Ontario Human rights Reform - A call to Action

Community advocates hold queen's park news conference to launch next phase in campaign against the McGuinty government's plan to weaken the Human Rights Commission

November 9, 2006

SUMMARY


On November 9, 2006, in anticipation of next week's start of Toronto public hearings on the controversial Bill 107, community advocates held a news conference at the Queen's Park Media Studio. They unveiled the next phase in the campaign against the McGuinty Government's controversial plans to weaken the under-funded Human Rights Commission. Below is the news release and the text of the presenters' remarks at the news conference.

This ground-breaking news conference included joint presentations from the perspectives of advocates from the disability community, racialized communities, and others who oppose the controversial Bill 107. This reflects the breadth and depth of the rising tide of opposition to the changes to the human rights system in Bill 107.

At the news conference, two important planks in our campaign were unveiled: First, the Blueprint for Effective Human Rights Reform was presented by its three authors, AODA Alliance Human Rights Reform Representative David Lepofsky, Executive Director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic Margaret Parsons, and Clinic director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic Avvy Go. Second, a new multi-lingual TV ad on this issue was presented, which goes to air in 6 languages in the next few days.

We encourage you to forward these materials to your local media. Urge them to cover this story, and the upcoming Toronto public hearings on Bill 107.


For Immediate Release Nov. 9, 2006

COMMUNITY ADVOCATES LAUNCH TV ADS OPPOSING MCGUINTY’S CONTROVERSIAL HUMAN RIGHTS REFORM BILL

Toronto: Community advocates for racialized communities and persons with disabilities today unveil the next stage of their campaign against Bill 107, the McGuinty government's controversial human rights reform plan.

“We're launching our new television ads to heighten awareness of the serious problems with Premier McGuinty’s proposed human rights changes, and we're unveiling our Blueprint for Effective Human Rights Reform, our counter-proposal to the Government's seriously-flawed Bill 107", said Avvy Go, clinic director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal clinic, at a press conference at Queen’s park this morning.

Bill 107, which passed Second Reading last summer and goes before the Legislature's Standing Committee on Justice Policy for public hearings next week, strips the Human Rights Commission of its key mandate to investigate all non-frivolous human rights cases, and to publicly prosecute them before the Human Rights Tribunal when the evidence warrants it.

“We want to make sure everyone knows that Premier McGuinty’s Bill 107 will make our under-funded, backlogged system for protecting Ontarians against discrimination worse, not better", said Margaret Parsons, Executive Director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic. “To reach a wide range of voters who are most directly affected by this issue, our community coalition made these ads in Arabic, Cantonese, Punjabi, Tagalog, Tamil and English."

“Unlike Bill 107, our blueprint will strengthen, not weaken the Human Rights Commission,” said David Lepofsky, Human Rights Reform Representative of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance. “Our blueprint is based on the core principle of a fully public human rights system, with a strengthened, revitalized Human Rights Commission at the helm. It sets out specific reforms to improve access to the Commission and the Tribunal, and ensure the systems future effectiveness. And most importantly it calls for prompt, permanent new funding for Ontario's chronically under-funded human rights system. Without new funding, any reform is doomed to fail.”

The Toronto Star recently questioned whether Bill 107 is on life-support. At the first 3 days of public hearings on the bill last august in Ottawa, Thunder Bay and London, those opposing the bill out-numbered its supporters by a margin of more than two to one.

With an election less than a year away, community groups opposing Bill 107 urge the McGuinty government to go back to the drawing board and bring forward more constructive reform proposals.

Contact: Margaret Parsons (416) 214-474, Avvy Go: (416) 971-9674

For a copy of the Blueprint document visit: www.defendhumanrights.org or http://www.aodaalliance.org/reform/update-110606.asp

REMARKS FOR NOVEMBER 9, 2006 QUEEN'S PARK NEWS CONFERENCE ON BILL 107
(Check against delivery)

Avvy Go, Clinic Director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic:

Good morning. I’m Avvy Go, the Clinic Director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.

On my left is Margaret Parsons, Executive Director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic. On my right is David Lepofsky, the Human Rights Reform Representative of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.

We appear today on behalf of a broad based coalition of equality-seeking communities, including representatives from racialized communities, the disability community and labour. Our ad hoc coalition united last spring around a simple message. Ontario's under-funded, back-logged system for enforcing human rights and for protecting Ontarians against discrimination desperately needs reform. However, the McGuinty Government's controversial Bill 107, which is supposed to fix this system, would make the system worse, not better.

For months, we and many, many community groups from across Ontario have called on the McGuinty Government to go back to the drawing board to design positive, effective reforms for our under-funded, backlogged human rights system. Instead of doing this, the McGuinty Government is bringing its controversial Bill 107 back before a Standing Committee of the Legislature starting next Wednesday, November 15, 2006 for public hearings in Toronto.

Today we publicly unveil the next phase in our escalating campaign against Bill 107 and in favour of effective human rights reform.

Today's announcement has two key parts.

First, we present our counter-proposal to bill 107. This is our Blueprint for Effective Human rights Reform. David Lepofsky will tell you more about it.

Second, we will unveil our coalition's new multi-lingual TV advertisement campaign against the flawed Bill 107. Margaret Parsons will tell you more about that.

Before they do, I will set the stage by explaining what Bill 107 is about, why all the controversy, and what stage the bill is at.

The Human Rights Code bans discrimination on grounds like race, ethnic origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation and disability. To enforce these rights a discrimination victim now files a human rights complaint with the Human Rights Commission. The Commission is the public law enforcement agency. It must investigate all non-frivolous human rights cases and tries to negotiate a settlement. Where a case doesn't settle and the evidence warrants a hearing, the Commission is the public prosecutor that presents the case before a special court called the Human Rights Tribunal. The Tribunal can order a remedy like financial compensation if it finds that there was a human rights violation.

There is widespread recognition that this under-funded system is seriously back-logged. The McGuinty Government claims Bill 107 would fix this. They decided how to fix this system and introduced Bill 107 last spring, but without first holding an open public consultation. Bill 107 doesn't strengthen human rights enforcement. It weakens it by taking away most of the Human Rights Commission's mandate to investigate and publicly prosecute human rights violations. You don't strengthen human rights enforcement by weakening the human rights enforcement agency.

Bill 107 would require discrimination victims to investigate their own case and to present their own case before the Human Rights Tribunal. Who will represent the discrimination victim at these legal proceedings? The Government made the extravagant promise that it would amend Bill 107 to ensure that every discrimination victim will get a publicly-funded, free, independent legal counsel to handle their case, regardless of the complainant's income. Yet it has been months and we've seen no specifics on how they plan to deliver on this huge pledge and no new budget to pay for it.

The bill passed Second Reading last June. The Conservatives and NDP criticized the bill in the Legislature and voted against it on Second Reading. The bill had three days of public hearings last August outside Toronto. More about those hearings in a few minutes.

David and Margaret will now give you more details about our campaign that starts today.

David Lepofsky, Human Rights Reform Representative of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance:

Good morning. We believe it is not good enough to just criticize the flawed Bill 107. It is important to come forward with a constructive alternative, a responsible, detailed plan to effectively reform Ontario's under-funded human rights system that doesn't take away our existing rights, and that will make things better, not worse.

So as the first plank in our campaign, we are unveiling our Blueprint for Effective Human Rights Reform. This four-page document, available to you here, provides a clear, straightforward alternative to Bill 107 -- a roadmap for reform that could and should start tomorrow.

This Blueprint reflects input from the diverse communities from which we are drawn. It reflects and builds upon the criticisms of Bill 107 and the recommendations which the bill's many opponents have already raised with the Government and the Standing Committee. We hope it will form a rallying point for the many who will make presentations on the bill to the Standing Committee resuming next week.

We are not here to praise the status quo at the Human Rights Commission, but to reform it. Let me sum up our Blueprints 24 specific recommendations with three core messages:

First, any reform of our under-funded human rights system must include the prompt infusion of substantial new funds both to the Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Tribunal. This system has been starved for years. Whatever shape reform takes, without new funding, any bill is at best, ineffective tokenism and window-dressing.

We are not talking about huge sums in provincial government terms. The system now gets about $14 million per year. We have not worked out the precise dollar figures needed. Even an increase of $6 million annually would have a huge effect, and yet is not large in terms of the provincial budget.

To date, the Government has not announced any increase to the permanent ongoing funding to the Commission or the Tribunal. It has announced no funding to the promised new legal clinic. The McGuinty Government's provincial budget speech last fall announced no new human rights funding commitments. It has been some nine months since the Government first announced its reform plans and doesn't have a dime to show that it will put its money where its mouth is.

Second, our human rights enforcement system must be a fully public system. Non-frivolous human rights cases should be publicly investigated. Where a case isn't settled and where a hearing is warranted, it should be publicly prosecuted. The Human Rights Commission should be strengthened, and fixed, not weakened and hobbled by Bill 107. We offer several specific ways to do this.

Third, the backlogged Human Rights Tribunal also needs reforms to make it quicker and less formalistic and technical. However, any Tribunal reforms must fully respect the important legal rights that parties now have when they appear at Tribunal hearings. Bill 107 threatens these rights. It gives the Tribunal's politically appointed, unaccountable, unelected members the extraordinary sweeping power to pass rules of procedure that override and disregard important legal rights that parties now have under another law, the Statutory Powers Procedure Act. We oppose giving a blank cheque to that Tribunal to invent procedural rules that could take away any and all important rights like the right to call evidence, to confront witnesses called against you, and to have control over the presentation of your case. Our message is again a simple one: Human rights reform mustn't take away our rights.

We agree that there is room for some narrow, focused and limited exceptions to the Statutory Powers Procedure Act that could help. Our Blueprint proposes these. In sharp contrast, the Government is going much, much further. It is using a legal atom bomb to attack a procedural insect. We say that if the Government wants to justify making exceptions to legal guarantees we now enjoy, they should specifically spell them out in the bill, and tell us why they are needed. They shouldn't expect us, or anyone to just trust that politically-appointed unelected Tribunal members will do the right thing.

Our Blueprint also seeks to prevent the McGuinty Government from betraying an important understanding it reached with Ontario's disability community regarding the new Disability Act passed last year. We fought for over a decade for a new Disability Act. . In the 2003 election campaign, Dalton McGuinty promised a new Disability Act with effective enforcement.

After that election the McGuinty Government asked us what enforcement we needed. We said we wanted a new independent enforcement agency. The Liberals said they wouldn't give us one, but said we could use the investigation and enforcement powers of the Human Rights Commission. Now Bill 107 proposes to strip most of those powers from the Commission. We say that is a betrayal. If the Government goes the route of our Blueprint, rather than the Bill 107 route, this betrayal can be avoided.


Margaret Parsons, Executive Director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic:

Good morning. Let me tell you more about our campaign's second plank, we today announce a new television ad campaign in opposition to Bill 107.

This campaign goes to air in the next few days. Our ads will run in six languages, including Arabic, Cantonese, Punjabi, Tagalog, Tamil and English. We have copies of the ads here on DVD for the media. An English translation of the non-English ads is included in your media kits. You are free to use clips from them in your coverage. We are timing the broadcast of these ads release to lead up to and run during the public hearings.

We are running these ads in all these languages to make sure voters in these diverse communities are fully aware of the McGuinty Government’s plans to weaken the Human Rights Commission. Our ads focus on the same message we've championed since last February - human rights cases need to be publicly investigated and publicly prosecuted. Human rights enforcement shouldn't be privatized.

As the next election is less than a year away, we hope our multilingual message in these ads finally resonate for the McGuinty Government. We've chosen to run these ads in six different languages because of the importance of a strong Human Rights Commission for all Ontarians of all ethnic and linguistic origins. We are all voters, whatever our race, our sex, our language, our sexual orientation or our disabilities.

An election is just a few months away. Every vote counts. Just as we raised Bill 107 in the recent Toronto By-election in a spirit of non-partisanship, we want all parties to know that we're ready to raise this issue in the next general provincial election. We plan to hold accountable at the polls any party or politician who weakens protections for our human rights.

We also want to make it clear that our message is shared by many from communities that seek equality. The three of us presenting today reflect Ontario's diversity in terms of disability, sex and membership in racialized communities. Our various communities often deal with the Government as separate silos. Today we show how we have united behind a cause that is important to all -one the McGuinty Government cannot keep ignoring as the next election quickly approaches.

Let's show you the English version of our TV ad.

(Play advertisement)

Avvy Go:

To conclude, here's an update brief on the bill's status. The Toronto Star reported a few weeks ago that this bill is on life support. The Government would not have faced all this criticism had it done the right thing as we asked last spring, namely hold a public consultation before, not after, it decided on its reform plans.

Last summer public hearings were held in Ottawa, Thunder Bay and London. Despite peak holiday season, the hearings were booked to overflowing. Not all presenters were reached. Of the 39 presenters who took a position on the bill, fully 28 opposed the bill. Only a meager 11 supported the bill. Of those, most only gave the bill qualified support. They said they'd support it if it got substantial amendments.

The McGuinty Government should have taken a loud, clear and simple message from those hearings. Bill 107 had to be taken back to the drawing board, and re-written from scratch. It is now fully four months later, seven months since the bill was introduced and nine months since the Government first announced its plans for the human rights system. They haven't yet listened.

Back in June, the Attorney General said he plans to bring forward amendments to the bill. We're still waiting. The resumption of the public hearings are just days away.

We emphasize that it is no answer to our many concerns about this bill for the Government to finally bring forward details about its plans for a new Human rights legal clinic. No legal clinic can serve as a substitute for a better-funded, revitalized Human rights Commission. No legal clinic can provide timely legal representation by lawyers to 2,500 or more human rights complainants per year, and the many more who need advice on whether to file a human rights complaint.

The Standing Committee on Justice Policy has advised us that upwards of 200 individuals and organizations are on the list seeking to present at the hearings. We strongly believe that everyone who wants to present must be given a time slot to present at the hearings. This bill cannot finish hearings and full clause-by-clause debate before the Legislature rises for the holidays this fall. We would strenuously oppose the Government invoking the draconian measure of closure to cut off the hearings and ram the bill through Third Reading, in order to muzzle its critics.

We thank the new Democratic and Conservative Parties for voicing many of our criticisms of this bill. We urge all parties to commit to our blueprint for Effective Human Rights Reform. We look forward to any questions you may have.