Remaking the Human Rights System in Ontario
The Commission has begun a process of transformation that will fundamentally alter the way it works. This will be one of the biggest changes at the Commission since its inception in 1961.
The need to bring better balance to the overall system - between remedies for individuals who have experienced discrimination, and effecting broader change in society as a whole – is one of the key goals of the changes underway in Ontario. The Human Rights Code Amendment Act (2006) (the “Act”) begins to address that goal by transferring responsibility for processing individual human rights complaints to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (Tribunal). A new body, the Ontario Human Rights Legal Support Centre (OHRLSC) will offer legal services to individuals who wish to make an application to the Tribunal.
Some things, of course, will not change. The Human Rights Code will continue to be at the very heart of all the Commission does; it is the foundation for Ontario’s human rights system and has provided a model for other human rights systems in this country and around the world.
Transforming the Commission
Significant changes will occur at the Commission as a result of the new legislation. Once the new Act is proclaimed, the Commission’s emphasis will shift toward proactive approaches to tackling discrimination.
Under the new Act, the role of the Commission in preventing discrimination and promoting and advancing human rights in Ontario will be strengthened. The Commission will expand its work in promoting a culture of human rights in the province. It will have the power to conduct public inquiries, initiate its own applications (formerly called ‘complaints’), or intervene in proceedings at the Tribunal involving important cases and those concerning the broader public interest. It will engage in proactive measures such as research, policy development, public education, cooperation and outreach. This will include a continuing role in dealing with “tension and conflict”, and bringing people and communities together to help resolve differences.
The new law will enhance the Commission’s independence. This is particularly important because the Government itself may be a respondent in complaints initiated by the Commission. The Commission will file its annual reports directly to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, instead of through the Attorney General, as is currently done. It will have the power to monitor and report on anything related to the state of human rights in the Province of Ontario. For the first time, the legislation will specify that the Commission reports directly to the people of Ontario.
The Commission’s powers to review legislation and policies will be very broad. The new law refers to the Commission’s ability to consider whether legislation is inconsistent with the intent of the Code – a wider net than mere ‘compliance’.
The Commission’s current role as a developer of public policy on human rights is made explicit in the new legislation, as is the way those policies can be used in issues that are before the Tribunal. As before, the Commission will continue to work proactively with employers, service providers and government bodies to resolve Commission-initiated inquiries, and engage in dialogue over issues of discrimination and accommodation. However, where this is unsuccessful, the Commission's litigation function will continue to be instrumental in its ability to advance human rights policy and facilitate positive change.
To help the Commission carry out its role, it will have a broad power to conduct an inquiry in the public interest. The Commission can appoint any person to conduct an inquiry: that person can request documents (with an obligation that documents be provided), question people and apply for search warrants through a Justice of the Peace. The Commission can then use any evidence gathered in a proceeding before the Tribunal. The Tribunal may also conduct inquiries, or may request the Commission to do so on its behalf.
The Commission can also initiate applications at the Tribunal in systemic matters or in the public interest, be added as a party to an application from an individual, or intervene in applications. The Tribunal will provide certain documents to the Commission so that it can continue to monitor trends and problem areas in individual complaints, to determine priority areas.
The relationship among the Tribunal, the Legal Support Centre and the Commission must be a coordinated one. Each will develop ways of working to meet its mandate and establish the nature of its relationship to the other ‘pillars’ of the human rights system. There are more decisions to be made about “who does what – and where”, and much work to be done before the system is up and running in accordance with the new Act.
Since the new Act was passed, Commissioners have been leading a Strategic Planning process to determine how to best accomplish these tasks and fulfil the new mandate. As the basis of this process, the Commissioners have developed a new vision statement of “an Ontario in which everyone is valued, treated with dignity and respect, and where human rights are nurtured by us all ”. As the Commission works toward this vision, it is guided by its new Mission statement:
The Ontario Human Rights Commission, an independent statutory body, provides leadership for the promotion, protection and advancement of human rights, and builds partnerships across the human rights system. In pursuit of our vision, we will:
- Empower people to realize their rights
- Ensure those responsible for upholding human rights do so
- Advocate for the full realization of human rights
- Work with our independent partners at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and the Human Rights Legal Support Centre
- Develop and encourage the implementation of human rights policies
- Conduct research
- Monitor developments, trends, problem areas and case law involving human rights issues.
- Use our legal powers to pursue remedies in the public interest.
- Carry out public inquiries where appropriate
- Educate and build capacity
- Report on the state of human rights to the people of Ontario
In the spring of 2007, the Commission began public consultations to inform its deliberations. Public meetings are being held across the province, and roundtable discussions and surveys are available in order to hear the views of the public, Commission staff and others working in the human rights system. The Commission will continue to gather this information throughout the process, as it identifies strategies that will best deliver its goals and objectives under the new system.
The result of this strategic planning process will be clear Commission priorities for the next three to five years, and concrete plans to achieve them.
The timing for all of these changes is yet to be announced. Until the new Act is proclaimed, the system will continue to operate in its current form – the Commission will process individual complaints, and the Tribunal will conduct hearings on cases referred by the Commission. At proclamation, the Commission will stop taking individual complaints but will continue, for six months, to process complaints already in the system. An Enhanced Complaints Process, which began as a pilot this spring, will assist the Commission to resolve complaints expeditiously.
During the six months after proclamation, the Commission will work with applicants to transfer complaints in its system over to the Tribunal. But some aspects – especially for legal cases underway – could continue to be dealt with by the Commission for some time.
Although planning has been underway for months, the transition period will present challenges, as the Commission both prepares for the future and maintains its current work. As well, there will no doubt be growing pains as the new duties of the Commission, the Legal Support Centre and the Tribunal are taken up. However, there is a clear commitment among the parties to work together to deliver a high quality human rights system to the people of Ontario.
The strategic planning and transition processes currently underway will be a significant part of Commission efforts in the next year. However, until the Act is proclaimed, the Commission is aggressively continuing its ongoing work with both complaints and proactive initiatives, to fulfill its mandate to promote, protect, and advance human rights in the province.
In 2007-08, the Commission will address complaints both efficiently and comprehensively, ensuring that, where resolution is possible, settlements are in keeping with human rights policy and the public interest. As the changes of the new Act come into effect, the Commission will ensure that unresolved cases being transferred to the Tribunal benefit as much as possible from the legal, policy, and investigative expertise of Commission staff.
The Commission also has policy and public education initiatives underway for 2007-08. It has released consultation and policy documents on human rights and the family, and will launch a public campaign to raise awareness about family status rights. The Commission has also begun a public consultation across the province toward development of a policy on human rights issues in rental housing, and is continuing systemic initiatives, including cooperative work with police services and municipalities to address racism.
This type of work -- broad public campaigns, consultations, and cooperation toward prevention and enforcement – will gain greater emphasis as the changes to the human rights system come into place. The Commission has already been moving in this direction, with projects such as the restaurant initiative and the Commission-initiated complaint relating to “safe schools” provisions of the Education Act. The Commission will also look for new ways to fulfill its mandate as it plans future projects. In particular, it will strive to make its presence felt and offer its services more widely than it has been able to in the past. Reaching out to underserved communities and considering new areas of work is integral to the Commission’s way ahead, and to fostering a culture of human rights throughout the province.
 The Enhanced Complaints Process (ECP), launched in spring 2007, was in planning for more than a year before the new Act was passed. For more information on the ECP, please refer to “Case Management” under “Human Rights Complaints from the Public”.