Partner Kathryn Marshall On CBC News
Party says complainant violated anti-harassment policy, membership suspended
The former head of the Alberta New Democrats’ membership organization for people with disabilities has filed a human rights complaint against the party for discrimination.
Justin Reinke, the former co-chair of the NDP’s disability caucus, is alleging he was discriminated against and wrongfully dismissed from his role in retaliation for speaking out against mistreatment.
But in a statement Friday, the NDP pushed back, saying Reinke behaved aggressively with his fellow members, which led to his removal.
CBC News has obtained a copy of the human rights complaint and supporting documentation filed on Tuesday, less than a week before Alberta’s election.
Reinke alleges he witnessed and was subject to discrimination against disabled NDP members, as well as abuse of volunteers and staff by more senior members of the party.
This included a provincial council meeting last June, where he says a member in a wheelchair was wheeled out of the way without consent, jeering from the audience at disabled members during policy debate and the party failing to make accessibility supports available. The complaint says the washrooms were too small for a power chair and there were no closed captioning services for some sessions.
“There is an immense amount of ableism in the ANDP,” Reinke told the executive in an August report asking for the alleged discrimination to be addressed.
His complaint says he advocated for the resolution of these issues and allegations of bullying internally but was ignored. Reinke was removed shortly after from his role (a volunteer, elected position), which he alleges was retaliation for speaking up about his concerns.
The allegations have not been tested in court, and the Alberta Human Rights Commission’s confidentiality process means it’s unable to say whether the matter would be accepted and brought to a hearing. The Alberta Human Rights Act protects people from discrimination, including those with a physical or mental disability.
Counter-allegations and pushback
In a statement, the NDP said there had been six counter-complaints about Reinke’s conduct, including “violent threats” against volunteers and staff. They added that an investigation found he violated the party’s anti-harassment policy, and his membership was suspended. The current disability caucus also expressed that they’d had concerning incidents with Reinke, which they’d confronted him about.
“Those allegations are completely fabricated,” said Kathryn Marshall, Reinke’s lawyer and a partner with Levitt Sheikh LLP, calling it a campaign of intimidation and retaliation.
“None of this was raised at the time he was removed as co-chair.”
Reinke’s August report to the party executive asked them to take action against the “vile and shameful behaviour of multiple delegates against delegates with disabilities.”
“I would expect that behaviour from zoo animals. Make no mistake, these are serious violations of the human rights of disabled people,” he wrote. He sent several emails over the course of the summer with very strong language and accusations to the executive, which CBC News has obtained.
Reinke, who has a neurological disability, asked via email for NDP Leader Rachel Notley’s attendance at two meetings — one in early June to discuss allegations of bullying volunteers and one the night he sent the report to discuss the discrimination he’d raised. She was not at either, the complaint says.
Early in September, there was an emergency meeting of the disability caucus, where Reinke was removed as co-chair.
“The board felt that we needed a different approach to leadership that was more in touch with the executive board,” reads an email sent from the interim chair to Reinke that day.
He’s seeking $500,000 in damages and for the party to adopt his recommendations on inclusivity. There is a one-year time limit to file a complaint with the commission, which would set the expiration date for two weeks from now.
Clare Hickie, Reinke’s disability caucus co-chair, also resigned in July after the provincial council meeting citing “internal and external” pressures having a negative impact on her health in a letter obtained by CBC News.
Allegations of bullying
In a followup letter to party members included in the complaint, Reinke says he’s witnessed discrimination and intimidation against party volunteers from senior officials — such as being told it’s not politically prudent to campaign on disability issues.
He called for the resignation of several party executives as a result of the cumulative behaviour and complaints.
It’s not the first time an NDP volunteer has raised alarm about conduct in the party.
A letter sent in March 2022 by 15 NDP constituency presidents and regional vice-presidents to party brass outlined concerns with how the party was operating, particularly dealing with alleged favouritism in the nomination process and bullying.
It asked for more respect from senior party staff toward volunteers and constituency-level workers. It also asks for an independent review into reports of mistreatment of volunteers by party staff.
“We expect to be spoken to, and corresponded with, in a manner that upholds our party’s commitment to respect.”
Notley told the provincial council in June that the NDP would be asking an independent firm to look into those complaints — as well as examine the party’s human resources policy — as a result of the letter.
The NDP says HR training was completed among leadership staff in November and the audit was finished in the fall, with stronger harassment policies approved in March.
With the exception of the Reinke’s August report, the emails included in the complaint are light on specific details of instances of harassment or mistreatment
“The party has inflicted trauma and pain to many who were most loyal. That is how the membership is rewarded in the ANDP,” he wrote.
Reinke is asking the party to establish an accessibility committee, make more party business accessible online, add an accessibility policy to the party’s constitution, and for an apology from leadership.
The NDP says accommodations were made for disability caucus members to participate during the June council meeting.
Human rights complaints can be handled either through a conciliation process between the two parties or the matter is referred to a tribunal.
The complaint can go to a formal hearing if it’s not closed or dismissed before it reaches tribunal.
The commission says it opened 1,040 complaints in the 2021-22 fiscal year, 22 per cent of which were dealt with via the tribunal process.