View Point

Commentary on new developments in human rights law published in the Human Rights Digest newsletter.

There is an important public debate going on, not just in Quebec, about secularism and the accommodation of religion. Not surprisingly, there can be radically different claims about what the right to be free from discrimination based on religion means and how that right should be implemented.

Recently, interesting decisions have recently turned up in human rights jurisprudence, emanating from complaints filed by non-believers or atheists. The decisions lead in quite different directions, demonstrating the difficulties that public bodies (and adjudicators) have with defining what constitutes “neutrality”, or secularism, or freedom from religious discrimination.

In one case, the Quebec Court of Appeal (CHRR Doc. 13-3065) overturned a decision of the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal (CHRR Doc. 11-3009) in a complaint filed by Alain Simoneau and the Mouvement laïque québecois against the City of Saguenay. Mr. Simoneau alleged that the recitation of a prayer before town council meetings, and the presence of religious symbols, a crucifix and a Sacred Heart statue in the Council chambers, violated his right to freedom from discrimination based on religion. The Quebec Tribunal agreed with Mr. Simoneau; the Court of Appeal did not.

The Court said that when implementing the principle of neutrality with respect to religion the State must strike a balance between the preservation of cultural heritage and the human rights of individuals. The Court found that there is no fundamental right to “full secularism” and that the values expressed by prayer are universal and do not relate to any religion in particular. The majority also found that the religious symbols, crucifix and Sacred Heart statue are part of a cultural and historical heritage. The Court concluded that if there was any violation of Mr. Simoneau's rights, it was trivial.

In Ontario a parent who is an atheist challenged a school board's policy which permitted Gideon International to distribute the New Testament to Grade 5 students, including his daughter, with parental consent. The Tribunal had to decide whether, as atheists, R.C. and his daughter were protected by the Human Rights Code, and it ruled that atheism or non-belief is protected by the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of “creed”.

When the Board changed the policy so that it would permit religious materials to be distributed by other groups, but not a pamphlet on atheism, the Tribunal ruled (CHRR Doc. 13-1882) that the policy still discriminated. The Tribunal ordered the School Board to develop a new policy that would ensure equal treatment of all religions and creeds.

The response to non-believers or atheists in these cases is, on the one hand, that religious symbols and practices are culture or history and therefore no right is offended; or, on the other hand, that pluralism is the answer, with the opportunity for atheists to join in the religious diversity.

It is not surprising that the Quebec complainants have sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Court of Appeal decision is simply unpersuasive.

But is the Ontario invitation to atheists to “join the pluralism” the right answer? The Ontario Tribunal ruled that equal treatment without discrimination does not require that all activities relating to creed be banished from the public schools. Practically speaking, however, it is likely that dominant religions, represented by organizations like Gideon International, will have the organizational capacity to take up the opportunity to distribute religious literature in the schools, while atheists probably will not. If we are serious about equal treatment for non-believers that might be more effectively achieved in the public school setting by simply barring the distribution of religious materials by any outside organizations.

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Guest column by Lucie LaMarche, Gordon F. Henderson Chair at the University of Ottawa

Tuesday, September 10, 2013, the Government of Québec finally released its strategy aimed at protecting the values of the nation (http://www.nosvaleurs.gouv.qc.ca/en). It is important to say that this document is neither a bill nor a policy paper, yet. A strategy, in the new brave world of political communication, is a prompt aimed at assessing voters' reaction and opinion, the strategy affirms that three values distinguish and define Québec: gender equality, French as a common language and the neutrality of the state.

It is in the name of such values that the strategy proposes a total prohibition for any civil servant (from judge to janitor) to wear any ostentatious sign of religious belief on the worksite. The website even provides slides that offer examples of what is ostentatious, and, of course, this includes the Islamic scarf (hijab). Why? Because it is implied that such wearing carries a risk of proselytism which would contradict the principle of the neutrality of the State and, as well, the duty of all civil servants to refrain from expressing opinions in the course of their duties. Symbols speak loud, say some. It is also implied that religious rigout, such as hijab, necessarily perpetuates women's oppression. Forget about personal or political choices.

There are a lot of civil servants in Québec, especially female workers: school boards, daycare, health care and universities, just to name a few. And as Québec privileges educated immigration quicker than it acknowledges the value of a foreign diploma, a lot of overqualified and underpaid immigrant jobs for women would be put at risk by such prohibition.  In other words, we are being asked to believe that a secular and neutral state can by itself protect and promote, gender equality.

Such potential outcome carries a specific human rights history in the Canadian and Québec context. The rest of Canada is the land of multiculturalism. And for understandable reasons, Québec, a distinct society that is well aware of the challenges to protect its culture and its development in North America and in a globalised world, denies the relevancy of such an approach. It prefers the concept of interculturalism as promoted by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission (2008). Interculturalism searches for the fine balance between nation building and liberal individual and cultural rights of all communities, including the immigrant communities.

In fact, the saga of the values started some years ago with some Supreme Court decisions (in the Multani case (2006 SCC 6, 55 C.H.R.R. D/463), as an example) that concluded in matters related to the freedom of religion. The Court then stated (and did not change its mind since then but for a nuance in the Hutterite decision (2009 SCC 37)), that employers and public entities have a duty to accommodate those who make their beliefs visible in the public space, as long as the accommodation is not overburdening the administration concerned, be it public or private. Some of the cases came from Québec, and it is fair to say that a portion of the population felt threatened by the consequences of those decisions: where would it stop? What are the limits of such accommodations? And instead on focusing on accommodation as a remedy to discrimination, the political nationalist elite of Québec, as well as some feminist quarters, were quick to conclude «à la française» that such a state of business was clearly conflicting with the values of Québec and with those of a secular-neutral state.

Nobody in Québec, is against the basic values of the nation: French as a common language, a neutral and secular state and gender equality.

But a lot of people, especially Montrealers and human rights activists, including some feminists, do not wish to promote a hierarchy of human rights that would in a Charter put gender equality above other rights and women's rights, including their right to work and other social rights. Values are not magical! And if anything, they are black magic when used in the framework of a political agenda.  Such calculation, as many of us believe, include the factoring in of the political impact of a predictable judicial debate where Québec would lose against the Canadian Charter of Rights of Rights and Freedoms. Let's just say that the Supreme Court decisions are not popular in Québec when they interpret the meaning of a distinct society.  The confusion between values and human rights as nurtured by the strategy would make it worse.

Québec is anything but a conservative society. And we deplore the fact that the rest of Canada cannot resist another round of "Québec bashing". But we are used to it. What seems to us more dramatic is not only the potential for human rights violations carried by the strategy, but also, the risk of an unnecessary political division inside Québec.  This would not serve the immigrants nor any modern nation.

Reprinted by permission from Oxford Human Rights Hub, 17 September 2013, http://www.law.ox.ac.uk/themes/humanrightshub/

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The Federal Court ruled in Canada (Attorney General) v. Cruden (CHRR Doc. 13-3067) that there is no procedural component to the duty to accommodate that can be breached independently (see summary on p. 6 of this issue).

Having decided that the Canadian International Development Agency (“CIDA”) could not accommodate Bronwyn Cruden in a posting to Afghanistan without undue hardship, the Court says that the Tribunal should have dismissed the complaint. Ms. Cruden has Type 1 diabetes mellitus and CIDA could not ensure that, in a war zone, Ms. Cruden would have access to medication, testing equipment and backup supplies at all times, and extra food and medication for travel. These were among the conditions she needed to be safe.

Despite finding that CIDA could not accommodate her in Afghanistan, the Tribunal went on to find that CIDA had breached its procedural duty to explore all reasonable accommodation measures for Ms. Cruden. There was delay and confusion in its response to her inquiries, and CIDA applied guidelines for posting to Afghanistan which did not permit individual assessment.

The Federal Court's ruling follows the 2011 B.C. Supreme Court ruling in Emergency and Health Services Comm. v. Cassidy (72 C.H.R.R. D/433).  At the first Tribunal hearing on the merits, the Tribunal (62 C.H.R.R. D/459) agreed that the B.C. Ambulance Service could not accommodate a paramedic who had lost sensitivity in his fingers due to multiple sclerosis and was unable to take a pulse manually. But the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, like the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in Cruden, found that the duty to accommodate was nonetheless breached for procedural reasons. Mr. Cassidy was treated badly, and lost work because of the employer's unwillingness to seek a solution. When the B.C. Supreme Court said that there could not be a procedural breach of the duty to accommodate alone, the Tribunal reconsidered (CHRR Doc. 13-0116) and found that there was, in fact, a substantive breach of the duty to accommodate because the Ambulance Service could have accommodated Mr. Cassidy in the position of Special Driver at an earlier point.

The ruling that there is no procedural component of the duty to accommodate that can be breached separately seems reasonable at first glance. If an employer cannot accommodate because it would be an undue hardship, is that not the end of the matter? This does not mean that procedure will not be examined carefully. As the Federal Court pointed out, if an employer has not determined needs, explored possibilities, or attempted to accommodate, it is likely to be difficult to demonstrate that accommodation is not possible without undue hardship.

Nonetheless, we should still consider whether the decisions of the courts mean that we will now ignore the discrimination that complainants can experience when, or because, they seek accommodation for their disabilities. In Mr. Cassidy's case, for example, his District Superintendent treated him with animosity and delayed the effective resolution of the problem. Misinformation was allowed to circulate about him. The Ambulance Service took active steps to have his driver's licence and his paramedic licence revoked, even though there was no medical evidence to justify doing so. The Tribunal found that this treatment harmed Mr. Cassidy and affected his dignity as a person with a disability seeking accommodation.

So there may be a danger that the refusal by the courts to recognize a separate procedural component of the duty to accommodate will lead to overlooking or failing to recognize the disability discrimination that can occur when an accommodation request is made. Discrimination can occur in the process of seeking and finding accommodation, and this discrimination should not be beyond remedy.

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The federal government is up to an old trick: giving with one hand and taking with the other. With one hand the government repealed s. 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, finally allowing Aboriginal people to make complaints about discrimination that flows from the Indian Act.  With the other hand, the federal government, in its role as litigator, is taking back the protection of human rights legislation by arguing that it does not apply. A recent example is the case of Matson v. Canada (Indian and Northern Affairs) (CHRR Doc. 13-3062).

There is a long and shameful history of legislated discrimination against Aboriginal women and their descendants under the provisions of the Indian Act which determine eligibility for status. The Matson case arises because this discrimination has still not been eliminated, and the Matson complainants were originally denied status because they trace their Aboriginal ancestry from an Aboriginal grandmother, not an Aboriginal grandfather.

Far from supporting the use of the Canadian Human Rights Act to bring an end to continuing discrimination, the federal government argued successfully in Matson that a complaint of discrimination about the criteria for eligibility for Indian status does not fall within the scope of the Canadian Human Rights Act. The Tribunal found that status is not a service within the meaning of the Act. However, this central reasoning is faulty, and will not hold.

The notion that the conferral of status is not a service strains credulity. There is no difference between a "service" and a "benefit". The conferral of Indian status through registration under the Indian Act is no less a service than the provision of disability benefits under social assistance legislation, as in Tranchemontagne (56 C.H.R.R. D/1), or the provision of drivers' licences, as in Grismer (36 C.H.R.R. D/129). It has long been recognized that constraints on access to legislated benefits, which result in an individual or group being denied them because of a protected ground, breach human rights legislation.

Status, a statutory concept, connotes and confers official recognition of a person's Aboriginal heritage.  The benefits of status are tangible and intangible.  The intangible benefits relate to a sense of cultural identity, and include the ability to transmit status to future generations. The tangible benefits include such things as access to extended medical care and funding for post-secondary education.  Status is not automatic. People have to apply for it, and establish their lineage.

The government's policy argument against the application of the Canadian Human Rights Act to Indian Act discrimination is that the government should be allowed to make justificatory arguments without having to show reasonable accommodation, and without being restricted to health, safety and cost as the factors to be taken into account when determining whether there is undue hardship. That is not persuasive.  Although individualized accommodation may not be an appropriate approach to legislated benefit schemes such as this, government should be put to the test of showing that it could not have adopted a more inclusive standard. That is equivalent to the minimal impairment stage of s. 1 Charter justification. And, though the government says it is loathe to advance a financial hardship argument, cost is a capacious enough category to give the government room to attempt its defence. This is not a case of competing interests. Nor are there other complex considerations that are not directly or indirectly related to cost.

Those descendants of Aboriginal women who are still left out, or relegated to an inferior category of status, even after the federal government's latest round of incomplete amendments to the Indian Act in 2011, should not be foreclosed from seeking a remedy under the Canadian Human Rights Act.

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A jurisprudential logjam seems to be breaking up on the issue of the caregiving responsibilities of workers. In two recent decisions, Canadian National Railway Co. v. Seeley (CHRR Doc. 13-3041) and Canada (Attorney General) v. Johnstone (CHRR Doc. 13-3006), the Federal Court ruled in favour of women whose family childcare responsibilities conflicted with work rules.

The women were both working for employers with rotating or unpredictable schedules. When Denise Seeley, a freight train conductor whose home depot was Jasper, Alberta, did not report to Vancouver to cover a shortage because she could not arrange adequate childcare, she was fired by Canadian National. When Fiona Johnstone, a border services agent, requested a static shift so that she could make stable childcare arrangements instead of working 56-day rotating shifts, the Canadian Border Services Agency offered her only part-time hours.

For women workers the conflict between work requirements and childcare responsibilities has always been a key equality issue, and women have been penalized as workers because they are the primary caregivers for children and other family members. They have found it necessary to leave paid work, cut back hours, step aside from promotions, or avoid assignments that require travel in order to care for their family members.

Today about 60 percent of women work for pay in Canada. They are almost half the work force, and two thirds of them have children under 6. Some of them are also responsible for older parents — members of the “sandwich generation”. Women (and some men too) are increasingly in conflict with employers who want them as workers, but also want them to function as though they do not have family responsibilities.

In the cases on family status discrimination, federal employers — sometimes represented by the Attorney General of Canada — have made a series of arguments: the ground "family status" does not include parental childcare obligations, since it only protects a "status" not obligations integral to it; figuring out how to balance the obligations of family life and work belongs in the home, not in the workplace; parents make choices about how to care for their children, and those personal choices are not protected by human rights legislation. In short, these federal employers take the position that families have nothing to do with them, and they do not have a duty to accommodate a worker's need to provide adequate childcare.

The B.C. Court of Appeal encouraged this resistance in its 2004 decision in Health Sciences Assn. of British Columbia v. Campbell River and North Island Transition Society (50 C.H.R.R. D/140). That Court ruled that to establish "family status" discrimination a complainant had to show that an employer changed a term or condition of work and the change caused a “serious interference” with a family obligation. Application of this test would defeat most family status discrimination claims.

Fortunately, there is now a line of cases that reject these arguments, including Whyte v. Canadian National Railway Co. (71 C.H.R.R. D/316), Seeley, and Johnstone. The ground "family status" includes childcare obligations, according to the Federal Court, and there is no reason to make the threshold for proving family status discrimination more onerous than it is for any other ground.

There is a new opportunity to address the conflicts between work rules and family obligations, and a new opening for research, study and consultation on how these conflicts affect women and men in their families and at work. 

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The Harper Government has chosen to support a private member's bill, introduced by Conservative backbencher, Brian Storseth, which repeals s. 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Section 13 prohibits the communication of hate messages by telephone or on the internet. Since 1977, it has been used mainly against prominent white supremacists, such as John Ross Taylor and Ernst Zundel, who have made careers of promoting hatred against Jews and non-whites.

Unfortunately, Bill C-304 is not a careful, thoughtful, forward-looking revision of human rights law. It is a wrong‑headed, anti‑human rights reaction to claims from right-wing journalists that human rights legislation should not permit any questions to be raised about their speech and publications.

The Conservatives have been arguing that only Criminal Code prohibitions against hate speech are necessary, and hate speech provisions in human rights legislation are, on the one hand, illegitimate and heavy-handed, and, on the other hand, too important to be in the hands of human rights institutions. 

The House of Commons passed Bill C-304 in June 2012 and it is now in second reading in the Senate. If it passes second reading, it will be referred to a Senate Committee for review and public input before it returns to the Senate for final reading. In other words, although it is the very last minute, there is still time for the Senate to think again. 

The Supreme Court of Canada's recent unanimous decision in Whatcott (CHRR Doc. 13-3015) should give the Senators pause. The Supreme Court of Canada, reviewing the constitutionality of the hate speech provision in The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, decided that it is legitimate and lawful. Prohibitions against hate speech in human rights legislation are a justifiable limit on the Charter guarantees of freedom of expression and religion because their purpose is to discourage and eliminate the effects of systemic discrimination against vulnerable groups.

The Court said the goal of prohibitions against hate speech is not to compel anyone to think correctly, nor is it to protect against representations that are merely repugnant and offensive. The Court ruled that the hate speech provisions in human rights legislation are to be applied objectively, with a focus on extreme manifestations of hatred and, most importantly, with a focus on the likely effect of the expression.

While in Whatcott the Court was dealing with The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, this ruling confirms the constitutionality of similar hate speech provisions in all human rights laws. Whatcott confirms that, while Bill Storseth and Harper's Conservatives may not like s. 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, human rights legislation and human rights institutions have an important role to play with respect to hate speech in Canada, and that role is constitutional.

What the Senators should be alert to, when they come to their final vote, is that s. 13 is the only provision in Canadian statutory human rights law that applies to the internet, because regulation of the internet falls within federal jurisdiction. That means it is the only human rights provision that can address the mode of communication that is now the easiest and most popular one for disseminating racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and other hateful messages.

The Speaker of the Senate, Noel Kinsella, who for many years was the Chief Commissioner of the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission, took the rare step, for a Speaker, of intervening in the Senate debate on Bill C-304. At the end of his speech, he asked this question: "Do we really not want to have a statutory provision to deal with discrimination on the Internet?"

Senators should think hard.

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In the November / December 2012 View Point on the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in Moore v. British Columbia (CHRR Doc. 12-3089), we wrote about the good news. The Supreme Court of Canada swept away a narrow definition of “service”  and faulty comparator group analysis, both of which were impeding progress towards inclusion for people with disabilities. In this case, Jeffrey Moore, a child with severe dyslexia who was denied adequate assistance in school to learn to read, was told by lower courts that the service in question was special education, not general education, and that consequently he could only compare himself to other children with special needs. Since he did not receive worse treatment than other children with dyslexia, he could not claim discrimination. Justice Rosalie Abella, for a unanimous court, repudiated this closed-box thinking. It cannot be the case that as long as accommodation for all disabled students is inadequate, human rights law can do nothing. On the contrary, she wrote, adequate special education is the means by which children with disabilities gain access to the education that is the right of every child.

But here is the bad news. It has two parts. First, the Supreme Court of Canada did not find the province liable for the discrimination. Instead, it placed responsibility for the failure to adequately accommodate Jeffrey solely on the shoulders of the school district, finding that, in a time of budgetary restraint, the district could have cut other programs rather than the special assistance that Jeffrey and other children with severe dyslexia needed. The Tribunal had ruled that the province was also liable for the discrimination because it had:  imposed a funding cap on monies for special education by restricting the number of students that a district could identify as needing special assistance; under-funded the District; failed to ensure that necessary services, including early intervention, were mandatory; and failed to monitor the activities of the districts. The Tribunal ordered the Province to allocate funding on the basis of actual incidence levels of learning disabilities and to establish mechanisms to ensure that accommodations for students with severe learning disabilities were appropriate and adequate.

But the Supreme Court ruled that this remedy could not be sustained. With respect to the funding cap on monies for children with learning disabilities, Abella wrote: “It is entirely legitimate for the Province to choose a block funding mechanism in order to ensure that districts do not have an incentive to over-report Severe Learning Disabilities students, so long as it …complies with its human rights obligations”.  The Court found that the province was not liable in any way for the discrimination.

For the future inclusion of children with severe dyslexia in school systems in British Columbia, this approach is not promising. The responsibility for inclusion has been assigned entirely to school districts, while the senior level of government, which has the statutory authority for education and controls the funding for the districts, is let off the hook.

The second part of the bad news, which is integrally connected to the first, is Abella's distinction between individual and systemic discrimination. She writes that it is not helpful to approach discrimination in a binary way, dividing individual discrimination from systemic discrimination: “A practice is discriminatory whether it has an unjustifiably adverse impact on a single individual or systemically on several”.

However, Abella proceeds to do exactly what she warns against. She finds that this claim was individual, made on behalf of Jeffrey, and the evidence was principally about him. The Tribunal should not have considered systemic evidence regarding provincial funding mechanisms or the entire provincial administration of special education. Apparently, it should have conducted a much narrower inquiry, and left the systemic funding and policy issues alone. The effect of treating this case as an individual one, and the systemic remedies against the province as not legitimate, is to require more parents to take on the long and costly struggle that Jeffrey's parents did.

Although this decision will be known for its resounding endorsement of equal access to education for children with learning disabilities, it is a timid one. Because of its approach to the remedies the Court's decision does not guarantee equal access in fact.

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The Supreme Court of Canada issued an important decision in Moore v. British Columbia (Education) (CHRR Doc. 12-3089). For the first time, the Court has made it completely clear that children with disabilities are entitled to an equal education. The Court's cut line is "adequate special education is not a dispensable luxury".

At issue in Moore was the decision of North Vancouver School District No. 44 to close its Diagnostic Centre, which provided intensive remediation for children with severe dyslexia. Just when Jeffrey Moore needed assistance to learn to read, the Diagnostic Centre was closed because of budgetary constraints. Jeffrey's parents were advised by the school psychologist that they should put him in private school because the District could no longer provide him with the services he needed. That was more than fifteen years ago, and, thanks to his private schooling, Jeffrey is now a journeyman plumber, successful and self-supporting.

Jeffrey Moore's parents won at the Tribunal level (54 C.H.R.R. D/245). The Tribunal found that the District and the Province discriminated against Jeffrey by failing to provide him with the accommodation he needed in order to benefit from the public school system. However, at the appeal levels, the B.C. Supreme Court (62 C.H.R.R. D/289) and the majority in the B.C. Court of Appeal (71 C.H.R.R. D/238) became tangled in doctrinal knots that made the law completely defeating to the claims of people with disabilities.

The majority of the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled that the service in question was special education, not general education. Consequently, Jeffrey Moore could only compare himself to other children with special needs. Since he did not receive worse treatment than other children with dyslexia, he could not claim discrimination. The impact of this closed-box thinking was obvious: as long as accommodation for all disabled students was inadequate, human rights law could do nothing.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a unanimous decision, swept this faulty analysis away. The Supreme Court agreed with the dissenter in the B.C. Court of Appeal, Madam Justice Anne Rowles: the service was, in fact, general education, and special education was the accommodation necessary for Jeffrey and other students with learning disabilities to obtain access to the benefits of general education. Adequate special education cannot be dispensed with at times of budgetary constraint as though it is a luxury, because it is a basic requirement.

Karen Selick and Derek James, of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, have strongly criticized the Moore decision. Their view is that it burdens B.C. taxpayers "with an unlimited liability to pay for special education". Karen Selick claims that providing adequate accommodation to children with learning disabilities will deprive non-disabled children of resources.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court of Canada did not see it this way. Children with learning disabilities do not deserve "back of the bus" treatment, nor are they merely a social burden.

Reiterating the statement of purpose in the B.C. School Act, the Court said "all children are entitled to an education…because a healthy democracy and economy require their educated contribution. Adequate special education…is is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia".

(See next issue for "Moore: The Bad News".)

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Only British Columbia and Nunavut do not have human rights commissions. Nunavut's human rights system is still very new, and experimental. British Columbia has no such excuse.

The history of human rights in British Columbia is rocky. Twice in twenty years, the Government of British Columbia has abolished its Human Rights Commission – once in 1983 under Bill Bennett's Social Credit administration, and again in 2002 under Gordon Campbell's Liberals. Gordon Campbell turned legitimate concerns about delays in the Commission's screening process into a rationale for abolishing the Commission entirely and putting in place a “stand-alone” Tribunal. In 2012 British Columbia has been without a commission for a decade, and it shows. It's time to bring it back.

Bringing back the Commission does not mean getting rid of the Tribunal, which adjudicates and settles complaints. The Tribunal must stay. But human rights commissions do not adjudicate complaints and have many other roles than screening complaints at the initial stage. The standard roles of human rights commissions are multiple, because the elimination of discrimination, if we are serious about it, requires a many-pronged approach, including education, research, public reporting, monitoring, initiating systemic complaints, and, sometimes, holding open public inquiries and consultations on urgent and difficult human rights issues. All of these are means to foster a culture that is attuned to human rights and aware of the ways that discrimination occurs and the harms caused by it.

B.C.'s human rights system has been hollowed out. In the absence of a human rights commission, the B.C. Human Rights Coalition, with financial support from the Attorney General, provides some informational workshops about aspects of human rights law, and refers people who need legal representation to the Community Legal Assistance Society ("CLAS"), a publicly funded clinic. CLAS provides representation to some human rights complainants, but a majority of those who go to hearings now are unrepresented, and, we have learned, being unrepresented increases the likelihood that a complainant will lose.

For a decade in British Columbia, there has been no body responsible for protecting the larger public interest in the elimination of discrimination, or for undertaking the more complex tasks that are designed to identify discrimination and prevent it from occurring. There has been no independent public body with a mandate to provide public education on human rights issues, make special reports to the Legislature, address systemic discrimination, or ensure that complainants receive the legal advice and representation they need.

In 2012 British Columbia has no culture of human rights. There is a deep silence. That silence sends the message that there are no serious human rights issues in British Columbia; there are merely individual disputes, of no consequence to the community at large.

But this is certainly not the case. In other provinces, human rights commissions produce public reports and hold public consultations on the human rights of persons with mental health problems, racial profiling by the police, and systemic discrimination against migrant workers. These are issues in British Columbia too and they warrant serious public airing and discussion.

A human rights commission that can carry out the crucial roles of research, review, policy development, public education, community consultation, and inquiry is necessary to keep British Columbians alert to human rights issues, fully informed, and engaged in building an inclusive society.

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Now that Parliament is back in session, the Senate will give a cursory review to Bill 304, which repeals s. 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, before it passes into law. Section 13 prohibits the communication of hate messages by telephone or on the Internet. As noted in last month’s column, it has been used mainly against prominent white supremacists like John Ross Taylor and Ernst Zündel.

Brian Storseth, M.P., backed by Prime Minister Harper, has declared that s. 13 is an unwarranted restriction on the free speech of Canadians. White supremacists are celebrating. On the Stormfront website, a blogger who calls himself canadafirst has written "This is a huge victory for freedom in Canada. However, we still have other unjust Zionist 'hate' laws that need to go".

On the one hand, Harper frees speech that is racist and gay-hating from the modest restrictions of human rights legislation. On the other hand, Harper is actively suppressing the speech of those who criticize his government, or who disagree on issues of human rights, women's rights, social policy or the environment.

The coalition called Voices states: "Unfortunately, in recent years, the voices of numerous civil society organizations that have acted in the public interest, and contributed to the diversity of Canadian perspectives, have not been respected. Instead, they have been ordered or pressured into silence, sabotaged by dubious political appointments, defunded, gutted, or effectively transformed into tools for the government's partisan agenda". (See http://voices-voix.ca/en)

Among the actions that Voices refers to are: the defunding of the Court Challenges Program, which gave Canadians some access to the use of their constitutional equality rights; the change in the criteria for funding women's organizations so that now neither research nor advocacy can be funded; the denial of funding for Sisters in Spirit, the ground-breaking research project of the Native Women's Association of Canada which has collected evidence of more than 600 murders and disappearances of Aboriginal women and girls; the cuts and elimination of funding to many key women’s and human rights organizations, as diverse as the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada, the multi-faith coalition KAIROS, the Canadian Arab Federation, Canada Without Poverty, and the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.

It is not only civil society speech that is being curtailed. Harper has also made concerted attacks on knowledge itself; knowledge that Canadians need to understand who we are and to shape social and environmental policy. He has cancelled the long form census, eliminated the National Council of Welfare, cut funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, closed the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, shut down the Experimental Lakes Area, and cut funds for Library and Archives Canada, among other things.

Civil servants whose job it is to be watchdogs on government have also been fired, misrepresented or obstructed, including the former President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Chairperson of the Military Police Complaints Commission, and the Chief Statistician.

In sum, while white supremacists are winning a new freedom to speak in Canada, those who believe in human rights, knowledge, and accountability are losing theirs.

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