Ontario Human rights Reform - A call to Action

Toronto Star Reports on Progress of Campaign Against Weakening The Human Rights Commission Via The Controversial Bill 107
October 19, 2006

SUMMARY

In an October 16, 2006 article, the Toronto Star reports that the McGuinty Government's controversial Bill 107 is in serious trouble. Bill 107 is the McGuinty Government's bill that, if passed, would weaken the Human Rights Commission by taking away most of its power to investigate and publicly prosecute human rights violations. See the article below.

Toronto Star October 16, 2006
Opinion
Is rights' reform bill on life support?

In the face of a barrage of criticism from interest groups, the provincial government appears to be backing down on legislation overhauling the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Bill 107, introduced last spring by Attorney General Michael Bryant, would give individual complainants direct access to the human rights tribunal rather than first filtering them through the commission.

The commission, which is now swamped by some 2,500 individual complaints a year, would then be freed up to investigate cases of systemic discrimination against whole groups of people.

As the government sees it, the commission has become sclerotic, with individual cases sometimes taking several years to be processed through to the tribunal for an actual hearing.

But Bill 107's critics - including spokespersons for the disabled and visible minorities and the union representing workers at the commission - argue that the government's reforms would effectively privatize the system.

Notwithstanding Bryant's promise that there would be government funding for legal representation before the tribunal, the critics have suggested that the poor would be left with no recourse once the commission stops investigating individual complaints.

The opposition parties, seeing a chance to score points against the governing Liberals, have also jumped into the fray. They voted against Bill 107 on second reading last June.
Debate continued to rage over the summer, with a legislative committee getting an earful on the bill from opponents at hearings in London, Ottawa, and Thunder Bay.

But the government appeared to be set to weather the storm and proceed with third reading of the bill this fall, after a few more days of hearings and with some amendments.
Then came last month's by-election in Parkdale-High Park, Gerard Kennedy's old seat, which the Liberals lost to the New Democrats.

During the by-election campaign, the Liberals were pounded by a wide range of interest groups, including school boards, environmentalists, and property taxpayers.
This spooked the government, especially the Office of the Premier, which is on red alert with an election now less than a year away.

The last thing the men and women around Premier Dalton McGuinty want is more interest groups - particularly people in wheelchairs - dogging him in the run-up to the vote.
"Everything that looks like it's going to be mildly controversial is going to be shelved or killed," remarks one insider.
Does that include Bill 107?

A spokesperson for McGuinty said last week that the bill is "still a go." Echoed Barbara Hall, head of the human rights commission: "Our expectation is that it will go the course."

Bryant was not available for comment.
But my sources say the bill, while not quite dead, is in critical condition.

However, as word of this began to leak out this month, supporters of the bill, heretofore mostly silent because they assumed a government with a majority would tough out the criticism, began their own counter-lobby.

In recent days, McGuinty has been on the receiving end of anxious letters from a variety of supporters of Bill 107.
"I urge you to demonstrate the leadership that is called for at this time," Catherine Frazee, the highly respected former head of the human rights commission, wrote to McGuinty. "I urge you to stay the course."

"Please do not lose courage on this important legislation," wrote representatives of more than 40 legal clinics in a joint letter to the premier.

A letter from a group of eminent citizens - including former Supreme Court judge Claire l'Heureux-Dube, June Callwood, three senators, and five law deans and professors - noted that the United Nations Human Rights Commission has urged Canada to adopt the very reforms contained in Bill 107.
"We the undersigned, applaud Ontario's efforts to comply with international norms for human rights protection," said the letter.

And the Ontario Bar Association issued a hopeful-sounding press release last week that commended McGuinty and Bryant "for having the courage to bring forward pioneering legislation that, if passed, will fix a broken human rights system." The conditional phrase, "if passed," is not usually needed with a majority government.

Such last-ditch lobbying could save Bill 107 from a dusty shelf. But the premier's office may calculate that the likes of a former Supreme Court judge and law deans are less likely to picket McGuinty's events in the coming year than are unionists and representatives of the disabled and visible minority communities.

Ian Urquhart's provincial affairs column appears Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. iurquha @ thestar.ca.
Ian Urquhart