At the outset of this consultation process, the OHRC set five goals:
- Clarify the principles and elements of an effective human rights system;
- Create an opportunity for a broad and balanced discussion on the issues and options;
- Ensure a transparent and open process leading to change;
- Develop meaningful and viable conclusions that will support a revitalization of Ontario’s human rights system; and
- Assist in developing the best human rights system possible.
Some of these goals have been met, but much remains to be done. As is evident throughout this Report, this consultation sparked a lively and wide-ranging response from a broad range of stakeholders. However, there is a clear message that there must be further opportunity for open discussion, in order that all voices may be heard.
Further, the OHRC believes that any reform of the human rights system should involve, and have the support of, those whom the system is intended to serve – the people of Ontario.. Given the multiple perspectives on the human rights system, full consensus on directions for reform may be difficult to achieve. However, change can be credible if it is based on broad, open and transparent dialogue among the public as well as the full range of stakeholders, and if it builds on shared principles and goals.
There was convergence among stakeholders regarding the basic principles and elements of an effective human rights system. Building on the principles identified in the Discussion Paper, and on the themes emerging from the consultation, the following elements can be identified as to what the Paris Principles effectiveness factors mean in the Ontario context.
An effective human rights system must be:
- Independent, both in appearance and substance;
- Adequately resourced to ensure effective advancement of its mandate;
- Fostering a culture of human rights, in particular through a broad and multifaceted educative mandate;
- Integrating promotion and protection to ensure that these functions build on each other;
- Harmonized with international obligations to give effect to Canada’s international commitments;
- Internally harmonized so that all actors in the human rights system work cooperatively;
- Accessible, regardless of disability, financial means, geography, language, culture or other power imbalances;
- Systemic in its approach to human rights issues;
- Expert and representative at all levels;
- Timely in resolving human rights matters;
- Flexible in its approach to human rights complaints;
- Allow people to feel heard on their stories and experiences at key phases of the process; and
- Fair and effective, both procedurally and substantively, in admitting and assessing human rights complaints.
While there was some general convergence around these principles and elements, there was relatively little consensus on how these principles and elements could best be achieved. This is not surprising, given the broad range of stakeholders who play a role in the human rights system, as well as the complexity of the issues. Through the consultation, a number of key areas for further consideration have emerged.
Independence: we heard that further consideration must be given to how independence can be achieved, and what the elements of that independence are – for example, in reporting to a ministry versus directly to a legislature, appointments of commissioners, and administration of financial and human resources.
Adequate Resources: while we heard that the human rights system must be adequately resourced, there was not general agreement on what, realistically, that means. There were a number of suggestions as to how objective funding measures might be developed.
Integrating Promotion and Protection: the promotion and protection functions of the human rights system such as investigating complaints, public inquiries, policy development, and public education are integrally linked. However, there was no convergence of opinion on whether this integration is best achieved through a single state human rights institution, or on what system could best maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of integrating these functions.
Cooperating with Other Actors: in this area, the greatest complexity and diversity of opinion surrounded the role of the various administrative tribunals that deal with issues associated with human rights. We heard that the desire to increase efficiency, and to encourage the development of a human rights culture in which human rights is a part of all that we do, must be weighed against concerns about lack of human rights expertise in some of these other forums, and restricting the access of complainants to human rights principles.
Accessibility goes to the core of the mandate of a human rights system. There was significant divergence among stakeholders as to how accessibility could best be maximized – for example, whether through simplification and decentralization of the system, or increased legal representation.
Systemic Approaches: while there was general agreement that any reform must strengthen the ability of the human rights system to deal with systemic issues, there was divergence of opinion as to how this could best be done; for example, through a strong role for a human rights institution in advancing the public interest through the compliance system, or by reducing the focus of human rights institutions on individual complaints.
Expert and Representative: while many expressed the opinion that a system must build in sufficient expertise and representation of the population among the staff and members of any of its institutions such as the OHRC or the HRTO, few were able to offer ways to ensure these, or considered the notion that some degree of trade off between expertise and representation may be necessary in the working of a system.
Timely Resolution of Complaints: while there is agreement that the current system is too slow, there has not been sufficient discussion to clarify what would constitute an acceptable time period for the resolution of human rights complaints. Nor is it clear how best to speed up the resolution of complaints: several options have been offered, including creating an early resolution function, streamlining procedures in the processing of complaints, and creating an expedited process for simple complaints. However, we heard that any streamlining of the system must be balanced by the need to maintain fairness, and ensure appropriate checks and balances.
Flexibility: while many were agreed that a human rights system should have the ability to treat different types of cases differently, further discussion is required to clarify how cases could be effectively differentiated, what the various streams should look like, and what checks and balances would still be required.
Allow people to feel heard: the need of complainants to have their stories heard was a theme throughout the consultation. However, there was not agreement on how and when this should happen. For example, what kind of a process could allow people to feel heard?
Fair and effective assessment: we heard that some assessment must be done, at least in order to determine the admissibility of complaints. Beyond this, however, viewpoints diverged widely on where in the system and at what point in the timeline this should be done. Further consideration must be given to the appropriate process and criteria for admitting and assessing complaints.
Based on the above, the OHRC recommends that the government develop a blueprint for a process leading to reform that includes further consultation. Such consultation should be:
- Based on the principles and elements identified through this consultation process;
- Seeking to build understanding and consensus around the outstanding issues identified above;
- Broad and balanced, to allow involvement from those whom the system was intended to serve;
- Open and transparent, to develop support for any changes; and
- Aimed at building a truly “human” human rights system that fosters the creation of a culture of human rights.
The OHRC would like to extend its thanks and appreciation to all those individuals and organizations that supported this process and provided feedback. Many are concerned with the state of Ontario’s human rights system and there is resounding belief that the system must be strengthened in order to achieve the vision set out in the Code. The issues affecting the human rights system are complex and contentious, and each element of the system affects all of the others. Given the importance of the human rights system to the people of Ontario, a thoughtful and open process of change is essential to ensure that the vision of the Code can become a reality for all.