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Sheraton loses human rights case after hotel refused to book rooms for bhangra event

The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ordered the Sheraton Wall Hotel in Vancouver to pay Raj Sangha $2,500 for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect.

Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail/laura leyshon The Globe and Mail

When Raj Sangha's entertainment company was denied rooms inside a downtown Vancouver hotel because its event name featured the word "bhangra," the entrepreneur was dumbfounded by what he believed to be discrimination against those participating in an Indian folk dance competition.

Mr. Sangha took his case to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, and last week he and a co-complainant were awarded $2,500 each after the tribunal found they were subjected to "adverse treatment" by the Sheraton Wall Centre. The hotel had trouble the previous year while hosting visitors for a different bhangra event, and the tribunal said it denied Mr. Sangha's Pajiguys Entertainment Inc. "simply because both organizations were involved with a music and dance form strongly associated with persons whose ancestry was Punjabi."

In September, 2008, Mr. Sangha's female colleague - whose name was not released - contacted the Sheraton about booking 70 to 80 rooms. Pajiguys had scheduled a "Bhangra Idols" competition at a nearby theatre.

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But after initially saying it had enough rooms to accommodate the dancers, the Sheraton changed its tune. Mr. Sangha's colleague said she was told Bhangra Idols sounded very similar to the Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration. Participants in that event, the hotel said, caused excessive damage and sparked noise complaints during an event in January, 2007.

Mr. Sangha's co-complainant said her event had nothing to do with the VIBC and bhangra was a popular form of dance and music, but she was told by a member of the hotel's staff that nothing could be done. Mr. Sangha followed up with Jeff Graham, the hotel chain's regional director, to ask why the reservation couldn't be made.

"Because you're the same organization as VIBC," Mr. Sangha accused Mr. Graham of saying. When Mr. Sangha asked how that was so, he testified he was told: "Because you have 'bhangra' in your name."

Reached for comment after the tribunal's decision came in, Mr. Sangha, 33, said he was satisfied with the ruling.

"Our whole purpose was not about the monetary value. It was more about the principle of the situation," he said. He and his co-complainant had asked for an award of $25,000.

The Bhangra Idols event went ahead as planned, but only after organizers booked rooms at two different hotels, including one in Richmond, B.C. Mr. Sangha said the added distance caused some headaches, since the group had to figure out what to do about transportation.

Participants at Bhangra Idols events are now tasked with booking their own hotel rooms.

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Mr. Sangha said the reason for the rejection stung. "If you feel you were discriminated against, there's a hurt that goes in with it. It shouldn't be happening in this day and age, but it did."

The Sheraton told the tribunal the name of the event had nothing to do with its decision. It said large bookings require references, credit checks and other documents, something the impending event date did not allow.

In ordering the hotel to pay for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect, tribunal member Murray Geiger-Adams said he did not buy the Sheraton's version of events. "I need not decide whether the complainants would have been able to satisfy the hotel with respect to those [documentation]matters; they were never given the opportunity to try," he said.

When reached by phone, Mr. Graham said he was glad the situation had been resolved. He said the case arose out of a simple misunderstanding and denied discrimination or racism was to blame. When asked if a bhangra team would be able to book a large number of rooms at the Sheraton without any trouble today, he said yes.

Sukhi Ghuman, VIBC's spokeswoman, said some damage was caused to the Sheraton during the 2007 event - that's what happens when you have up to 300 university-age guests, she said. But she believed that damage to be worth less than $500, not the thousands of dollars mentioned in the judgment.

Ms. Ghuman said VIBC hasn't returned to the Sheraton since then, but only because of the hotel's price point for rooms. She said she has never witnessed discrimination from a hotel against bhangra performers.

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