The Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) announced plans last month to close its regional offices in Toronto, Vancouver, and Halifax, a move some critics are calling an attack on the human rights system.
The CHRC is an independent federal agency that investigates and settles employment and service discrimination complaints in areas of federal jurisdiction, including banks, airlines, telecommunications, interprovincial travel, First Nations, and the federal government.
The closures, which will be phased in over the next six months, will leave the CHRC with three offices in Ottawa, Edmonton, and Montreal, and an additional office for First Nations outreach in Winnipeg.
The decision to close the federal offices does not affect the provincial Human Rights Commissions, which investigate discrimination in other matters.
The CHRC works with an annual budget of $22 million. It received nearly 10,000 calls last year, and investigated nearly 700 claims.
In a press release, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) notes that 70 percent of the discrimination claims the CHRC received last year originated from the three offices on the chopping block. PSAC recently launched a letter-writing campaign to convince the government to reverse the CHRC’s decision.
“From the PSAC’s perspective, obviously this is a political issue,” says John Gordon, national president of PSAC. “Stephen Harper’s agenda on the issue of human rights is to dismantle the system.”
But Pamela Stephens, a spokesperson for justice minister Rob Nicholson, says that the government did not impinge on the CHRC’s political independence.
“This was an internal reorganisation and the decision was made without input from the government,” Stephens says.
Still, the federal government controls the purse strings, so the Conservative government “has to wear this,” says Gordon.
“The optics alone of closing the offices is a very powerful negative message,” he says. “I think it all comes down to politically this government is not funding the Human Rights Commission adequately. The government is the one supplying HRC with the resources.”
Representatives from the CHRC promise that the closures will not negatively impact it’s investigative or education services.
“We wouldn’t do it if we believed that was a potential outcome,” says Rob Taylor, director of communications for the CHRC.
Because all claims are processed centrally in the Ottawa office, the regional offices were superfluous, Taylor says.
“Mediators and investigators won’t be housed in a CHRC bricks-and-mortar building,” Taylor says of the changes. “They’ll go out and visit workplaces and homes. They don’t work out of a single office. We’re still supplying the same services.”
Taylor says the closure of the offices will actually deliver better service, because the CHRC is “taking management positions and turning them into front-line positions.”
Read the PSAC’s queer rights petition here.