Ontario Human rights Reform - A call to Action

MCGUINTY GOVERNMENT PASSES BILL 107 - DISCRIMINATION VICTIMS LOSE THEIR LEGAL RIGHT TO A PUBLIC INVESTIGATION OF THEIR HUMAN RIGHTS CASE - ONTARIO PRIVATIZES HUMAN RIGHTS ENFORCEMENT

December 7, 2006

SUMMARY

On Tuesday December 5, 2006, the McGuinty Government used its majority to pass the widely-criticized Bill 107. The opposition Conservative and New Democratic parties voted against the bill. How ironic that Bill 107 was passed right after December 3, the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, and right before December 10, International Human Rights Day. To read the bill in its final form, visit:

http://www.ontla.on.ca/documents/Bills/38_Parliament/session2/b107rep_e.htm

Once it is proclaimed in force by the Ontario Cabinet, Bill 107 will strip from human rights complainants the right to a public investigation of any non-frivolous discrimination complaint, and to have it publicly prosecuted where the evidence warrants a hearing. Discrimination victims will have to investigate and prosecute their own discrimination cases. If they want to be represented by a lawyer, they will have to either hire one themselves (if they can afford it), or hope a lawyer will represent them at no charge, or they will have to line up at the door of an as-yet unfunded and unestablished Human Rights Legal Support Centre (and hope that Centre will choose to take their case).

By passing this bill, the McGuinty Government has betrayed its important understanding with Ontario's disability community regarding the availability of the Human Rights Commission as the public investigator-public prosecutor of human rights violations. That understanding underpinned our entire negotiation and endorsement of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

We understand that at the Legislature in celebration of the bill's passage was a small contingent from the vocal group who pressed for this legislation, mainly some lawyers. There was no large cheering turnout from those whom the Human Rights code is to protect, i.e. equality-seeking individuals. This was dramatically different from the day 18 months ago when the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act was passed. On that day, a significant grass-roots turnout of persons with disabilities came from all over Ontario to the Legislature to celebrate. The difference was striking.

The passage of Bill 107 comes at the end of a very troubling 10 months. During this period, the McGuinty Government did a stunning turnabout in its treatment of Ontario's disability community. Earlier, from the time it took office in fall 2003 until passage of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act in May of 2005, the McGuinty Government showed itself to be open and receptive to our views. It was eager to consult with us as a broad community. It expressed a strong commitment to tackle and remove the barriers facing persons with disabilities.

Then, short months after the AODA was passed, something we neither understand nor can explain happened to the McGuinty Government. It decided on its major reforms to the Human Rights Code without consulting our community. After it announced these plans, it refused our many requests that it hold a public consultation on human rights reform before introducing a human rights bill. It put unfair barriers in the path of persons with disabilities fully participating in the legislative process which it had worked so hard to avoid when the AODA was before the Legislature. It ignored the core concerns that so many raised with the Government - concerns echoed by other equality-seeking communities.

It is especially ironic to report to you today on these events. It was today, December 7, 2006, when the AODA Alliance was scheduled to make its public presentation on Bill 107 to the Standing Committee on Justice Policy. We chose this date so that we would be in a position to offer the Standing Committee constructive input on the presentations it received from others who presented earlier. We chose this date on an understanding from the Government that the hearings would continue now and in the weeks ahead. As is now well-known, the Government subsequently cancelled these hearings by ramming through its widely-criticized McGuinty Muzzle Motion. That unique motion is the first we've heard of where a Government would use "closure" to cancel public legislative hearings that had been promised, advertised confirmed by all-party agreement, and scheduled.

The McGuinty Liberals passed its Muzzle Motion on the five year anniversary of the previous Government's closure motion which restricted debate on the proposed Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2001. Back five years ago, Dalton McGuinty, Michael Bryant and their fellow Liberals angrily voted against that closure motion as an undemocratic muzzling of Ontarians with disabilities. Five years later, after taking power, they did a 180 degree turnabout on the use of closure to muzzle us.

It is beyond debate that the McGuinty Muzzle Motion was imposed principally to prevent the bill's many critics from being able to fully air their concerns before the Legislature. Had the Government merely wished to limit MPPs' debates on the bill, they could have passed a more limited closure motion. They could have let the hearings go ahead as promised and scheduled, but restricted the time for MPPs to debate the bill. The McGuinty Muzzle Motion has left a bad taste in the mouth of many, including among those who support Bill 107. It is a dark cloud over this bill that will continue to grow, not fade.

bill 107's passage is a significant step backwards in our journey down the long, arduous road to our goal of a barrier-free Ontario. However we should keep a balanced perspective. We've overcome setbacks in the past. We've also made a great deal of progress.

Indeed there is much to be proud of in the campaign we've waged over the ten months since the Government's surprise announcement last February 20, 2006 that it planned to strip the Human Rights Commission of most of its enforcement mandate. The very young AODA Alliance quickly rose to the challenge. It has put itself on the political map in Ontario. Its response to Bill 107 received substantial support from many within the disability community.

The AODA Alliance forged a strong alliance with leaders from other equality-seeking communities, especially from among racial minorities, to work together in an unprecedented way. This new broad movement crafted a joint message which was supported by the majority of those who presented at the Standing Committee hearings before the McGuinty Muzzle Motion shut down further hearings. Our AODA Alliance brief on Bill 107 was developed in close consultation with advocates from these other equality-seeking communities. This broad movement also forged constructive links with both opposition parties at Queen's Park.

Our joint efforts with other equality-seeking communities produced extensive media coverage. The larger part of that coverage focused on our concerns about Bill 107.

This issue is not finished just because Bill 107 passed Third Reading. There will be many ways to advance our agenda over the next months. It is important to retain our tenacity and our optimism despite such setbacks. We will take the year-end break to re-charge our batteries and to gear up for the next phase in our campaign.

In the new year, stay tuned for ideas on how we can harness the momentum we have built up, and how we can work towards our goal of a strengthened public human rights enforcement system. After the holiday period we will also provide further updates on the flurry of activity around the final days in the Legislature surrounding Bill 107 and an analysis of the amendments to the bill. We always welcome your feedback at:

aodafeedback@rogers.com

In the meantime, visit our web site for more background information on this issue. Thanks to everyone who helped out across Ontario in raising this issue. Have a great holiday.