The federal court rebuffed the Canadian Human Rights Commission Jun 23 in a judgment that demands new rules for the country’s human rights adjudicators.
It’s a victory for Paul Richard, a Quebec man fighting against a clause that effectively puts a one-year expiry date on human rights complaints.
“It’s an important precedent not just for myself, but for lots of cases that are before the Commission,” says Richard. “We’re making history here.”
His complaint, against the civil service and RCMP, dates back to 1985, the year the Canadian Human Rights Act came into effect. If he wins the right to proceed, it will be the longest time exemption ever granted in a Canadian human rights complaint.
Richard, a gay man living in Montreal, filed his grievance in August 2005, on the 20th anniversary of the alleged abuse.
In June 2007, the Human Rights Commission declined to hear it, citing a clause in the law that allows them to ignore a case if “the complaint is based on acts or omissions the last of which occurred more than one year [ago], or such longer period of time as the Commission considers appropriate in the circumstances.”
Undeterred, Richard appealed on the grounds that the Commission failed to consider the discretionary provisions of the time limit.
In June 2008, Justice Luc Martineau rendered a decision — the Commission was indeed mistaken in not considering their discretionary power in Richard’s case. Martineau sent it back to the Commission to reconsider whether or not to hear it.
It represents one victory in an ongoing David and Goliath battle. Richard has been representing himself throughout the process.
“The judge gave a hard time to the Attorney General’s lawyer in court. I thought that was a good sign that it was going to go in my favour,” he says.
In his original application, Richard argued that the 20-year delay in filing was inevitable, in part because the mental distress caused by his alleged treatment by the civil service was crippling. He also argues that the case is worth pursuing because it represents systemic abuse and it’s in the public interest to find out what happened to him and other gay civil servants in the ’70s and ’80s.
When the Commission declined to hear the case, they gave no indication that they had considered Richard’s arguments in favour of using their discretionary power. It now appears that the CHRC will be obliged to explain themselves in such cases.
Richard’s file was sent back to the CHRC, where this fall he will again argue that it would have been impossible for him to file a complaint in 1985-6, and that the case is in the public interest to pursue.
If the CHRC again declines to hear his case, he says he’ll take it back to the federal court.
“I’m ready to fight,” he says.