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AG 'moving too fast' with reforms

|Written By Kirsten McMahon
It''s been just over a month since the provincial government announcedits plans to reform Ontario''s human rights system, but stakeholders saythey want input on the "rushed" legislation before it''s tabled thisspring.
Barbara Hall says those involved must stop focusing on what doesn't work in the current human rights system and start building on what does.
Barbara Hall, the newly appointed chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) and Michael Gottheil, chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO), were on hand last week to address a dinner meeting at the Ontario Bar Association.
Hall said everyone involved has to stop focusing on what doesn't work in the current human rights system and start building on what does. Change is always challenging, she said, but it presents an exciting opportunity for change.
"While the commission supports reform to change the human rights system, we nevertheless firmly believe that wide consultation is needed on changes that will ultimately impact on those most vulnerable individuals who use the system.
"Current public debate on the issue is also calling for further discussion and I can't emphasize too strongly the need to consult with those most likely to use the system," she said.
When the panel discussion was opened to take questions from the floor, the message was clear: stakeholders want the Ministry of the Attorney General to consult with them before it goes ahead with its planned reforms.
The government says the new human rights system will be stronger, faster, and more effective to serve the public better, but those opposed say it will become a two-tier, semi-privatized system where marginalized complainants will be left to their own devices and forced to investigate their own complaints.
The current human rights system was created in 1962 to enforce the Ontario Human Rights Code and little has been changed since then. The OHRC currently receives, settles, and investigates about 2,400 human rights complaints annually, while the tribunal hears and decides around 150 cases a year referred to it by the commission.
Under the proposed new model, the OHRC would focus on advancing human rights and preventing discrimination through public education, research, and monitoring to address systemic discrimination. Meanwhile, the tribunal would resolve disputes by allowing individuals or groups to file claims directly with the tribunal.
While there's no doubt the current system is unacceptable and plagued with long waits and backlog, some say the proposed changes set victims of discrimination - namely the disabled, visible minorities, and new Canadians - back decades.
"Many organizations in the disabled community oppose this proposal brought forward," said David Lepofsky, counsel for the Office of Crown Law-Criminal and chair of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee.
"I think it reneges on rights we won 25 years ago to a guaranteed public investigation of our rights and to commitments made last year that the OHRC was there and available so we don't need a new agency to enforce our disability act that we won last year.
"We think this is double betrayal. We've asked for information from the government for six, seven weeks. We've got none. We've asked for a consultation. Last week in front of the legislature the attorney general said he's already consulted."
Hall said the OHRC has advocated for broad consultation throughout the process and will continue to do so.
"We'll take every opportunity to respond and to advocate with the minister and the government and the ministry to having the consultation necessary to get the best system possible."
However, Attorney General Michael Bryant told Law Times that changes proposed have been the subject of consultation and recommendations spanning decades, including support from the Ontario Bar Association, and the proposed reform is in line with recommendations put forward in Mary Cornish's 1992 report and justice Gerald LaForest's 2001 report. He also said the OHRC would still retain the power to bring people and companies before the tribunal if it sees fit.
"We didn't want to reinvent the wheel. We took a significant amount of time over the last couple of years studying those reports and also going back and consulting with stakeholders to get their input to see if they have changed their mind," explains Bryant.
"By and large, there was no doubt the system is broken and desperately needs fixing and a direct access to the HRTO would mean shortening the pipeline from complaint to resolution."
Part of the problem is that while the new model would put legal and advisory services in place to both support and empower people who are seeking a remedy before the HRTO, it's not clear who or what will provide that support.
Bryant said the ministry is still working on figuring out whether that assistance should be done through the legal clinic system and Legal Aid Ontario or through a separate office devoted to representing complainants.
"Those are very important questions and when the legislation comes forward, people will get to see those details," said Bryant. "We'll also get some advice on those details because once the legislation is introduced, of course, the consultation begins anew.
"I think people want to see the details and deserve to see the details and that's why I'm trying to work very hard to get them the details as quickly as I can."
Although Bryant said he consulted various stakeholders on the proposed model, Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, said her clinic was not consulted and feels this proposal is a "slap in the face."
"Particularly after our community has been waiting for a year, after three consultations, for a proper police complaints system and legislation to reform that system and yet [Bryant] is choosing to rush through with legislation that is ill-conceived reform to our human rights system and choosing to gut our human rights system."
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