Yukon College caught on discrimination, harassment

Susan Malcolm and Sarah Baker share cigarettes, a home and facial features. And now, after attending Yukon College's Community Support Worker program, the mirror twins have one more thing to add to this list - harassment.

Susan Malcolm and Sarah Baker share cigarettes, a home and facial features.

And now, after attending Yukon College’s Community Support Worker program, the mirror twins have one more thing to add to this list – harassment.

The two sisters were in their mid-50s when they decided to go back to school in 2004.

Childhood bouts with polio and lupus left them years behind as children.

And when they started working at 15, they hadn’t even graduated from Grade Six.

“So when we went back we were like Grade Fivers doing everything our teachers said,” said Baker.

“We were so excited,” said Malcolm.

“It had been 40 years, and we didn’t know anything but to be polite and do what we were told.”

But some of the things Baker and Malcolm were told by their teachers didn’t seem quite right.

“Our teachers told us we couldn’t sit together,” said Malcolm.

They also made them photocopy their written assignments before handing them in, because they claimed they smelled of cigarette smoke, said Baker.

The twins weren’t the only smokers in class, but they were the only ones asked to photocopy their work, said Malcolm.

Still, the sisters complied with the teachers’ unorthodox requests.

But it didn’t stop there.

Soon Baker and Malcolm found themselves singled out for special meetings with the program’s two teachers.

“They questioned why we both wanted to do this program,” said Malcolm.

“They suggested that one of us could be a secretary instead.”

But Baker and Malcolm wanted to work with clients facing mental-health issues.

As young women working in a beauty salon on Prince Edward Island, the twins remember shutting the shop down on Saturdays once a month to give all the local foster children and those struggling with mental-health issues free haircuts.

“It was so much fun seeing their faces after we did their hair,” said Malcolm.

The sisters ended up working in various restaurants in PEI, then headed north and cooked in mining camps and ran restaurants in Dawson City, before finally deciding to return to school.

Yukon College’s Community Support Worker program seemed like the perfect fit, said Malcolm.

And they loved the classes.

It was the teachers who were the problem.

Malcolm and Baker wound up back in their office after handing in their first big assignments.

“They said our assignments were too similar and accused me of plagiarizing a poem I wrote at the end of the essay,” said Baker, who has had her poetry published.

At this same meeting, the twins were told to cut their course load and take the program over three years.

This became a recurring theme.

“I began to believe I was too stupid to be in the course,” said Malcolm.

It didn’t help that one of the teachers, talking about the first practicum, said to Malcolm, “And I didn’t tell them you were disabled.”

Worried they were “running one brick short of a load,” Malcolm and Baker went to their doctor for cognitive testing.

They scored 98 and 99 per cent respectively.

“Just because we’re not formally educated doesn’t mean we’re stupid,” said Baker.

Around this time, the sisters approached the Human Rights Commission, but were told it would be a conflict of interest for the commission to take the case.

The sisters still aren’t sure why.

“Our story probably just seemed too outrageous,” said Malcolm.

So they bought a mini tape recorder and started surreptitiously taping meetings.

When Malcolm and Baker refused to quit the program, the teachers began pointing out their physical problems.

“At one point, (the teacher) told me I wouldn’t be able to run after a child who was trying get away,” said Malcolm.

The teachers even contacted the twins’ doctor, to ask if they could run for 30 minutes.

“Our doctors said she couldn’t even run for 30 minutes,” said Malcolm. “Our doctor was outraged.”

The sisters admit they are “big.”

But they found it embarrassing to have that pointed out in class.

Talking about it years later, Malcolm and Baker still get uncomfortable, and are loath to discuss the next issue.

Finally, under her breath, Baker brings it up.

“They said we smelled bad.”

“You have to work hard to be that mean to someone,” said Malcolm.

The sisters went back to the Human Rights Commission with the tapes.

This time, they weren’t turned away.

The harassment continued.

When they went to register for a class on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, required for the program, they were told they weren’t allowed.

One of the teachers said, “giving them a full-time course load would be like giving an infant a rock to push uphill,” according to the human rights decision document.

The sisters went to the registrar, who didn’t see why they weren’t allowed to take the class.

But when the registrar called to confirm that Baker and Malcolm could take the FASD class, he was told their spots had been filled by students who were not in the program.

“We really wanted to take this program,” said Baker.

“We didn’t want to quit.

“But here we were, these two 58-year-old women coming home from school every day and bawling our eyes out.”

The stress got to the twins.

At different points, both sisters ended up in the hospital with congestive heart failure, a common side effect of their lupus.

“We are not supposed to get stressed, or it acts up,” said Malcolm.

Still, they kept attending classes, and loved the practicums, working with youth and adults struggling with mental health issues.

“We went to church dances with them and got up and danced with the kids,” said Malcolm.

“I really missed the guys we worked with.”

Malcolm and Baker never finished the program.

They were just days shy of completing their last practicum, when their lupus flared up again.

The sisters asked if they could continue the practicum days later, but were denied by the teachers, who also informed the twins they would give them terrible references.

“They actually said they’d tell potential employers not to hire us,” said Baker.

“We have a few issues, we’re obese and have lupus,” she said. “But we’ve worked hard all our lives and are perfectly capable.”

The Human Rights Commission ruled in favour of the twins.

But it took seven years.

The two teachers at the college, “discriminated against (Baker and Malcolm) on the basis of physical and cognitive disabilities, or perceptions thereof and harassed them on the basis of the perception of mental and physical disability,” read the 33-page ruling.

Malcolm and Baker were to be awarded $10,000 each, as well as lawyer fees.

Not long after the decision came out, the sisters received an email from Yukon College offering to double their compensation if they didn’t talk to the media, said Malcolm.

The sisters agreed.

But then the college changed its tune.

Now, it’s appealing the human rights decision.

“The college disagrees with the decision and has appealed the decision and expects the decision will be set aside,” said an email from a college spokesperson, who asked to remain anonymous.

“As the matter is before the courts, the college will not be commenting further.”

Turns out the commission’s chief adjudicator, who signed off on the Malcolm/Baker decision had already finished her term.

“The decision is being appealed by the college because of a question of law with respect to the jurisdiction of the board to make a decision after a board member’s appointment has expired,” said commission lawyer Fia Jampolsky in an email.

This oversight could cost the sisters their case.

All statements of fact relating to the appeal must be filed by 4 p.m. Friday.

Malcolm and Baker still think about the clients they worked with during the program.

It’s coming up to Halloween, and Malcolm remembers a day she spent with the children decorating lunch boxes.

“I brought pipe cleaners, and they’d say, ‘Make me a witch,’ or ‘Make me a ghost,’” she said with a smile.

“That kind of work brings you good health and happiness,” said Baker.

“But who’s going to hire two women in their 60s – never mind being fat and a twin.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com

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