A New Human Rights Commission for British Columbia

British Columbia has a new government, and the New Democratic Party leadership has hastened to fulfill an important election promise, that is, to re-establish the B.C. Human Rights Commission.

B.C's history with its human rights institutions has been a rocky one. B.C. first got a human rights commission in 1973 and it operated for 11 years before being disbanded in 1984 by Premier William Bennett. After an interim Human Rights Council, the Commission was later re-instituted in 1997, but it lasted for only five years, until 2002, when it was disbanded again by Premier Gordon Campbell. Since 2002, B.C. has been the only province in Canada without a human rights commission. It has had a stand-alone Human Rights Tribunal that is authorized to hear and adjudicate complaints. But it has had no commission to be a public voice for human rights, to take steps to prevent discrimination, educate the public, undertake inquiries on broad systemic issues, develop guidelines and promote human rights compliance.[1] 

In a 2011 report Mary Cornish pointed out that “eliminating discrimination is not simply a matter of designing a good tribunal process”, though that is a key building block. A human rights system must also be able to take the broader actions that can “transform the dynamics that support discrimination”.[2]

B.C. has a big gap to fill, and a 15-year public silence on human rights issues to break. It is encouraging that the new government is moving quickly, and that it has already publicly stated that having a tribunal for adjudicating and mediating complaints is essential, but not all that is needed to make a strong and stable human rights system. The release on the consultation process, which will take place between now and the end of November 2017, says: “… addressing discrimination after it happens is not enough. To prevent both every day and systemic discrimination before it happens, information and education are essential … The Commission will work to expose, challenge and end widespread entrenched structures and systems of discrimination through education, policy development and public inquiries”.[3]

We believe that the best model to follow now is Ontario's tri-partite system, which has a tribunal, a commission, and a clinic to assist those with human rights complaints. This model provides the range of powers that a human rights system needs both the preventive and pro-active roles, and the adjudicative and remedial ones. New human rights leaders, like the Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, Marie-Claude Landry, and the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Renu Mendhane, will be able to offer B.C. useful and practical advice about what they have learned in their roles.

We look forward to a dynamic consultation process in B.C. and to a new human rights commission in 2018.

 

Shelagh Day, President and Senior Editor,
Canadian Human Rights Reporter

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1.   This volatile history, and the resulting gap in B.C.'s human rights system, is documented in Shelagh Day and Gwen Brodsky, Strengthening Human Rights: Why British Columbia Needs a Human Rights Commission, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Poverty and Human Rights Centre (2015), online: https://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publicatio...

2.   Mary Cornish, “Building a Culture of Equality Through Human Rights Enforcement” (Whitehorse: Government of Yukon, 2011) at 3, online: http://www.justice.gov.yk.ca/pdf

3.   B.C. Human Rights Commission, Parliamentary Secretary's Terms of Reference, online: http://engage.gov.bc.ca/bchumanrights/parliamentary-secretarys-terms-of-reference/

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