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3 min

Chicken Little of human rights?

BC activist worries about reform in Ontario

OUR CASSANDRA? Former BC human rights commissioner Mary Woo Sims worries Ontario is heading down the wrong road.

Mary Woo Sims has seen the best and the worst of human rights commissions. Back in 1996, she and William Dwyer launched a human rights complaint against the Metro Toronto government over same-sex partner benefits. She won and got $4,000 in damages. In 1997 she was appointed chief of the British Columbia Human Rights Commission but was unceremoniously canned in 2002, as the Liberal government initiated changes to the province’s Human Rights Code that eventually eliminated the commission, making it the only province currently operating without one.

Instead of filing complaints with a commission — which has the power to appoint an investigator to dig out the information for the purposes of mediation or preparation for a human rights tribunal hearing — BC now expects citizens to complain directly to its human rights tribunal, which operates like a court with a limited ability to order cash settlements.

Sims, who now runs a consulting business, says the BC system puts an undue burden on complainants who, after all, are claiming that they’re being discriminated against by landlords, employers and the like. She also claims it doesn’t save time or money, since all parties now tend to hire lawyers and jump through more procedural hoops.

So when she heard the February announcement by the Ontario Liberal government that it is introducing legislation that would have citizens file complaints directly to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal — leaving the commission to do public education, research and intervene in some complaints — Sims feared the worst. She came to Ontario last week on the invitation of government-employee unions; here’s an edited Q&A.

XTRA: What are you doing here exactly?

MARY WOO SIMS: I’m in Toronto to share with Ontarians some of the experiences we’ve had with reform in British Columbia with human rights and to put a cautionary note out there to the public to get involved in this debate, ask that the government engage in open and transparent public discussions before any legislation is introduced.

XTRA: How did you get fired back in 2002?

SIMS: I think the new government knew that had I been at my post I would have tried to convince them that the reform that they were contemplating was not going to
be helpful to the advancement of human rights in British Columbia.

XTRA: What’s been the result in BC?

SIMS: There has been no public education in three years. It’s like we’ve gone back to the future, with the human rights administration we had in the 1980s. So the ability to do research is gone. The ability of a public body that’s funded by government to intervene in systemic discrimination cases is completely gone. Cases are now being scheduled into 2007 for a hearing. What used to be a level playing field is now tilted against the complainant.

XTRA: In BC, you were fired before the reforms. Here, Barbara Hall, who is a high profile figure, was hired before the reforms. She’s not going to let them wreck the system, is she?

SIMS: They’ve learned some lessons from the BC experience because they know that the BC model has been roundly condemned by anybody who knows anything about human rights. For example, the Ontario government has announced it has no intention of eliminating the proactive and preventative initiatives the commission can undertake. I also have a great deal of respect for Barbara Hall. But
I would just caution that you can’t put all of this on her shoulders.

XTRA: They saying they’re increasing the combined commission and tribunal budgets to $15.1 million from $13.9 million. It can’t be all bad, can it?

As Barbara Hall has said, there’s more questions than answers right now. We don’t have a white paper, which is normally how government initiates discussions around legislative change. I think that’s closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

XTRA: Are there ways to reform the system to actually make it faster and better?

SIMS: There is a modification that can happen around the commission’s gatekeeping role and there’s triaging that can go on at the commission to determine whether a particular complaint can go directly to the tribunal. I’m not Chicken Little. I’m not here to say, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.” I’m saying there are some practical and principled concerns we have to be thinking about.