Ontario Human rights Reform - A call to Action

Strong Opposition to Bill 107 Dominates First Three Days of Public Hearings

August 18, 2006

SUMMARY


Strong opposition to Bill 107 dominated last week when the Legislature’s Standing Committee on Justice Policy held its first three days of public hearings on Bill 107, the McGuinty Government’s proposed new law to weaken the Ontario Human Rights Commission. These hearings have so far dealt a powerful blow to the controversial bill 107. They have shown that Ontario’s Attorney General Michael Bryant was incorrect when he claimed last spring that there is a community consensus in support of the kind of reforms the McGuinty Government has proposed. Hearings will resume in Toronto at as-yet unspecified dates after the Legislature resumes sitting on September 25,2006.

HOW THE PRESENTATIONS REACTED TO BILL 107

Despite the fact that these hearings took place at the peak of summer holiday season, a total of 52 oral presentations were made in London, Ottawa and Thunder Bay. Fully 28 presentations opposed the bill. Only 11 presentations supported the bill.

The remaining 13 presentations didn’t take a bottom line position on the bill. Of these, 9 didn’t speak about the bill’s contents at all. The other four of these did address the bill, but didn’t take a bottom-line position on whether they supported or opposed the bill.

Thus, of the 39 presentations that actually took a position on the bill, the 28 opposing the bill were more than double the mere 11 that supported the bill.

Of those opposing the bill, as many as 13 explicitly endorsed the contents of the AODA Alliance’s July 15, 2006 draft brief. These didn’t just include individuals and organizations from the disability community. Support for the AODA Alliance’s draft brief also came from voices from the labour movement, racialized communities and Aboriginal communities. Beyond these 13, several more of the presentations that opposed the bill voiced similar concerns about Bill 107 to those raised by the AODA Alliance, even though they didn’t explicitly name the AODA Alliance or its draft brief.

Ten of the presentations referred to the fact that by this bill, the McGuinty Government betrayed its understanding with the disability community concerning enforcement of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Last year the McGuinty Government refused to establish a new independent agency to enforce the AODA, saying that persons with disabilities could use the Human rights Commission to investigate and prosecute disability discrimination. Yet bill 107 would now remove most of the Commission’s investigation and prosecution powers.

Of the minority of 11 presentations that said they supported the bill, 8 only said in effect that they supported the bill in principle, or that they supported the intent of the bill, but wanted amendments that are significant in content and number.

During the hearings, Conservative and NDP MPPs supported criticisms of the bill. Liberal MPPs generally sought to praise the bill, but also seemed to concede the need for amendments.

IMPLICATIONS FOR BILL 107

What does this all mean for Bill 107? First, from the public hearings, it is clear that this bill is highly controversial. To date, as far as oral presentations to the Standing Committee have gone, opponents to the bill out-number its supporters by a strong lead of at least 2 to 1. This is based solely on the numbers of oral presentations. We have only seen a few of the written submissions that the Standing Committee has received, and can’t comment on how all written submissions break down.

Second, there are a number of serious concerns about the bill that are similarly voiced both by the bill’s opponents and by the minority who support it. These concerns require substantial amendments, just to satisfy the bill’s supporters.

Third, concerns about the bill voiced by its opponents and supporters are not limited to the important issue of providing effective free legal representation to all human rights complainants. Many other serious concerns with the bill were raised which a “quick fix” like broader funding for lawyers won’t solve.

Fourth, neither the Government MPPs nor any of the 11 presenters who support the Government’s plans mentioned Bill 107’s serious breach of faith regarding enforcement of the AODA, or offered any justification for it.

Fifth, a good number of presenters expressed support for the compromise position which the AODA Alliance has proposed . The McGuinty Government has not responded to this compromise proposal since we first made it public fully three months ago. By that compromise, discrimination victims would have the choice of either a) taking their case to the Human Rights Commission for investigation and public prosecution if the evidence warrants it, or b) taking their case directly to the Human rights Tribunal.

Sixth, the McGuinty Government’s MPPs at these public hearings have said over and over again that the Government plans to propose amendments to Bill 107 to guarantee to all human rights complainants, free full legal representation by lawyers throughout the human rights process. These statements included the following:

August 8, 2006 London

David Zimmer: “I should point out -- you may or may not be aware of this -- the Attorney General has publicly committed in the Legislature -- it's a matter of record in Hansard -- to amend section 46 to provide full legal support to Ontarians who have to turn to the human rights system. So at the end of this process, I expect, as the Attorney General has said, there will be an amendment to ensure full legal support of complainants at the tribunal/commission.

Mr. Zimmer: Just to respond to your comment -- and I thank you for your support and the constructive criticism that you offered. We want to work with the community to make this an even better bill.

You offered the comment that the community hasn't seen anything by way of amendments yet. Let me just say this. First, I did have my BlackBerry out before and I read the commitment the Attorney General made in the Legislature, for instance, on section 46, to ensure that there was
sufficient, proper and effective representation.

Deborah Matthews: “I asked the Attorney General in the Legislature if he would clarify the intent of the government to ensure that people do have the legal representation they need, and he has given that assurance.”

Deborah Matthews: The other thing is that I raised the question in the House with regards to legal support and was assured very, very clearly by the Attorney General that there will be an amendment that will ensure that people will get the support they need to achieve justice. Your concern has been heard and assurances have been given. So be patient. This does take time, and we will address your concerns.

August 9, 2006 Ottawa

Mr. David Zimmer (Willowdale): I just want to point out that subsequent to the bill being introduced, in response to a question in the Legislature, the Attorney General did commit to introducing an amendment which would ensure that everyone before the tribunal would, in fact, have their own independent legal counsel. So your point on the representation has been well taken and addressed by the Attorney General in the Legislature. He's made that public commitment.

August 10, 2006 Thunder Bay

Mr. Zimmer: Just in case you're not aware, I want to point out that the Attorney General in the Legislature has made a clear and unequivocal commitment to amend the bill to ensure that everybody who has a complaint before the tribunal does receive legal support, has a lawyer attached to their case to see the case through with them.

Mr. Bill Mauro (Thunder Bay-Atikokan): The concern has been raised by the two or three speakers I've heard about whether or not people, if they go directly to the tribunal, are going to have the ability to have publicly funded representation if they're the complainant. The Attorney General has publicly committed in the House to amendments in the legislation to ensure that that will happen.

Despite the Government’s sweeping and potentially costly commitments, the McGuinty Government still has not brought forward any proposed amendments, or any details of what their amendments will include. It hasn’t announced any proposed budget. It has only made vague statements that the Government will establish a “Human Rights Legal Support Center”. It hasn’t said who will operate that clinic, or whether it will only have offices in Toronto, or how big it will be.

The Government has had over six months to develop its plans since it announced its intentions. It has refused to comprehensively answer requests for details about its plans. For example, two months ago, in its June 28, 2006 letter to Attorney general Michael Bryant, the AODA Alliance wrote, among other things:

“Second, we ask your Government to now make public the specific changes it contemplates proposing for Bill 107. On June 8, 2006, you stated in the Legislature that you intend to table amendments to the bill, to address such topics as the provision of legal services for discrimination victims. Your Government has now had more than four months to develop its plans for such important issues as legal representation for discrimination victims, since you first announced your plans for the Human rights Code last February.

The public needs this information now in detail, so that it can develop and give effective input and feedback on your plans at the Standing Committee hearings. If the Government withholds this information from the public until after the Standing Committee’s public hearings are completed, this would deny the public a fair chance to be properly consulted on your current plans. We commend to you the Toronto Star’s June 12, 2006 editorial, which called on your government to make your plans, including your budget plans, public as soon as possible.

As part of this, we ask you to now clarify what your Government specifically means by its commitments to ensure that all human rights complainants are provided publicly-funded legal representation and support. For example, we want specifically to confirm that this legal representation and support will be delivered by lawyers, and not by non-lawyers. Particularly at Human Rights Tribunals, it would be grossly insufficient for a discrimination victim to be advised and represented by a non-lawyer such as a paralegal, when the respondent is so often represented by a skilled, well-financed private law firm. We also want to know such important things as how many lawyers will be provided to advise and represent discrimination victims.”

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