Controversial reforms to Ontario’s human rights laws are receiving cautious support from the Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario (CLGRO) in spite of calls from outraged groups representing visible minorities and disabled people who want the province to scrap the proposed legislation altogether.
CLGRO’s Tom Warner says Bill 107 will receive the organization’s support only if the attorney general spells out the details of promised amendments.
“Without amendments, the system isn’t going to be any better and could in fact become worse,” says Warner, who spoke at a justice policy standing committee hearing last week.
In February, Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant announced Bill 107, a long-overdue reform of the Ontario Human Rights Code that promises to rid the system of “procedural gridlock” and give complainants “direct access” to the human rights tribunal.
Under the current system, complaints are investigated by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which administers the code and tries to mediate voluntary settlements. If a solution can’t be found, the case is referred to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, where the commission acts as a public prosecutor.
If passed, Bill 107 would strip the commission of its investigative role; the commission would instead focus on issues of systemic discrimination and public education. With the commission removed from the complaints process, complainants would go directly to the tribunal. The new “direct access” system is intended to remove a layer of bureaucracy.
“We support direct access because it is the way to ensure we don’t get delays,” says Warner. “However… the legislation does not specify there would be provisions for all complainants to access legal aid to prepare a complaint and advance through the system. Without that, direct access is not going to work.”
Warner, a former Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, argues that the best way for complainants to get free legal advice would be through publicly funded regional centres.
In its current form, Bill 107 allows the tribunal to charge complainants to process their complaint and contract legal services for complainants out to third parties.
These vaguely worded measures have rankled community groups. The Ontario Public Service Employee Union, the Metro Toronto Chinese And Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, the African Canadian Legal Clinic and the Accessibility For Ontarians With Disabilities Act Alliance recently financed a TV campaign to oppose Bill 107 and promote an alternative reform plan.
These groups see the proposed reforms as unnecessary cost-cutting measures that will make investigating complaints more expensive and difficult for victims of discrimination. Instead, the coalition calls for a series of amendments including optional mediation and fast tracking for time-sensitive complaints. Under this alternative proposal, the basic structure of the system would stay the same, but increased funding would speed up the process.
“Our blueprint is based on the core principle of a fully public human rights system, with a strengthened, revitalized Human Rights Commission at the helm,” says David Lepofsky, human rights reform representative of the Accessibility For Ontarians With Disabilities Act Alliance.
Amidst this criticism, Bryant pledged last week to amend the bill to create a publicly funded human rights legal support centre and allow the commission to intervene in tribunal hearings.