Ontario Human rights Reform - A call to Action

More media coverage of last week's Queen's Park news conference on the controversial Bill 107
November 13, 2006

SUMMARY

There has been even more media coverage of the November 9, 2006 Queen's Park news conference, where the newest phase was unveiled in the campaign against the McGuinty Government's plans to weaken the under-funded Human Rights Commission.

On Saturday, November 11, 2006, the Toronto Globe and Mail ran a column by the Globe's Queen's Park columnist Murray Campbell. (See article below) AODA Alliance Human Rights Reform Representative David Lepofsky sent the Globe a letter to the editor seeking to address certain matters in that article. We don't know if the Globe will print that letter. (See letter below) Also, the November 13, 2006 Toronto Star included an article by the Star's Queen's Park columnist Ian Urquhart. (See article below) Additionally, the Guelph Mercury included an article on November 10, 2006 which is based on the same Canadian press report we described in our last Update. (not repeated below)

Key points to note:


The Globe and Mail
Column, Saturday, November 11, 2006, p. A9
Queen's Park
Reforming human-rights system turns into a Catch-22 for McGuinty

Murray Campbell

It's the best sort of parliamentary gamesmanship, the kind that smokes out a government to see how brave and committed it is.

Next Wednesday morning, one of the first orders of business at the Ontario Legislature's justice policy committee will be to consider a subcommittee's Recommendation to extend the number of days on which controversial legislation to overhaul
the provincial human-rights system will be examined. It doesn't sound like a big deal but the people in Premier Dalton McGuinty's office and on the Liberal campaign team will be watching very, very closely.

The legislation, Bill 107, to reform the overburdened 44-year-old human-rights apparatus has proved unexpectedly contentious since it was introduced in April. The central change, to make an existing tribunal the place to hear individual complaints rather than the Human Rights Commission, is popular with a large number of activists, including a vast array of legal-aid clinics that deal with the less affluent.

At the same time, however, there are an abundant number of critics who believe the McGuinty government has got the wrong end of the stick. They argue that major structural reform isn't needed, just a few million dollars more to erase the commission's huge backlog of complaints.

The two sides duked it out this summer during committee hearings in Ottawa, Thunder Bay and London. The critics believe their views dominated the discussion

at those meetings and that their allies are legion among the 180 people already on the list to testify in Toronto.

The problem was that there were only two days of Queen's Park hearings scheduled, which is why a New Democrat and a Progressive Conservative on the three-member

subcommittee teamed up to push through a motion asking for up to 18 days more hearings. "It's such an important issue that you need to give people every opportunity to say what they want to say," said Conservative MPP Christine
Elliott.

The committee's clerk has scheduled hearing dates through December but this needs to be confirmed by the politicians and, at this point, it's not known whether the Premier's strategists will allow Liberals on the committee to vote in favour. Their choice is to allow days of stories out of the committee in which the government is criticized or to face accusations of censorship by limiting the hearings.

Liberal strategists planning for the October, 2007, election are, of course, eager to avoid grief of any sort so it's a tough spot for them. They are also keen to avoid aggravating left-leaning voters because they know they can no longer count on their support without the presence on the ballot of bogeymen
Mike Harris and Ernie Eves.

The trouble is that there are good lefties among both the critics and supporters of Bill 107. The bill is supported by 55 legal-aid clinics, a couple of former commission chairs and secular saint June Callwood. The opposition is led by David Lepofsky, a blind Crown counsel who battled the Toronto Transit Commission for a decade to get subway stops announced. His coalition, which includes legal-aid clinics serving the black and Asian communities, has just launched a series of ads in six languages that warn "don't let Dalton McGuinty take away your rights."

It's no wonder that Attorney-General Michael Bryant is feeling a bit beleaguered these days. He plans to introduce "dozens" of amendments at Wednesday's committee hearing but he has no way of knowing if they will mollify critics. He says he has the support of the Premier's office in pushing ahead with
reform but one of his staffers conceded this week that the message from Mr. McGuinty's office is "you're alive but barely."

Mr. Bryant argues that people wait up to five years now to get a hearing before the commission and that isn't going to change just by adding the $6-million that Mr. Lepofsky has suggested is needed. The Attorney-General argues the system will be more efficient if the commission works on broader, systemic
complaints and the tribunal handles individual cases.

Seven months into his duel with the critics, Mr. Bryant has become a bit wiser. "This is the first time that the province has attempted to reform the human-rights system in more than 40 years," he said. "Now I know why."

mcampbell@globeandmail.com


From: David Lepofsky
By email to: letters@globeandmail.com
Date: November 11, 2006

Dear Editors,

May I set the record straight on two key points in the otherwise informative column: "Reforming human-rights system turns into a Catch-22 for McGuinty" (11 11 06)

It correctly says two sharply divided camps disagree on how to fix our under-funded, backlogged human rights enforcement system. However it leaves the inaccurate impression that the many of us on the side opposing McGuinty's bill only seek more public funding. In fact, in addition to desperately-needed funding, we also say that the human rights system needs
an overhaul. We released a Blueprint for this with 24 detailed proposals. (www.aodaalliance.org/reform/default.asp)

McGuinty's bill wrongly privatizes human rights enforcement, making things worse not better. In contrast, our Blueprint would strengthen Ontario's public human rights enforcement system.

The article also quotes Ontario's Attorney General claiming the human rights system hasn't changed in 44 years. In fact, the Human Rights Code was totally re-written in 1982(I actively advocated for reforms back then). Several additional changes were made over those 44 years .

Changes now needed are not McGuinty's retrogressive ones .

David Lepofsky CM
Human Rights Reform Representative, Accessibility for Ontarians with
Disabilities Act Alliance
Toronto


The Toronto Star November 13, 2006
Controversial bill back on agenda

Ian Urquhart

The provincial government's plan to overhaul the Ontario Human Rights Commission, derailed over the summer by an aggressive lobbying campaign, is back on track, although maybe not for long.

Public hearings on the plan, suspended after three days in the summer, are resuming at Queen's Park this week.

That could mean that the plan, embodied in Bill 107, will be back in the Legislature before Christmas for third and final reading.

But there are no guarantees of that as the political situation surrounding the bill remains very fluid.

First some background:
Bill 107, introduced last spring by Attorney General Michael Bryant, would give victims of discrimination "direct access" to the human rights tribunal for adjudication rather than make them first go through the commission, a process that can take years due to a huge backlog. The commission would then focus on systemic discrimination rather than individual cases.

Reaction to the bill was swift and furious from various groups representing the disabled community and visible minorities. They saw "direct access" as a euphemism for "privatization," and they said most complainants cannot afford to hire their own lawyers to bring their cases to the tribunal - a job now handled by commission staff.

These disabled and minority groups were not mollified by Bryant's promises to provide public funding to allow complainants to be represented by counsel.

The groups got the ear of Premier Dalton McGuinty's office, which is risk averse after the debacle of the by-election in Parkdale-High Park, Gerard Kennedy's old seat.

In that by-election, various interest groups on other issues (environment, education, property taxes) ganged up to help defeat the Liberal candidate. Insiders say that the people around McGuinty don't want to pursue any more initiatives that will have protesting picketers dogging the premier in the next election. So by October, with a provincial election less than a year away, Bill 107 appeared to be headed for a dusty shelf.

But then a counter-lobby began agitating in favour of the legislation. The likes of June Callwood, Claire l'Heureux-Dube (a former Supreme Court judge), Catherine Frazee (a former head of the human rights commission), law deans and professors, a coalition of several dozen legal clinics, and the Ontario Bar Association began writing letters to the premier or issuing press releases in support of Bill 107.

The Liberals were caught in a quandary. One side saw Bill 107 as reactionary and bad; the other saw it as progressive and good. No matter what the government did, one side or the other was going to be unhappy.

To try to find a compromise, a private debate was staged at Queen's Park between Michael Gottheil, chair of the human rights tribunal and a keen advocate of Bill 107, and David Lepofsky, a leading spokesperson for the disabled community and vociferous opponent of the bill. The audience was a representative from the premier's office. I am told that Gottheil won the debate. For the record, Lepofsky says it was a "conversation" rather than a debate.

At any rate, soon afterward Bill 107 was back on the rails and the hearings were scheduled. Whether the bill stays on track remains to be seen. The anti-bill lobby shifted gears last week and announced a TV ad campaign, in six different languages.
"If you believe in human rights, listen up," says the voice-over in the ad, which will be aired exclusively on OMNI television. "The McGuinty government says it's trying to fix our human rights system, but its plans will make things worse ... Don't let Dalton McGuinty take away your rights. Call the premier's office today and say NO to Bill 107."

At a press conference to unveil the ads, there were suggestions that the Liberals would live to regret it if they don't back down on the bill.

"We want all parties to know we'll raise this issue in the next general election," said Margaret Parsons of the African Canadian Legal Clinic.

The anti-bill groups also released their own "blueprint" for reform of the human rights commission, which was immediately attacked by the other side as contradictory and redundant.

This battle will be fought in public at the committee hearings Wednesday and Thursday at Queen's Park, where representatives of both sides are scheduled to testify.
Among the more interested observers will be the office of the premier.

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