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Province unveils human-rights reform

Details vague on proposed legal-aid system

Local activists are divided over whether new legislation to revamp the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) will make it easier to deal with discrimination.

Provincial Attorney General Michael Bryant introduced a bill last month that he says will streamline the current process, which can take years to resolve a complaint.

“Right now, if Rosa Parks got onto an Ontario transit bus, she would not receive relief for such discrimination for up to five years,” says Bryant. “That’s what we’re trying to fix.”

But some human-rights activists say the changes could make it harder for such cases to be heard at all.

“This means a serious deterioration of human-rights protection in Ontario,” says Avvy Go, the director of the Metro Toronto Chinese And Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.

Under the proposed legislation, human-rights complaints would be filed directly with the Human Rights Tribunal Of Ontario, currently the body responsible for ultimately ruling on complaints. The tribunal would have the power to immediately dismiss complaints. Currently, all complaints are investigated by the OHRC which may choose to forward the case to the tribunal after it investigates them.

“The tribunal will have the ability to weed out frivolous and vexatious complaints,” says Bryant.

The commission could still help resolve disputes that involve systemic discrimination or a wider public interest, but would now focus primarily on education and prevention, especially in the areas of racism and disability.

Andrew Pinto, a lawyer who has represented a number of queer complainants, says the changes should improve the system considerably.

“One of the criticisms of the current system is that whether it’s a comment in the workplace or a huge systemic problem, it’s all treated the same. This will provide a greater ability to triage cases.”

Currently, if a complaint reaches the tribunal, the complainant is represented by OHRC staff, but that won’t be the case anymore. Instead, the legislation proposes to create a new legal support system for complainants, who would typically get a lawyer to present their claim.

Go says the legislation is vague about the proposed legal aid.

“The only reference to legal assistance is, ‘The minister may enter into agreements with prescribed persons or entities for the purposes of providing legal services.’ ‘May’ means there is no guarantee.”

Go also says that legal aid would not make up for removing the commission’s ability to investigate complaints.

“I have yet to see a single case that doesn’t require investigation. But in cases that require investigation, the burden now shifts to the complainant. It’s not the tribunal going into the workplace and investigating. I don’t know why some people, including human-rights lawyers, are so gung-ho about this.”

But Pinto says the current system of investigation is of little use when cases take five or six years to reach the tribunal.

“The utility of an investigation that had occurred two years ago was limited. Practically, you weren’t relying on the investigation so much as the testimony they were giving at the tribunal hearing.”

Pinto also says he’s not worried about the vagueness of the legislation.

“A lot more specificity will be put forward by an implementation committee, although it could be in the form of recommendations which the government could ignore.”

Pinto says the new legislation could be especially beneficial to queer complainants.

“For my clients who are GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans], it’s often either the embarrassment or privacy issues, and for the matter to then drag on for a number of years makes it even worse. You have to re-come out to new people, new commissioners, new investigators.”

But even Pinto admits that a lot of his support for the changes is based on faith in how they’ll be enacted.

“Even those of us who are supportive don’t claim that we will get it all right.”