B.C. Gets a Human Rights Commission Back

On November 1, the Government of British Columbia tabled legislation that will create a new Human Rights Commissioner, restoring for British Columbians an institution that was wiped out in 2002 by the Campbell Liberals. For 16 years, British Columbia has been the only province in Canada with no human rights commission.

The elimination of the B.C. Human Rights Commission in 2002 was the second time in B.C.'s history that a human rights commission was eliminated. In 1984, the Social Credit government dismissed the Human Rights Commission, fired the staff and closed the regional offices.

In the face of this volatile history, the Government of British Columbia has taken an important and unprecedented step: there will be one Human Rights Commissioner and the Commissioner will be an Officer of the Legislature, with all the related protections for independence that entails. This will make the B.C. Commissioner unique in Canada, the only one that is, in fact, institutionally independent of government.

The fact that B.C. has stepped out on the issue of independence will improve the climate for all human rights commissions. Independence is a key issue for human rights institutions whose job is to hold governments, as well as private actors, accountable for human rights compliance.

The B.C. structure will become similar to that of Ontario. B.C. will retain its direct access, stand-alone adjudicatory body, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. But B.C. will restore to British Columbians an essential institution — this time in the form of an independent Officer of the Legislature — with a mandate to promote and protect human rights by providing education; developing guidelines and policies to assist and inform employers, landlords and services providers about how to comply with the Code; examining the human rights implications of policies, programs or legislation; making recommendations regarding compliance with human rights; and undertaking studies, research or inquiries that could assist British Columbians to deal with broader human rights issues that affect whole groups or communities.

With a clear mandate to address systemic discrimination, the B.C. Commissioner has been given two significant new powers: the power to initiate public inquiries and the power to promote compliance with international human rights obligations.

The public inquiry powers permit the Commissioner to inquire into a matter, when doing so would "promote or protect" human rights. When an inquiry is initiated, the Commissioner can require attendance of witnesses and production of information, make a report with recommendations, and require a response regarding steps taken to implement the recommendations.  Using similar powers, the Ontario Human Rights Commission launched an inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination by the Toronto Police Service in 2017.

A unique power given to the B.C. Commissioner is the authority to promote compliance with international human rights obligations. This is a mandate that, for many years, community advocates have wanted human rights commissions to have. Since provincial and municipal governments are bound by the international human rights treaties that Canada has ratified, including the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, these treaties should be accepted as part of the human rights framework for every jurisdiction, and compliance with them should be integrated into the work of all human rights commissions. B.C. has been the first to incorporate that role explicitly in its human rights legislation, and deserves applause for it.

The one weakness in this legislation is that the Commissioner does not have the power to initiate complaints when to do so would be in the public interest. Commissions in a number of other jurisdictions have this power. The B.C. Commissioner should have the flexibility to initiate a complaint as an important back-stop for the education and inquiry powers. When persuasion and recommendations do not work, the Commissioner should be empowered to seek a remedy from the Tribunal. On the positive side, the Commissioner has the power to intervene in complaints or in courts cases, and to assist a person or group with any aspect of a complaint.

This legislation is a big step forward for British Columbia, and the Government of British Columbia deserves praise for restoring a crucial institution and for being innovative.

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