Ontario Human rights Reform - A call to Action

WHAT THE MARCH 22, 2007 ONTARIO BUDGET INCLUDES ON SOME KEY DISABILITY ISSUES

March 22, 2007

SUMMARY


Here is a quick update on the key points in the March 22, 2007 Ontario Budget as it pertains to key disability issues in which the AODA Alliance is involved. This is the last provincial Budget before this fall's provincial election.

AODA Alliance representatives attended the pre-Budget lock-up just before the Budget was read in the Legislature. They had an opportunity to ask questions of Government officials, and to review the text of the Budget speech and key background documents. The following is based on their first zip through these documents. We are issuing this update as quickly as possible after being released from the lock-up.

Further exploration of the full package of Budget documents may yield fuller information. The two key issues we focus on are funding for the human rights enforcement system and funding for the implementation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. We also briefly review some other disability-related announcements in the budget. That latter review may not be comprehensive.

HUMAN RIGHTS FUNDING

Throughout the debates over Bill 107's controversial reforms to the Ontario human rights system last year, the AODA Alliance along with other equality-seeking communities with whom we worked were among the most vocal voices that called for increased funding for human rights enforcement. The AODA Alliance's predecessor, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee, had been a leading voice for years in Ontario in calling for increased funding for the Human Rights Commission.

The March 22, 2007 Ontario Budget includes a commitment of funding for the new Human Rights Legal Support Centre. The Budget documents, as explained to us by Ministry of Finance staff, includes a commitment of a total of 8 million dollars for this spread over the next three years. There will be 3 million dollars in the fiscal year starting April 1, 2007. The rest is spread out over the following two years.

This appears to be new funding over and above the current funding for the Human Rights Tribunal and the Human Rights commission. However, we are told by Government staff at the budget lock-up that there is no new funding announced in this Budget either for the Human rights Tribunal or the Human Rights Commission. This is especially significant since under bill 107, the Human Rights Tribunal will have its case load explode to a number projected to be at least 25 times as big as its current case load. Moreover, Bill 107 gives the Tribunal substantial new duties, such as the duty to deal with intake of all human rights complaints, and the power to conduct investigation of human rights complaints (before they go to trial).

From this we can only conclude that any new budget that may be given to the Human Rights Tribunal to take on this huge new workload would come from having it taken away from the existing budget of the Human Rights Commission. This is something that the AODA Alliance predicted last year during public debates over Bill 107. That would not provide the Tribunal with enough funding to clear the backlog of human rights cases, or to be able to fulfill the Government's commitment of each case going to a hearing on the merits within one year of a complaint being filed. As the AODA Alliance predicted, this runs the real risk that Bill 107 will simply move the long line-up at the Human Rights Commission's door over to a new long line-up at the Human Rights Tribunal's door.

It also means that the Human Rights Commission can expect to be the target of very substantial budget cuts. If that happens, the Human Rights Commission will not be able to fulfill the Government's commitment that under Bill 107, the Commission's resources will be freed up to be a strong human rights enforcer, bringing important public interest cases to the Human Rights Tribunal. Rather than having its resources freed up for that purpose, the Commission's resources can be expected to be taken away and given to the Human Rights Tribunal.

The Budget's Commitment of new funding for the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, while beneficial, falls very far short of being capable of living up to the Ontario Government's commitments last year that under Bill 107, each human rights complainant will get a free, independent, publicly funded lawyer. Assuming that there will be at least 2,500 or more people each year bringing forward human rights complaints (as has been the case in recent years), this means that there will be an average of between $1,000 and $1,200 per case. This is hardly enough money to provide a lawyer to represent each complainant through the Human Rights Tribunal process. If you add to this the added the demand on the Legal Support Centre by many people seeking advice on whether to file a human rights complaint. According to Human Rights Commission statistics, the Human Rights Commission now fields some 60,000 inquiries per year.

As a point of comparison, a legal clinic under Legal Aid Ontario Cannot be expected to service 2,500 clients per year spread right across Ontario through contested legal proceedings at a tribunal like the Human rights Tribunal with an annual budget of $2, -3 million per year.

Will Legal Aid clinics be able to pick up the slack? During public hearings and public debates over Bill 107 last year, several legal clinics, including some which supported Bill 107, made it clear that they don't have enough funding to be able to take on the role of representing a substantial number of discrimination victims at the Human Rights Tribunal. This budget announces some $51 of new funding for legal Aid Ontario spread over the next three years. However, the Budget doesn't allocate any of this to Legal Aid clinics. We were advised at the lock-up by Ministry of finance staff that there is no allocation decided on in this Budget for more money for Legal Aid clinics.

As an interesting comparison to the $8 million in new funding for the Human Rights Legal Support Centre to be spread over the next three years, the Budget announced a total of $10 million in this upcoming year to expand broadband coverage in rural southern Ontario i.e. to expand access to the internet.

FUNDING FOR THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT

The Budget speech and background materials include no announcement of any new specific funding to finance the implementation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. We asked a Ministry of Finance official at the lock-up whether there was any new funding for this in the Budget. We were told there is none.

NEW FUNDING FOR INFRA-STRUCTURE AND OTHER PROGRAMS LIKE HEALTH, EDUCATION, COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES

The Budget includes several new announcements of funding for infra-structure around Ontario, and for major programs such as health, education and colleges and universities. It includes no new commitments or initiatives to require that that funding only be spent to provide disability-accessible infra-structure and disability-accessible services. We were advised at the lock-up that the provisions for this are those already in the Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2001 and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2005.

SOME OTHER DISABILITY-SPECIFIC COMMITMENTS

The budget commits to a new 2% increase in ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Plan) benefits as well as to Ontario Works benefits (i.e. mainstream social assistance) These would go into effect starting in November 2007, i.e. after the fall provincial election.

The Budget announces an increase in benefits to recipients of workplace compensation for workplace injuries under the WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, formerly Worker Compensation). These increases will be in the amount 2.5% per year for each of the next three years.

The Budget also announces an increase to provincial funding for developmental services over the next four years to rise to $200 million in the fourth year. We do not know what amounts the increases will be in the first three of those four years. The Budget also announces $7 million in new capital funding for developmental services.

On the subject of funding for services for children with autism, the Budget background documents state that Ontario has increased funding to nearly $130 million in 2007-08. We cannot ascertain what portion of this, if any, constitutes a commitment of new funds in this Budget.

In terms of funding for children's mental health services, the Budget documents announce that it is providing an addition $8 million in annual funding to address gaps in local service needs and to reduce wait times.

MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD

Let the Government, the opposition parties and the media know what you think of the Ontario Budget. Also, send us your feedback. You can email us at: aodafeedback@rogers.com

We cannot reply to each email we get, but we definitely read and build on all the feedback you send us.