Ontario Human rights Reform - A call to Action

SEND LETTERS TO THE EDITOR IN RESPONSE TO EXCELLENT TORONTO STAR COLUMN ON THE CONTROVERSIAL BILL 107'S SERIOUS PROBLEMS

October 6, 2006

SUMMARY

The October 6, 2006 Toronto Star kicks off this Thanksgiving weekend with an excellent column by veteran columnist Carol Goar identifying the serious problems with the controversial Bill 107, the McGuinty Government's proposed new law to weaken the Ontario Human Rights Commission. (see the article below)

We urge everyone to send letters to the editor in response to this column. Let the Star know how widespread is the opposition to the McGuinty Government's plan to privatize human rights enforcement, and to strip the Human Rights Commission of most of its powers. We need the Human Rights Commission strengthened, not weakened. You don't strengthen human rights enforcement by weakening Ontario's human rights enforcement agency.

It has been almost 8 months since the McGuinty Government announced its plans to replace the Human Rights Commission with some kind of legal services. As this column shows, the Government has made big promises to ensure a free lawyer to every human rights complainant, a very extravagant pledge. Yet bill 107 doesn't do anything like this.

Even though the Government said fully four months ago it plans to amend the bill to fix this, it still hasn't revealed what its amendments will say. These are all important details the Government should have decided on well before it announced its reforms almost 8 months ago. It should not still be trying to figure out such basic features this late in the legislative process.

Beefing up the bill's provisions on legal services for discrimination victims won't redress all or even most of the bill's many other deficiencies. We disagree with Ms. Goar's otherwise superb article where she says " If you believe that every citizen who comes before Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal will get free legal assistance, as Attorney General Michael Bryant has promised, you'll hail the government's plan to streamline the province's creaky human rights system as a major step forward." Ms. Goar is correct to point out the dill's deficiency regarding promised lawyers for all human rights complainants. However, even if the Government now suddenly found money to give every human rights complainant a free lawyer, that budget can be cut by future governments. Also, free lawyers don't have all the legal powers that a human rights investigator has to investigate and gather evidence.

We agree that the human rights system in Ontario needs to be fixed. No one defends the status quo. However, bill 107 is the wrong fix. It would make things worse, not better. The AODA Alliance last spring released a Discussion Paper with other options for reforming the human rights system that are far better than Bill 107. visit:

http://www.aodaalliance.org/reform/discussionpaper-040306.asp

The dates have still not been announced for resumption of the Legislature's public hearings on Bill 107. We have word from the staff of the Standing Committee on Justice Policy that up to 225 organizations and individuals have requested to make an oral presentation at the hearings. You can still sign up if you have not yet done so. It will be critically important that everyone who wants to make a presentation in fact gets a time slot to do so.

Ontario is now less than one year away from a provincial election. Discrimination victims and all those concerned about human rights will be encouraged to consider this issue in the upcoming provincial election. Bill 107 was raised in the recent Toronto by-election campaign. In that by-election the governing Liberals lost a seat to the NDP that had been Liberal for several years.

We will have more news on Bill 107 over the next weeks.

Write the Star at:

lettertoed@thestar.ca


Toronto Star October 6, 2006
Tug-of-war over human rights
CAROL GOAR

It boils down to a question of trust.

If you believe that every citizen who comes before Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal will get free legal assistance, as Attorney General Michael Bryant has
promised, you'll hail the government's plan to streamline the province's creaky human rights system as a major step forward.

If you think the government is looking for a cheap way to cut the backlog of complaints facing the Ontario Human Rights Commission, you'll oppose Bill 107
strenuously.

Mark Hart is a supporter of the plan. As a human rights lawyer, he has watched clients struggle to navigate the tortuous process, only to hit a dead end
after three or four years. "We finally have a government that is overhauling a system that everyone agrees is broken," he says. "This will give claimants
control over their own cases."

David Lepofsky is a skeptic. As president of the Canadian Association of Visually Impaired Lawyers, he has watched the province renege on its commitments
to people with disabilities time after time. "We don't make the assumption that a complainant's legal costs will be covered because it flies in the face
of everything we've seen," he says. "This bill takes away rights we had."

The only thing the two men agree on is that the current system is failing victims of discrimination.

Ontario once led the country in protecting human rights. In 1962, it enacted Canada's first comprehensive human rights code and set up an independent commission
to enforce it.

Today, the commission is overburdened, understaffed and painfully slow. A relatively simple case takes an average of 15 months to go through the system.
A complaint that goes to a full hearing can take more than five years.

Last February, Bryant announced his intention to modernize Ontario's human rights regime. In April, he introduced Bill 107.

If passed it is still before a legislative committee it would change the system in three ways:

It would transform the Ontario Human Rights Commission, headed by former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall, from a body that investigates 2,500 individual complaints
a year into an agency that tackles systemic discrimination using research, advocacy and public education.

It would allow individuals to take discrimination complaints directly to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, which now adjudicates only the most difficult
disputes (6 per cent of last year's caseload).

And it would create a new Human Rights Legal Support Centre to provide information, assistance and legal representation to those going before the tribunal.

The old model was built on the belief that a citizen filing a human rights complaint should not need a lawyer. He or she would explain what had occurred
to the commission and it would interview all parties. If it determined that discrimination had occurred, it would try to settle the dispute. If no resolution
could be reached, it would refer the case to the tribunal, acting on behalf of the plaintiff.

The new model is built on the assumption that victims of discrimination would rather have a lawyer argue their case at a hearing than wait for the slow-moving
human rights commission to investigate it.

Hart sees this as a major improvement. The government is replacing a convoluted, secretive process with a straightforward, open one, he says.

Lepofsky sees it retreat from public justice. The government is privatizing the enforcement of human rights rather than spending the money and hiring the
staff to deal with complaints expeditiously, he says.

Most of the witnesses who have appeared before the justice committee share Lepofsky's misgivings. Of the 52 individuals and groups who have testified so
far, 28 opposed the legislation, 11 supported it and the remaining 13 were non-committal. (Hearings have been held in London, Ottawa and Thunder Bay. Torontonians
are still waiting for their turn.)

There are three simple steps that Bryant could take to alleviate the fears of vulnerable citizens.

He could amend the legislation to guarantee that anyone who takes a case to the human rights tribunal will have his or her legal costs covered. Under Bill
107, such funding is discretionary.

He could let Ontarians choose whether to have a human rights complaint investigated by a commissioner or heard by an adjudicator. The bill compels them
to take the legalistic route.

And he could spell clearly how his proposed Human Rights Legal Support Centre will work, where it will find hundreds of lawyers qualified to represent complainants
and what its budget will be.

No one really wants to keep the status quo. But many of those who have felt the sting of discrimination are afraid to move ahead. Bryant's challenge is
to convince them that hope makes more sense than fear.

Carol Goar's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.