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University tries to end discrimination case over women's hockey funding

FREDERICTON - A discrimination complaint over a decision by the University of New Brunswick to downgrade its women hockey team from varsity status to a non-funded club should not proceed because the complainant doesn't have a personal stake in the case, lawyers for the school argued Monday.

Lawyer Clarence Bennett asked a provincial board of inquiry to declare Sylvia Bryson's challenge moot because the former player hasn't qualified to play for the university since 2009.

"The fact that she says she would be willing to try out for the team is irrelevant," Bennett said. "The board can't deal with hypotheticals."

Bryson has been fighting to have the women's hockey team reinstated as a varsity squad since filing her complaint in 2009, a year after the university decided to strip the team of its funding and reclassify it to a competitive sports club.

Five other teams for both men and women were also downgraded, but Bryson's complaint deals only with the women's hockey team, alleging that the decision constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex.

Bryson also wants changes to the gender equality policy of the school's athletics department, saying it needs to include allocation of resources for both men's and women's teams.

Bennett said Monday that Bryson wouldn't qualify to play for the women's hockey team because she is not a full-time student at the university and is living and working in Newfoundland.

But Matthew Letson, the lawyer for Bryson and the province's human rights commission, argued that Bryson still has a year of eligibility to play and would qualify to try out for a team if she returned as a full-time student.

He said Bryson has a clear stake in the outcome of the inquiry.

"If she went to UNB today and said she wanted to play varsity hockey, she would be denied because they don't have a program," he said.

Bryson, 27, did not attend the board hearing on Monday, but in an interview from St. John's, N.L., she said she would return to the university for a chance to play in her final year of eligibility.

"The varsity level of hockey is likely the highest level of hockey I will likely be able to play," she said.

Bryson said the women's hockey team never received the level of resources enjoyed by the men's hockey team, yet the university compared their outcomes such as win-loss records when the decision was made to cut funding from the women's squad.

"In 2008 they made a decision where they were comparing our team to another and the tools that we had to achieve that outcome were not the same," she said.

Bryson didn't play at the unfunded, recreational level because she said it would be insulting to her.

"It would be to suggest that it was acceptable to have downgraded the varsity team."

Both Bennett and Letson declined comment following the hearing in Fredericton.

Bryson's original complaint was filed with the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission and the commission then referred the matter to a board of inquiry.

The inquiry is being heard by Robert Breen, chairman of the New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board.

Breen has reserved decision on the university's request to declare the complaint moot. He said Monday he will deliver his decision in a timely manner but gave no estimate on how long that might be.

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