Having resolved all other serious issues, the Supreme Court of Canada decides to tackle last remaining legal knot

Highest court asked to rule on old Lone Ranger term

HALIFAX – The Supreme Court of Canada is being asked to hear arguments on whether the word “kemosabe” is racist to native people.

The request comes from the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, which is dealing with a grievance dating back to 1999.

”We think it’s time to … have some ground rules so people know what’s permissible and what isn’t.’ – human rights lawyer

Dorothy Kateri Moore, a Mi’kmaq woman working at a sports store in Sydney, N.S., had complained that her boss, Trevor Miller, referred to her and other workers as “kemosabe” – the term used by the 1950s TV character Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, to describe the masked cowboy.

Moore said Miller told her the word meant “friend.” But she claimed it was a racial slur and that its repeated use led to a poisoned work environment.

Last February, a human rights board of inquiry ruled Moore was not discriminated against because she hadn’t shown she was offended by the word, nor did she ask her boss to stop using it.

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal upheld that ruling in October, saying Moore had not shown the term was “notoriously offensive.”

For the first time in its 37-year history, the commission has asked the Supreme Court of Canada to appeal a decision of the province’s Court of Appeal.

Commission lawyers say they will argue employees were afraid to speak up to their employer and they want the Supreme Court to draw the line on what language is acceptable in the workplace.

“The idea that there are some words that are notoriously offensive and some that aren’t, and the burden on the employee shifts depending on that, really creates a lot of confusion in the workplace,” said commission lawyer Michael Wood.

“We think it’s time to clarify that and have some ground rules so people know what’s permissible and what isn’t.”

During the inquiry hearings, several members of the Mi’kmaq community testified that “kemosabe” was a racial slur, although others said they were not offended by it.

The board of inquiry spent one day looking at old Lone Ranger shows, eventually concluding that the term was never used in a derogatory way and that Tonto and the Lone Ranger treated each other with respect.

The Supreme Court has yet to decide if it will hear the appeal.

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