Credits: VALERIE MACDONALD/Northumberland Today/QMI AGENCY
Engineers wear an iron ring on their pinky finger. It's a tradition that began in 1925 to commemorate a terrible engineering disaster.
The massive Quebec Bridge across the Saint Lawrence River collapsed - twice. Once in 1907. And again in 1916. The same bridge.
Eighty-eight people were killed.
A Royal Commission of Inquiry ruled "the failure cannot be attributed directly to any cause other than errors in judgment on the part of... two engineers."
That disaster led to an overhaul in the credentialing of engineers. In Canada, it's now illegal to call yourself an engineer without passing difficult exams, and being subject to the oversight of engineering associations. It's similar to the requirements to call yourself a doctor.
But to Ladislav Mihaly, those rules are just too tough.
Mihaly was born in Czechoslovakia (as it was then known) and immigrated to Canada. He claimed he had two master's degrees from the former Czechoslovakia and worked there as a professional engineer for 25 years. In 1999, he applied to become an Alberta engineer and, like all would-be engineers, was asked to take a test administered by the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA).
So he applied to write the exam again, nine months later. This time, he didn't even bother to show up.
Some three years later, Mihaly phoned APEGA and told them he was a really, really good engineer, and asked to be exempted. They invited him to take the test again. And again he failed.
He started doing weird things. In August of 2006, Mihaley wrote an e-mail to APEGA with the subject line, "Do you want to trade." He said he would rewrite Alberta's Fire Safety Codes for free - and if he did a good job, maybe they'd let him be an engineer without taking the test.
APEGA said no. Aren't you glad they did? Don't you wish they had been around when the Quebec Bridge was being built?
So on Aug. 5, 2008, almost 10 years after first applying to write the exam, Mihaly sued.
He didn't appeal to an APEGA review panel. He didn't appeal to a real court. He had no case. And he had no money.
So he did what you'd expect a ne'er-do-well to do: he complained to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, who were thrilled to have a new customer.
Mihaly is not a minority. He's a middle-aged white male from Europe. The exam he kept failing was an engineering exam - about as non-subjective as possible. In fact, almost a quarter of Alberta engineers today are immigrants. They all passed the exam. Mihaly just wanted special treatment.
But human rights commissions aren't called kangaroo courts for nothing. And for the next five years, they ran with Mihaly's case with a vengeance. He didn't even have to hire a lawyer; taxpayers paid for the whole thing.
And earlier this month, the tribunal ruled in Mihaly's favour.
In the Feb. 6 decision, they ruled that it was discrimination to hold foreign-born "engineers" to Canada's professional standards.
They ordered APEGA to pay Mihaly $10,000 in cash. And they ordered APEGA to contact Mihaly's schools back in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, to find out if in fact Mihaly was a good engineer. Not by testing him. But by talking to the schools over there, decades after Mihaly left.
They had to do more, too. They had to convene a panel of foreign-born Alberta engineers to help Mihaly. They had to find him a mentor. They had to help him find networking parties to go to. All this for a man who confessed at the hearing that he was a layabout. He was unemployed for three years and had worked for five years in low-paying jobs that required only a high-school education. He tried running a bakery which failed.
This is a disgrace. But it's not a surprise. It's a human rights commission, not a real court. But it has legal effect. It sets a precedent. Get ready for third-world doctors who fail our exams to cite it to force their way into our hospitals too.
APEGA will appeal. And they will eventually win. But Canada's obsolete grievance-mongering industry will continue to chug along until we rip out these human rights tribunals by the root.