Speakers Corner: Time is now for changes to human rights system, says AG

The people of Ontario deserve a human rights system that works. People who have filed complaints against acts of discrimination deserve a system that works efficiently. They want a system that will resolve their complaints quickly and effectively.

They also want a system that will act proactively to prevent discrimination, protect the vulnerable, and meet the needs of our diverse, modern society.

Our human rights system is broken. For more than 15 years now, successive reviews, reports, and consultations have come to that conclusion.

Right now, it can take four to five years for a human rights complaint to move through the full complaints process from filing at the Ontario Human Rights Commission to resolution at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. That's not acceptable to the people of Ontario, and it is not acceptable to the McGuinty government. We intend to fix it.

The current human rights system, which consists of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, has been in place since 1962, when the province enacted Canada's first human rights code to prohibit discrimination and harassment in the workplace, and in accommodation, goods, services, and facilities.

Ontario has a proud record of leadership in protecting human rights, but a human rights system that is more than 40 years old is no longer serving the public in a way that meets the realities of our 21st century society.

On April 26, 2006, I introduced legislation to modernize Ontario's human rights system. This legislation, if passed, would make our human rights system stronger, faster, and more effective to better serve the people of our province.

Under the proposed human rights code amendment act, 2006, a new complaints process would be created, and discrimination claims would be filed directly with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

Currently, fewer than 10 per cent of complainants have an opportunity to have their cases heard by an independent adjudicator at the Human Rights Tribunal. Under the proposed system, all applicants would have that opportunity, and parties would be allowed to participate directly throughout the entire process.

The tribunal would have updated and enhanced statutory powers to determine its own practices and procedures to manage its caseload efficiently, resolve disputes fairly, quickly, and effectively, and to provide for compensation for human rights violations. Claims would not take years to move forward.

We would establish a new Human Rights Legal Support Centre to provide information, support, advice, assistance, and legal representation for those who are seeking a remedy before the tribunal. We would ensure that, regardless of levels of income, abilities, or personal circumstances, all Ontarians would be entitled to share in receiving equal and effective protection of human rights.

This would be a vast improvement over the current system, where commission counsel act as representatives of the public, not for individual complainants, and a complainant only receives legal support if they retain their own lawyer, at their own expense.

Under the proposed legislation, the Ontario Human Rights Commission would become an even stronger champion of human rights. Its work would focus on proactive measures, such as public education, advocacy, research, analysis, and promotion to prevent discrimination and address systemic issues that have a broad impact on communities and groups.

The commission would continue to play a critical role in the resolution of complaints, as it would have the ability to intervene in, or initiate, complaints before the tribunal on systemic issues affecting the public interest.

Two new secretariats, an anti-racism secretariat and a disability rights secretariat, would be established within the commission to entrench its long-standing commitment to addressing inequality in historically disadvantaged communities.

The proposed human rights legislation is the culmination of more study and consultation than any other legislation in Ontario's history.

The former NDP government commissioned a task force to review the human rights system. That report, the Cornish Report, has been sitting on the shelf since 1992. In 1995, and again in 2001, the Harris government promised reforms to the human rights code. Nothing changed. In 2001, the La Forest Report by former Supreme Court of Canada justice G?rard La Forest urged reform with respect to the federal human rights system, which mirrors Ontario's system. Again, nothing changed.

These reports outlined the problems with the system. They spoke of "excessive delays at every stage" and backlogs of complaints. They also spoke of the need to address systemic issues that affect groups of people as well as individuals.

These reports recommended giving claimants direct access to tribunal hearings, and stronger statutory powers for the tribunal that are appropriate to meet today's human rights challenges.

As soon as I assumed responsibility for the human rights system in 2003, I heard these calls for change, and I committed to government action to overhaul Ontario's human rights system.

Last year, the Ministry of the Attorney General met with individuals and organizations in the fields of human rights and administrative justice, to learn as much as possible about what is working well and what could be improved.

Participants were universal in their desire to see the human rights system strengthened. They specifically noted the delays in the processing of discrimination complaints.

The United Nations Human Rights Com-mittee also expressed its frustration last year. The committee recommended that "human rights legislation should be amended at federal, provincial, and territorial levels and its legal system enhanced so that all victims of discrimination have full and effective access to a competent tribunal and to an effective remedy."

Our proposed legislation would, if passed, give victims of discrimination full and effective access to a competent tribunal. It would bring us into compliance with recommendations from the United Nations, and would once again make Ontario an international leader in addressing and redressing human rights violations.

We have met with those in the human rights community throughout the development of this proposed legislation, and we will continue to meet with them to get their input as the bill progresses. We also look forward to province-wide public hearings on the bill to take place as soon as possible.

This government is resolved to act to modernize our human rights system. Change has been too long in coming. It is time for action.

Michael Bryant, the member of provincial parliament for the Toronto riding of St. Paul's, is the Attorney General of Ontario.

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