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Human rights holes

BC queers better off with old HR Commission: experts

Bill Black says killing the HRC left holes that can affect queers seeking justice. Credit: Daryl Dyck

Justice for Azmi Jubranmay have been delayed because of changes that undermined BC’s human rights system, say some queer activists.

On the second anniversary of sweeping changes to the BC Human Rights Code, a picture has emerged of a profoundly reduced human rights service and a deeply divided human rights activist community.

While there is evidence that claims are processed more quickly, crucial education and advocacy functions have been choked off, threatening progress on important queer issues. And promised cost savings are not apparent.

The Jubran case, for example, might have been settled two years ago at the BC Supreme Court level but for the elimination of a public agency able to contribute expertise and financial resources to human rights complainants, queer observers say.

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The first sign that sweeping human rights changes were in store for BC came with the firing of former BC Human Rights Commissioner Mary Woo Sims, a Vancouver lesbian. The spectacle that saw Sims publicly fired in response to a question in the legislature from gay Liberal MLA Lorne Mayencourt still evokes fiery debate in queer circles.

“I understand there have been some changes in the Human Rights Commission…. What has occurred there?” asked Mayencourt in the Jul 26, 2001 legislature question period.

In response, Attorney General Geoff Plant stood up, just two months into the government’s mandate, and announced that Sims had been fired. There would be a review of all human rights institutions and practices.

Subsequently, the Human Rights Commission was eliminated, making BC the only jurisdiction in Canada without such a commission. Human rights monitoring and education mandates previously held by the commission were transferred to the Ministry of the Attorney General.

Effective March 2003, the BC Human Rights Tribunal became a one-stop shop, responsible for accepting, screening, mediating and adjudicating human rights complaints.

Claimants gained direct access to the tribunal but lost an independent public body capable of contributing significant financial and information resources.

UBC Law professor Bill Black, who headed a major 1994 human rights project for the BC government, says the new human rights model is missing three critical elements: 1) Advocacy-the ability to take the side of a person who files a complaint; 2) Full power of investigation-investigative help for systemic discrimination claims where evidence is hard to gather because of inherent government/corporate complexities and influences; and 3) Human rights education.

The system was set up to emphasize education, says barbara findlay, a Vancouver lawyer specializing in queer human rights.

It’s never been about the financial rewards, which have always been very small, she continues. “People were to be educated through the process.”

Now, says Black, educational help provided by the old system has been withdrawn. “If you’re working today to educate people about gay and lesbian issues, there is no government body that can help you.”

Adds Shelagh Day, editor of the Canadian Human Rights Reporter, “When you take away the commission which had a role to speak publicly, to deal with systemic discrimination, you’ve wiped out major parts of the human rights machinery and nothing has been done to compensate for that.”

Also lost in the new system, says Black, is the commission’s ability to launch a human rights complaint on its own where the need is apparent. For instance, the old system would have had the capacity to launch a complaint in response to the Liberal government’s 38 percent legal aid cut, which virtually eliminated access to legal aid for the disadvantaged.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s promise that the new human rights system would be cheaper than the old model is questionable.

To cover its expanded role, the tribunal budget was increased from $1.3 million to $3.1 million. And government contracts financing a new Human Rights Clinic to replace part of the old structure total $2 million. According to a Vancouver Sun report, the budget of the commission at the time it was eliminated was $3.1 million.