Prentice’s support of bank in discrimination case misses mark

Editor's Note

This letter to the editor is in response to an op-ed published earlier this month by OBJ columnist Michael Prentice.

In the July 3 issue of the Ottawa Business Journal a featured column by Michael Prentice (“Settling the age-old question of discrimination”) defended the Bank of Nova Scotia against an age-discrimination charge brought by a “retired university teacher and administrator” and supported by the Canadian Association of Retired Persons. I am the “Ottawa professor” to whom he refers, and his article concerns an application I currently have before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

The case involves Scotiabank’s withdrawal of a particular credit card benefit from its cardholders when they reach the age of 65, and the benefit concerned is some travel insurance coverage for trip cancellation or interruption costs. The card’s insurance certificate specifies two distinct causes for claiming this benefit, those that are medically related and those that are non-medical. They are covered in separate sections of the policy, but the age restriction is surprisingly applied to both of them.

As is made clear in the relevant documentation (which is in the public domain but seems not to have been fully read by Mr. Prentice, who apparently didn’t interview any of the parties to this dispute either), the case has nothing to do with medically caused travel cancellation or interruption. My HRTO application seeks to have the age restriction removed from the non-medical category of causes, a simple solution that the Bank of Nova Scotia will have been fighting for more than a year-and-a-half by the time our hearing takes place this October.

While there may be some justification for denying seniors such coverage for trip interruption costs caused by health issues, people aged 65 and over are no more likely to have their trips cancelled for non-medical reasons such as stormy weather or faulty equipment than are any other travellers – in fact, Statistics Canada figures indicate the opposite because they show that people over age 65 travel less than other adults.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Code, such discrimination is permissible only if “reasonable and bona fide grounds” can be shown to justify it. Yet after Mr. Prentice claims that it’s a “buyer beware” situation. Surely that applies only when the thing the buyer should be wary of is lawful, and in this case it clearly isn’t because it violates the human rights codes in Canada.

I doubt that Mr. Prentice would support Scotiabank if it denied this benefit to women because of their gender or to members of the LGBTQ community because of their sexual orientation. Yet he claims that if the Bank of Nova Scotia chooses to withdraw it from those over 65 for the sole reason of their age, “that’s the bank’s business.” Such an argument makes a mockery of human rights, and it is especially insulting to seniors.

In its March 2016 response to my original complaint about this practice, the BNS president’s office justified it in two ways – first, that there’s nothing wrong with marketing this credit card as long as it also makes others available that don’t discriminate in this way. That is like a pharmacy claiming that it’s okay for it to push illegal drugs as long as it also sells legal ones, which is silly.

Second, the bank renounces any culpability because it provides notification to the cardholder that this benefit is to be withdrawn at age 65. By this argument there would be no guilt in murdering someone as long as the killer informs the target that it’s going to happen, which is equally ridiculous. If a crime is committed, blaming the victim is not an adequate defence.

Fortunately, I am unaware of any other major Canadian bank that practises this unjustified discrimination against older persons. But that doesn’t absolve Scotiabank, which must be held to account for this breach of a basic human right, and Mr. Prentice should have condemned rather than condoned it.

Robin Farquhar,
Ottawa