Report on the 2016 National Human Rights Tribunals’ Forum

One of the great hallmarks of human rights protection in Canada is the existence of our tribunals and panels responsible for hearing complaints, sifting through evidence and applying the appropriate human rights code.  Where complaints are substantiated, the tribunals are responsible for awarding an appropriate remedy, a characteristic that distinguishes Canada from many jurisdictions around the world where human rights laws lack the teeth of enforcement and restitution.

Unfortunately, human rights tribunals in Canada are sometimes perceived as the lost cousins to the more high profile human rights commissions, which exist in 12 of Canada's 14 legal jurisdictions.  The commissions generally have broader mandates, which not only include receiving complaints (although not everywhere), but also in education and the promotion of human rights.  Every year, the federal, provincial and territorial commissions meet at an annual conference sponsored by their umbrella organization, the Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies (“CASHRA”).

Until now, there has been no umbrella organization for Canada's 13 human rights tribunals  (Saskatchewan does not have a tribunal).  Although human rights legislation is similar in all Canadian jurisdictions, there are some notable differences in structure and mandate. For example, three jurisdictions have direct-access models, where complainants can bring their cases directly to human rights tribunals, while in the remaining jurisdictions, human rights commissions play a gatekeeper role before a case is referred to a tribunal. There are also some differences in the types of remedies available under the respective human rights codes of each tribunal.

Nevertheless, there are many common attributes and many common challenges for Canadian human rights tribunals.  Most importantly, we all share the common goal of bringing impartiality and integrity to the adjudication of human rights complaints to ensure that the Canadian public at large continues to support our worthy goals.  Surprisingly, notwithstanding all that we share in common, there existed no formal or even informal channels of exchange between our respective organizations.

It was in this context that a National Human Rights Tribunal Forum was held in May of this year.  Previously, a national human rights tribunal meeting was held in 1999 and was attended by six jurisdictions.  However, the group did not meet again.  The organizing for this year's event began last fall and one of the most difficult tasks at the outset was simply identifying and locating the other tribunals.  While every commission has a reasonable online profile, most of the provincial and territorial tribunals have none.

Eventually we were able to make contact with all of our provincial and territorial counterparts.  The invitation to attend the Forum was met with widespread enthusiasm and in the end, 11 of the 13 jurisdictions were able to attend.  I welcomed the attendees with the following words:

We are all gathered here today because we share something very important in common.  We have been entrusted by our respective governments to play a small, but very important role in the administration of justice.  We are all administrative tribunals with a mandate to expediently and fairly decide on important matters of human rights.   We are all challenged with our assignments, to be expedient, accessible and to bring our level of expertise to the inquiry, because in human rights, the stakes are very high.  For complainants who have been traumatized by discrimination, the process is very difficult for them, emotions run very high and sometimes the wounds are deep.  On the other side, no one likes to be a respondent to a human rights complaint, as alleged discrimination carries with it connotations of serious wrong-doing that are potentially damaging to personal or corporate reputations.

We have a difficult job to do.  We have to be committed, true to our values, and sometimes courageous to make decisions we know sometimes will be misunderstood.  But it is our passion for human rights that keeps us going, to do our bit for the administration of justice, and to create jurisprudence to guide Canadians about the manner in which we are expected to respect each other in society.

To this end, I am hopeful that this Forum will give us an opportunity to learn more about each other, best practices, experiences and training.  But also, hopefully, this Forum will help each of us understand ourselves a little better, the context in which we operate, and to see a clear path forward to making our institutions better, more highly valued and respected.  In this spirit, I would like to announce this Forum as officially re-opened, after a short 17-year hiatus.

The two-day event allowed the tribunal delegates to exchange ideas, share best practices and to generally better understand the common work we all do.  Each tribunal was also asked to give a short presentation of a leading case or new development in their jurisdiction.

In the end, each of us walked away with more knowledge and a new perspective.  Most importantly, there was a firm resolve by all attendees to ensure that our engagement with each other should continue.  There is a consensus that our group will meet on a bi-annual basis and there has been discussion about the creation of an umbrella association to ensure the free flow of communication and contact.  Indeed, since the days of our Forum, the participants have been sharing news of precedent-setting cases and other developments with each other.

While every tribunal has a need for independence, and certainly our own independence from each other, we remain committed to supporting and learning from each other to better improve our own accountabilities.

The Forum was hosted at the Offices of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in Ottawa.  The provincial and territorial attendees were:  Kathryn Raymond and Benjamin Perryman (Nova Scotia); Sherri Walsh (Manitoba); The Hon. Ann-Marie Jones and Frédérick Doucet (Québec); Yola Grant and Michael Gottheil (Ontario); George Filliter (New Brunswick); Penelope Gawn and Carmen Gustafson (Yukon); Katherine Hardie (British Columbia); Robert Philp and Janice Ashcroft (Alberta); Brenda Picard (Prince Edward Island); and, Sheldon Toner (Northwest Territories).

David L. Thomas, Chairperson
Canadian Human Rights Tribunal

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