Ontario Human rights Reform - A call to Action

Toronto Star Columnist Calls AODA Alliance News Conference Speakers “Chicken Littles” - and Other Developments
April 4, 2006

SUMMARY

Recent developments in our campaign to prevent the weakening of the Ontario Human Rights Commission include:

* Remember to tell anyone who wants to be added to the AODAA email update list to send a request to:

mlumgair@chs.ca

* Toronto Star's disability columnist Helen Henderson's article in the April 1, 2006 Toronto Star is quite insulting to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Alliance. See her article below. Helen Henderson’s column's headline refers to the AODA Alliance speakers at its March 16,
2006 Queens Park news conference as "chicken littles".

The AODA Alliance was among the first to lead off the swelling tide of opposition to the Government's plan to weaken the Human Rights Commission.

Its position has received wide support from at least a dozen organizations in the disability Community and from others outside the disability community.

So far, the Star has printed no letters to the editor about this column. You are encouraged to write letters to the editor about it. The more letters that are sent to the Toronto Star by different people, the more likely some will get printed. Keep your letter to around 100 words. It is best to email it to:

lettertoed@thestar.ca

The article gives an email address to Helen Henderson that you might also copy it
to --
hhenderson@thestar.ca

However, it is important to send your email directly to the main "letters to the Editor" address above. In your letter you should refer to the title of the Helen Henderson article . Include your name and phone number in your email so they can contact you if they decide to print your letter in the newspaper. You do not have to be in Toronto to send a letter.

Write the letter in your own words. Don’t assume the reader has read Helen Henderson’s article, or knows anything about the public debate about the Government’s plan to weaken the Human Rights Commission. You are writing to inform the newspaper reader who is skimming through the letters to the editor as they read the morning paper. You might wish to mention in your letter that in the Legislature on March 29, Attorney General Michael Bryant rejected the request for a public consultation on this issue, saying he's consulted enough.

It is best if the Star doesn't just get a bunch of letters written in the exact same way. For ideas, look to the websites of DAWN Ontario: http://dawn.thot.net and the AODA Alliance

www.aodaalliance.org

If you want to read exactly what was said at the AODA Alliance news conference, or to download the audio MP3 file of that news conference, to decide if this article is a fair comment, you can get these at the AODA Alliance website.

* At a panel discussion on the enforcement of human rights in Ontario hosted by the Ontario Bar Association in Toronto on April 3, 2006, the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Chief Commissioner, Barbara Hall, endorsed the need for public consultations on the issue of how to reform human rights enforcement in Ontario. She flatly rejected suggestions that because there was a provincial task force that consulted before 1992, and a federal task force that consulted before 2000, there is no need to consult now. She said that the Human Rights Commission operates differently now than it did when those reports were written. This is an important added boost to our call for public consultations before any proposed legislation is introduced into the Legislature for debate.

* An important report has recently been released showing how the B.C. human rights enforcement system, which is more like the one the Ontario Government is proposing than is the status quo, has been a major step backwards for equality-seeking groups. To see this report, visit:

http://hrdefenders.bc.ca

* DAWN (Disabled Women’s Network) Canada has joined DAWN Ontario in opposing the Government’s plans regarding the Human Rights Commission. See their letter to Premier McGuinty below.

* If you want to see some other websites that raise similar concerns as has the AODA Alliance, visit:

www.defendhumanrights.org and http://www.ontario.cupe.ca/www/hrcttee/20427

* Remember to read and send us feedback on the AODA Alliance’s new Discussion Paper on Reforming the Human Rights enforcement System. You can find it on the AODA Alliance website. Send it to others for their feedback too. Send your feedback to:

aodafeedback@rogers.com

* It is not too late to RSVP to attend a Toronto public forum critically examining the Ontario Government’s plan to weaken the Ontario Human rights Commission. You can learn from B.C.’s disaster with similar reforms. This event is:
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 5, 2006 AT 5:30 P.M.
AT UNITED STEELWORKERS HALL
25 CECIL STREET (SPADINA & COLLEGE AREA)
ASL provided.
RSVP to MARGARET LAW AT (416) 443-7656 OR mlaw@ofl.ca

The AODA Alliance is not organizing this event but urges you to attend.

******


Toronto Star April 1, 2006

Rights debate marred by Chicken Littles
by Helen Henderson
The sky is not falling.

You'd never know it, given the initial reaction to news that the Ontario Human Rights Commission is targeted for a makeover.
This province may be closer than it has ever been to achieving an efficient, effective, accessible means of justice for those whose rights have been trampled.

But in the weeks immediately following Attorney-General Michael Bryant's February announcement of proposed changes to the system, it seemed as if all hell
broke lose.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Alliance accused Queen's Park of plotting to "rip out most of the Human Rights Commission's
teeth."

At a hastily called news conference, the group focused on Bryant's proposal to shift the commission's focus away from the investigation and assessment of complaints toward research, monitoring and public education.

It argued that the logjam that has chronically plagued the system would simply be relocated, leaving Ontarians without the publicly funded expert help they
need to navigate the system.

There was a desperate, Chicken Little quality to the meeting that undermined some legitimate concerns. It also obscured many of the detailed proposals set forth earlier at a public briefing led by Bryant, chief human rights commissioner Barbara Hall, Michael Gottheil, chair of Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal and a slew of human rights lawyers.

The AODA Alliance fired off a letter to Premier Dalton McGuinty asking, among other things, for public consultations. The Ontario division of the Disabled Women's Network (DAWN), the Canadian Hearing Society and a number of other advocacy groups for people with disabilities added their voices.
Battle lines formed, weapons were drawn. Then this week there were signs of a détente.

"We've heard from the province," AODA Alliance chair Catherine Dunphy said in a telephone interview. "We're willing to talk. I do think something positive
can come out of all this."

So. What do we know so far?
Part of the problem is that there are few details and merely a sketchy timetable in the form of legislation promised sometime before summer.

At his February news conference, Bryant said:
* He wants to "fix the system by shortening the pipeline from complaint to resolution, and eliminating the detours to justice." That would include filing complaints directly with "an enhanced human rights tribunal" instead of taking them first to the human rights commission for assessment. "The goal is to
see a resolution ... in about a year as opposed to the current system where four or five years is not that unusual."
* "Ongoing legal support and assistance will be available to claimants. It will be the third branch of the human rights system, the commission being one, the tribunal being the second and the third being the provision of assistance or representation to complainants."
* "The commission will maintain the power to intervene in complaints before the tribunal. It will also have the power to initiate complaints before the
tribunal. But its core focus will be on public advocacy, research policy, education and prevention.
#* "The commission will have the teeth it needs to ensure compliance of the human rights code through its powers of intervention, and the ability to bring
a complaint before the tribunal."
* A "racial diversity secretariat" will be created within the commission.
* To deal with transition and other costs, the budget over the next two years will increase to $15.1 million from $13.9 million.

Among those hoping constructive changes will go through is community lawyer Kathy Laird, a former human rights adjudicator and counsel to the human rights
commission.

"We need a discussion paper or a draft bill to get the details for public discussion," Laird says. Hall, whose November appointment as chief human rights commissioner got lost in the run-up to the federal election, says she hopes to meet soon with government officials and approaches the controversy with the inimitable restraint she brought to hot-button issues in her term as Toronto mayor.

"One of the challenges is that there are still more questions than answers," Hall said in a telephone interview this week.

"Change is always challenging."
For more information on the history of human rights legislation and proposed changes in Ontario, see
http://www.law.utoronto.ca/visitors_content.asp?itemPath=5/7/0/0/0&contentId=998.
Also check the Ontario Human Rights Commission
http://www.ohrc.on.ca
and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance (AODA):
http://www.aodaalliance.org
Email:
hhenderson@thestar.ca.
Please include a phone number.

*****


Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Premier Dalton McGuinty
Room 281, Legislative Building
Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario
M7A 1A1

Re: Proposed Reforms to Ontario Human Rights Code

Dear Premier McGuinty:

We are writing from DAWN Canada: DisAbled Women's Network Canada, in support of the position expressed by DAWN Ontario in their letter to you dated March 19, 2006 (included below). Founded in 1985, DAWN Canada is a national organization controlled by and comprised of women who self-identify as Women with disabilities, from all backgrounds and all types of disAbilities. We are a feminist organization working to achieve control over our lives and end the stereotype that labels us dependent burdens on society. Throughout the two decades that we have been in existence we have worked to define the issues that are relevant to us and to take action on addressing these
issues.

From the beginning we have worked to end the isolation, systemic discrimination and deep poverty faced by women with disabilities. Still today, more than 20 years later, women with disabilities are among the most under-privileged women in Canada and most of us live in poverty. Poverty that leaves us unable to access lawyers and which compromises our ability to fully access the equality guaranteed to us under Canada’s Constitution and under provincial human rights legislation. Should the Ontario government continue to move in the direction of eliminating the Ontario Human Rights Commission, we believe that the guarantee of equality and equal access to justice will be close to non-existent for Ontarians who live in poverty, most of whom are disabled, many of whom are women with disabilities.

DAWN Canada strongly supports the notion that women with disabilities have control of their lives. Addressing the daily overt and covert discrimination, in spite of the low self esteem which feeds from it, is a daunting task for women with disabilities. The additional barriers caused by poverty and inaccessibility make this task almost insurmountable.

We urge you to ensure that all proceedings on any bill to amend the Ontario Human Rights Code is fully open, accessible and barrier-free. In so doing you will assure that Ontario will be “avant-garde” in Canadian history in its promotion of the rights of women and men with disabilities.

Sincerely

Eileen O'Brien
Maria Barile
Co-chairs

DAWN Ontario letter to the Premier


Premier Dalton McGuinty
Room 281, Legislative Building
Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario
M7A 1A1

Re: Proposed Reforms to the Ontario Human Rights Code

Dear Premier McGuinty,

We, DAWN Ontario: the Disabled Women's Network Ontario, are writing to voice
our strong opposition to your Government's plans to weaken the Ontario Human
Rights Code, announced on February 20, 2006.

DAWN Ontario is a progressive, volunteer-driven, feminist organization promoting social justice, human rights and the advancement of equality rights through education, research, advocacy, coalition-building, resource development, and information technology. Our mission is to generate
knowledge, information and skills to advance the inclusion, citizenship, human rights and equality of women and girls with disabilities. We seek to bring forward the distinctive perspective of women with disabilities in the campaign for full equality both for women, and for persons with disabilities.

DAWN Ontario fully supports the position regarding human rights reform of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance expressed in the February 27, 2006 letter to you from its chair, Ms. Catherine Dunphy. DAWN Ontario was actively involved in the work of the AODA Alliance's
predecessor, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee, in its campaign for strong effective disability accessibility legislation.

Women with disabilities are often doubly-disadvantaged. They need a strong, effective and properly funded Ontario Human Rights Commission, not a weakened one, to investigate and prosecute organizations that discriminate against them. Women with disabilities will rarely be able to afford to hire their own lawyer, conduct their own investigation, and prosecute their own human rights cases. They shouldn't have to depend on over-worked, understaffed Legal Aid clinics. Nor should they have to hope for lawyers to take their cases pro bono. Pro bono, in the end, is charity. We heartily commend lawyers for doing pro bono work. However, charity is no substitute
for a public investigation and prosecution of human rights complaints.

We commend you for wanting to improve the human rights process enforcement. If your Government wants to tackle the Human Rights Commission's backlog, it should restore the Commission's budget. Mike Harris slashed it despite
promising in 1995 to increase it. Harris weakened the Commission by budget cuts. Your plans would finish the job by legislation. Your plan is for a weakened Commission that just monitors, does public education, and may bring its own complaints or intervene in some others before the Human Rights Tribunal. This wrongly reduces the Commission to a shadow of its former self.

Your plan is being marketed as having the benefit of eliminating the "gate-keeping" role of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. In reality however, this is just an illusion. Your plan doesn't eliminate the existence of a gate-keeper at all. All your plan does is transfer this job to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. That is not an improvement.

We are not saying the present situation at the Human Rights Commission is acceptable. It is not. The Commission needs to be properly funded. We need its practices and procedures to be improved. What we don't need is your plan to dump onto the backs of vulnerable discrimination victims, like women with
disabilities, the Human Rights Commission's duty to investigate and prosecute discrimination.

Those marketing your Governments plans claim that two reports, produced in the 1990s, have recommended direct access to the Human Rights Tribunal. Yet of vital importance, both those reports also insisted on the importance for human rights complainants to be effectively represented at any human rights hearing into their case. Your government hasn't promised this publicly-funded representation in its recent announcement. Your Government has been strikingly vague on this critical point. Why is this?

We add our voices to the growing list of those who your Government didn't consult before announcing these radical changes to the enforcement of our human rights, and who urge your Government to call off those plans. We too call for an open, accessible public consultation on how best to reform the human rights enforcement process, before any new legislation is introduced. That consultation should not be based on any pre-decided plan to weaken the Human Rights Commission. Your Government should embark on any consultations with an open mind. You and your Party were rightly critical of the Harris Government when, in 1998, then-Citizenship Minister Isabel Bassett held consultations on what to include in the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, because she announced before the consultations even began that Government had already made important decisions on what the ODA must not include. We urge your Government to be true to your word, and not repeat that kind of
unacceptable consultation.

We commend your Government for its open consultations on the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. That is the model you should follow in this case. During your AODA consultations, we and the disability community weren't told you were planning to weaken the Human Rights Commission, and privatize its duties. Why is this plan being sprung on us now?

We look forward to hearing that your Government will give your plans a serious second thought, and will change your direction. We certainly hope your Government doesn't try to rush its planned legislation through the Legislature this spring. Your Government made strong election commitments
about democratic renewal. What better place is there for an open, fair, democratic consultation than in the area of a law as fundamental as the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Yours sincerely,


Barbara Anello
Acting Chair