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When do human rights complaints expire?

Man seeks exemption on one-year window

If Paul Richard wins his case, it will be the longest time exemption ever granted in a Canadian human rights complaint. Under the rules of the Human Rights Commission, people must file within one year of the day the discrimination happened.

Richard, a Montreal gay man who alleges discrimination by the RCMP and civil service, is applying to have events dating back to 1987 examined by the commission. His request has already been denied; Richard, who represents himself, is in the process of appealing.

He began recording his story in 2002 and only officially filed his complaint in August 2005. He says he’s spent “innumerable” hours since then — “months and months and months” — pouring over his submission. In the process, he’s undergone a crash course in Canadian law, emerging as a knowledgeable advocate for abolishing the one-year time limit on human rights complaints.

If justice is only available to those who apply promptly, then the system is broken, says Richard. He says his case — he alleges surveillance and cover up by the RCMP and mistreatment at the hands of various federal agencies while he was an employee, ending in 1987 — is of interest to the Canadian public and should be heard.

“If they don’t — well then, where does the charter apply? That’s why, if they do refuse me, I do think this should go to the Supreme Court,” says Richard.

He could not have filed on time, he says, because in 1987 the young Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had not been tested in the areas related to his case. But — and this is perhaps the most interesting of his claims — the homophobia he faced was so crippling, he was psychologically unable to file on time, says Richard.

“I almost went crazy,” he says. “When this was hitting me, I didn’t realize how homophobic it was.”

If Richard’s argument holds, it could open the floodgates to others who were still reeling from homophobia a year after they were abused or discriminated against.

In Dec 2007, after three years of digging, Richard, with the help of a McGill law student, found the precedent he says ought to overturn the commission’s decision not to see his case.

In Gauthier v Beaumont, David Allen Gauthier was able to successfully argue that he was too afraid of the police, who had beaten him in 1982, to sue for damages, contravening the six month window provided by the relevant legislation to pursue his case. In 1988, he tried to bring action against the two police officers involved and the town of Brome Lake. In 1998, 10 years later, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Gauthier’s favour.

In human rights cases, exemptions to the one-year rule have occasionally been granted.

“In my own situation, it’s an abuse case,” says Richard. “It’s systemic. It’s complex. Those are the two major reasons for an exemption being given.”

He says he hasn’t been able to find many allies. Lawyers believe his case to be hopeless, activists don’t see it as having broad enough value, and other people in the same case don’t know that he’s quietly toiling away in Montreal.

“People have heard about other cases like mine,” he says. “But where are they?”