Former Folk Fest employee takes stage, argues she was discriminated against when work didn’t take her back

By | October 9, 2019

A breast cancer survivor who lost her job at Winnipeg Folk Festival while on long-term disability leave, says it’s important the organization is taken to task for how it treated her. 

Margaret Koshinsky rejected a $130,000 settlement from the Winnipeg Folk Festival earlier this year, so she could have Wednesday’s hearing in front of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission’s independent adjudicator to explain how she survived cancer but lost her job. 

“Had I accepted the offer without going through with this … hearing, there would not have been any record whatsoever of this complaint,” Koshinsky said afterwards.

In making her case, Koshinsky, who was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 2013, said she was booted as the folk festival’s manager of marketing and communications when she tried to return from long-term disability in 2016.

She was under the impression she would be welcomed back by her employer only to learn weeks before her scheduled return that her position had been filled and she had no job. 

She says she was dismissed because her boss didn’t think she could do the job at the same level as she did before her diagnosis. 

They should know better: Koshinsky

“To be treated this way by an organization with deep roots and connections to social justice is just shocking,” Koshinsky told the adjudicator during her emotional submission Wednesday morning.

“Even now, when the complaint is taken to be true, they don’t have the courage to right this wrong in a transparent and honest way, and I say, shame on every member of the Winnipeg Folk Festival for their irresponsible and insensitive treatment.”

The hearing was considering the folk festival’s position that the adjudication process should be scrapped because it was offering Koshinsky a reasonable settlement package. ​​​​​

The lawyer for the human rights commission reached the same conclusion as the folk festival, and Koshinsky herself said afterwards she expects adjudicator Tracey Epp to agree.

Under provincial human rights law, the independent adjudicator must order the acceptance of a settlement offer if they consider the deal sufficient. Epp expects to deliver her decision next week.

The Winnipeg Folk Festival says it takes the complaint of its former employee seriously. Past chair Noreen Mian says the festival is committed to ensuring a respectful workplace. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Koshinsky told the hearing the offer could not be considered reasonable by the adjudicator until her side of the story was heard.

She explained it’s disappointing the folk festival wants to resolve her dispute privately, when it had the chance to resolve it behind closed doors long before she filed her complaint with the human rights commission.

“By denying me the right to return to work, I was denied the opportunity to complete my recovery and the opportunity to get my life under me again,” she said.

She accused her former boss of wanting nothing to do with a cancer survivor’s potential need for accommodation.

“I know her well enough to know that as someone who’s focused only on productivity, she couldn’t fathom the idea of having an employee like me, a cancer survivor, who might not be high-functioning on day one,” Koshinsky said.

Tried to accommodate: folk festival

The folk festival declined an interview, but in a statement past board chair Noreen Mian said the organization is taking Koshinsky’s complaint seriously. 

“The Winnipeg Folk Festival is determined in defending its position and remains committed to maintain a respectful work environment that is free of discrimination for all employees,” Mian said in a statement. 

In 2016, folk festival executive director Lynne Skromeda told CBC News the organization tried to accommodate Koshinsky “up to the point of undue hardship.” She was kept on staff until her long-term disability lapsed a few months later.

In addition to the compensation promised in the settlement, the folk festival offered Koshinsky an apology, a letter of recommendation and two tickets to next year’s festival. 

She said these additional gestures come too late, and she would still like the folk festival to apologize publicly. 

“For what it’s worth,” Epp told Koshinsky, at the end of her submission, “you’ve been heard.” 

Outside the hearing, Koshinsky said she wants to put this dispute behind her, and focus her energies on celebrating that she’s a cancer survivor.