found that the CVBC circulated unsubstantiated rumors with an ability to influence decisions, especially when administrators who had openly demonstrated generalized, biased views of Indo-Canadians or animosity toward an individual or group were allowed to continue their work.

Parfitt, the complainants' lawyer, said for the CVBC to discipline fairly, there must be zero tolerance for perpetuating rumors.

"When stories start to circulate, every person has to decide not to be part of that," she said. "That has been a really critical part of how this has been carried forward from one year to the next, from one group of people on the college [council] to the next — extensive, toxic rumormongering."

Johar said the tribunal’s decision has put fears to rest.

"These kinds of rumors make a huge difference for people when they really love their pets," he said. "They would be scared of us or scared by other doctors who used to say, ‘You get what you pay for.’ Now that the decision is out there that we have been badmouthed and treated differently, they are definitely looking at a different aspect of us."

Fallout for all

The ruling has soured some veterinarians uninvolved in the case, particularly those who believe the CVBC did not discriminate. Others who disagree with the decision are bitter that the process has left the CVBC overburdened and underfunded.

More common is a sentiment that the profession has been marred by the case and its negative press.

"It’s been pretty bad from a morale standpoint," said Dr. Cathy Wilkie, a practice owner in British Columbia. "It’s hard to see members of your profession all tarred with the same brush. The press depicted all British Columbia vets as racists, and that was pretty hard to take."

The public, Fleming said, has a less-than-nuanced understanding of the case, including who was involved, historical context and 'bad behavior' on both sides. Bhullar, one of the complainants, is cited in the decision as having a friend pose as a disgruntled client to secretly record CVBC administrators as she led them into making disparaging comments about Indo-Canadian veterinarians. Conversely, Johar has accused the CVBC of hiring his own employee to steal medical records and contact clients.

"We look like a bunch of racist whites bent on protecting their market share at the expense of the lowly new immigrants who are 'of the people' and who [the public] believes care more because they charge way less," Fleming said. "The problem here is, there was real and justified conflict on both side of the battle, but the only message that came out was that the association was racist."

Wilkie and Fleming don’t believe the decision has directly affected their practices.

"I’ve been able to put it behind me quickly," Wilkie said, "But it was a real embarrassment for all veterinarians up here. Overall, I think most vets are just plain tired of this whole thing and want it to be over."

Count Fleming among them. When he learned that the college is pursuing judicial review, he contacted college administrators to say he disapproves. He also shared his opinions on a message board on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession.

One of his reasons is financial. The college is funded solely by membership, and legal costs have been its most significant expense for years, often only pulling through financial turmoil by levying registrants. Meanwhile, the tribunal is funded by taxes. It’s an irony that doesn’t go unnoticed.

"It has cost me thousands of dollars," Fleming wrote. "I no longer want to pay levies halfway through the year to service the legal debts incurred by ten years of near constant bickering and nastiness."

"Just pay the fines and let’s get this over with," he later said by phone. "Every time it comes up, we get vilified and roasted in the press, and now they’ll end up back in court, and I guarantee you it’s going to mean more money out of my pockets. For what?"

Why press on?

Shaw, the CVBC's president, said members have been made aware that judicial review will likely mean more levies. Though he has heard from registrants who share Fleming’s sentiment, he said he believes that most support the college and understand the importance of continuing the legal process.

"I certainly think the majority of members that I have had an opportunity to speak with understand that pursuing judicial review is the proper, rational and right thing to do," Shaw said. "Nobody is happy about spending money on the review. I’d prefer not to. But I also feel that [accepting this] would not be the appropriate way to proceed, and we would regret that later. There’s really no happy choice here."

He fears the organization will not be able to fulfill its mandate to regulate the profession and protect the public if he accepts the tribunal’s decision.

A former CVBC member who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation expressed a belief that to accept the tribunal's finding would haunt the professional community for generations.

The petition for judicial review maintains that Parrack misconstrued as racism the CVBC concerns about the complainants' business and veterinary practices. It states that "aggressive and wrongful actions" by the complainants, especially Bhullar, who has been the spokesperson for the complainants throughout the process, were largely ignored. It maintains that these should have been taken into account as reasons for the CVBC's treatment of the complainants.

It repeatedly takes issue with the length of the process and Parrack’s jurisdiction, stating that after her term concluded in 2010, she continued the hearings on a per-diem basis and subsequently took years to write her decision. The CVBC attempted to have Parrack dismissed during the hearings on the grounds of bias, the petition explains.

It also contests numerous findings, including that the CVBC's decision to increase the required English language score to 55 out of 60 was discriminatory. The CVBC has since eliminated the standard.

'Poisoned' relationship

Norm Letnick, British Columbia’s minister of agriculture, recently expressed disappointment in the CVBC's decision to pursue judicial review, while recognizing that it has taken steps to address the tribunal’s finding.

Shaw said the CVBC has passed a non-discrimination policy, initiated a major review and revision of its disciplinary processes and training programs for staff on cultural awareness, human rights and cultural sensitivity.

Some have seen these efforts as contradictory to the decision to pursue judicial review. Shaw said the changes are not an admission of guilt.

"I think not taking those steps would be rather an admission of foolishness and being stubborn," Shaw said. "Any time a decision like this or accusation is made, it should cause an organization such as ours to look at and evaluate processes and see if there is any room for improvement to make sure there is no opportunity for these things to occur, whether or not those things have occurred in the past."

He said the CVBC aims to make the disciplinary process less unpleasant for all registrants and believes its relationship with registrants has improved, based on feedback, meetings and outreach.

Those steps are little comfort to the complainants, given that the CVBC continues to deny discrimination, Parfitt said. She doesn't buy the notion that the CVBC of present has changed, and believes the appropriate response would be for the provincial government to step in and oversee it.

At the same time, she said conversations with CVBC staff have led her to believe that some transparency is being restored and that problematic "key players" in the case no longer are active.

"However, it remains to be seen if the college can undertake its regulatory roles without perpetuating and relying on the negative stereotypes it has been applying to the complainants," Parfitt said.

Johar and Bhullar characterize their relationship with the CVBC as more toxic than ever. In its petition, the CVBC accuses Bhullar of being ungovernable, dishonest and abusive.

Johar said he's confident the decision will stand: "We can only fight and try to prove ourselves and hope that justice will prevail. We have waited more than 10 years. We can wait another two.

"We are not scared of being regulated," he added. "We just want to be regulated fairly and with justice at the same level they are doing it with other doctors."

Inching forward

Ask Parfitt, Johar or Bhullar what they want to say to veterinarians who are skeptical that racism was at play, and their answers are the same: Read the tribunal’s decision.

"The only thing I want to say is we expect and hope that the whole veterinary community will actually read this judgment and develop their own individual views," Johar said.

Fleming tends to turn to excrement-oriented metaphors, and he's not the only one, when discussing the case.

"The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to wash all the manure off our white lab jackets, and trust that time and market forces will even everything out," he said.

Editor's note: This article was amended to specify the cost of services offered by an Indo-Canadian veterinarian and to more accurately reflect the CVBC's role in the province since its establishment in 2010. 

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