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BC Human Rights Tribunal in jeopardy?

Staff changes and super-tribunal suggestions spark concern

Recent changes to the BC Human Rights Tribunal have sparked concern with some members of the gay and legal communities about the future of the quasi-judicial body tasked with upholding human rights in the province.

According to a provincial government website, contracts for both board chair Heather MacNaughton and board member Judith Parrack are set to expire on July 31. This comes five months after the departure of board member Lindsay Lyster, who says she resigned to pursue opportunities in private practice.

Parrack, who first joined the board in 1999, MacNaughton, who joined in 2000, and Lyster, who joined in 2002, have all supported the rights of gay, lesbian and trans people throughout their tenures.

In 2002, MacNaughton ruled that Vancouver Rape Relief contravened the BC Human Rights Code by excluding Kimberly Nixon from volunteering for their organization because she was not born female.

Last July, MacNaughton dismissed a complaint from an anti-gay activist who complained the lack of therapy for gay students “who suffer from homosexuality and other dysfunctional sexual orientations” violates the Code.

Three months later, Lyster dismissed a school librarian’s complaint that she was discriminated against on religious grounds for refusing to place gay-straight alliance stickers and gay-friendly books in her library.

The provincial government’s initial posting for a new board chair on July 12 listed the position as part-time.

“I’m deeply concerned to find that the position of chair of the Human Rights Tribunal is being advertised as a part-time position,” lesbian lawyer barbara findlay responded. “That does indeed signal very significant reorganization because there’s no doubt that it’s a full-time position.”

“This is the government that did away with the Human Rights Commission and has cut back on the programs that stand up against discrimination and that support education in our communities,” reminds Vancouver-West End NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert.

“This is consistent with the BC Liberals’ care for human rights — that they have very little care for it.”

When Xtra called the Human Rights Tribunal on July 15, a staff member confirmed the current position of chair is full-time, but had no knowledge of the part-time job posting.

Sometime between the evening of July 15 and the morning of July 16, the job posting was changed from part-time to full-time.

On the afternoon of July 16, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General told Xtra the initial posting was a mistake.

“If you go to the body of the original posting you’ll see that it indicates it’s full-time because most of their positions are part-time, and they left it in and this is a correction. It is a full-time position.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Finance confirmed the posting and subsequent change was made by the Board Resourcing and Development Office.

But Lyster is not convinced it was a mistake.

She points to the past-tense wording of the job posting, which reads “typically, the role of the Chair has been a full-time position,” and “the role of the Chair has previously been a full-time position.”

“Even though the job type has been altered in the posting, the text continues to suggest that the position was previously full-time, which leads one to wonder what its future time commitment would be,” Lyster says.

Christopher McHardy, chair of the Human Rights section at the Canadian Bar Association, British Columbia Branch, says there are no formal consultations taking place between government and stakeholders regarding the future of the tribunal. But he has heard they are conducting “selective reviews” with certain groups.

“I haven’t heard, for instance, that there’s been a call for any kind of submissions,” he says.

“A lot of the time, when there’s going to be some kind of policy change, the CBA might be asked to put out a paper as a response,” he explains. “I’m not aware of anything the CBA is doing.

“My sense is that what the government is doing is more of a review — and it’s fairly tightly constrained in who they are approaching.”

“We know the BC Law Institute has been asked by the Ministry of Labour to look at models for workplace dispute resolution,” says Lyster. “We know that there are proposals by those who appear to have the ear of government to move all employment-related matters to something they call a super tribunal.

“And I think there’s justified fears about how robust the protection of human rights would be at such a super tribunal.”