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Ontario rights tribunal finds landlord violated tenants’ religious rights

A landlord who repeatedly ignored his tenants' requests to respect their prayer times and remove his shoes in their prayer space violated their religious rights, Ontario's human rights tribunal has ruled.

John Alabi is facing a $12,000 fine after the decision, which found he discriminated against his tenants on the grounds of their Muslim faith.

The decision handed down from tribunal adjudicator Jo-Anne Pickel outlines a turbulent tenancy for Walid Madkour and Heba Ismail, who rented a unit from Alabi for less than three months after moving to Toronto from Montreal.

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The issues that came before the tribunal all took place in January and February 2015 — the time between when both parties mutually agreed to terminate the lease and the day the couple moved out.

Conflicts centred around requests the couple had made while Alabi was trying to show their unit to prospective tenants.

Alabi told the tribunal he felt Madkour and Ismail were imposing their way of life on him, a claim flatly rejected in Pickel's decision.

"Unfortunately, attempts by Muslims to practice their faith have increasingly been interpreted as an attempt to impose their way of life on others," Pickel wrote.

"There was absolutely no evidence that the applicants' requests for additional notice and for the removal of shoes in this case were an attempt by them to impose their way of life on the respondent or anyone else. Far from seeking to impose their way of life on anyone, the applicants were merely making simple requests for the accommodation of their religious practices."

Between late January and late February 2015, Alabi had agreed to give the couple 24-hours notice if someone was planning to view the apartment, in accordance with Ontario's Residential Tenancies Act.

Madkour and Ismail, however, asked for additional notice up to an hour before Alabi planned to enter the apartment.

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While they did not disclose the religious grounds for their request at first, they eventually explained that they wanted to be certain the visits did not coincide with prayer times designated by the Qur'an, the tribunal heard. As practising Muslims, both Madkour and Ismail pray five times a day during designated time periods.

Ismail also wanted to have enough time to ensure she was wearing her hijab and other "modest attire" in order to comply with another tenet of her faith, the tribunal heard.

Alabi frequently denied these requests or provided only momentary notice via text message before entering the apartment, the tribunal heard.

Once inside, another bone of contention often arose when Madkour or Ismail would request that people remove their shoes before walking through the unit.

The Qur'an states that the area in which prayers are conducted must be clean, the tribunal said, adding that potential contamination would result in extra work to cleanse the area.

In video evidence shown to the tribunal, Pickel said the couple is heard asking Alabi and a prospective tenant to remove their shoes before entering the bedroom, which they used as their prayer space.

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Pickel's decision said the video shows the prospective tenant wearing only socks, but clearly shows Alabi walking through the bedroom in shoes despite protests from Ismail, who is heard telling him that wearing footwear in the area is disrespectful.

Alabi told the tribunal that he ignored her request in order to avoid making a scene in front of the tenant and because he felt her stance was propaganda designed to make him look bad.

Pickel took a different view.

"I fail to see how such a request would make the respondent look bad if he complied with it," she wrote. "If anything, it was the respondent's non-compliance with the request that made him look bad in front of prospective tenants."

She also pointed to some text messages sent to Madkour in response to his request for additional notice before an apartment viewing. One of those messages read "Welcome to Ontario, Canada," prompting Pickel to find that Alabi was not respectful of the couple's religious rights under the Human Rights Code.

She ordered Alabi to pay Madkour and Ismail $6,000 each, as well as to take an online course on human rights and rental housing.

A paralegal representing Alabi said he is disappointed with the tribunal's decision and is considering an appeal.

Peta-Gaye Drummond said Alabi insists that none of his actions or omissions were motivated by the couple's religion.

Ontario’s government has unveiled a suite of measures aimed at making housing more affordable. Premier Kathleen Wynne says a planned foreign buyer tax is targeting real estate speculators in Toronto and the surrounding area. The Canadian Press
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