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Ontario Human Rights Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall remarks to the standing committee on Justice Policy regarding Bill 107, an Act to amend the Human Rights Code

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November 15, 2006

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For immediate publication 

Toronto -

Statement (Compare against delivery)

Good morning. I am pleased to be with you this morning and to bring you the view of the Commission on Bill 107 and its implications for the Human Rights System in Ontario. I anticipate that over the next few days and weeks you will hear many considered and informed opinions about the proposed legislation.

We have already heard different parties say many different things about this Bill.

However, I think it is important to remember, as we proceed, that in many respects we are all on the same side. Each of us who speaks to the committee – every group, every individual – is here because we feel the discussion is of fundamental importance. We are all committed to strong human rights: to building a better system, to promoting and protecting rights more effectively, to bringing the message to everyone.

What disagreements we have relate to how we do it. But I think the differences are not, in fact, that great – and over the past few months we have seen much movement towards a common ground.

The Commission applauds that progress. We support the sense of compromise and consensus building that have resulted in the amendments proposed by the Attorney General. If there is more work done, in that same spirit, we are confident that many differences can be addressed and hopefully resolved.

We have been working with the Ministry of the Attorney General for some months, recommending changes and amendments to Bill 107. New changes to the bill are still being developed. The Commission will review them thoroughly and provide the committee with our formal comments before the end of the hearings.

I hope that we are all agreed that the status quo is not an option. There is important work to be done and reform is needed to complete that work.

How we got to this point

The Ontario Human Rights Code is a fundamental piece of legislation. It provides the framework, a roadmap upon which our human rights system is based.

To be successful the Code must be recognized and accepted as an essential standard on which our society is built.

But from time to time, maps need to be updated and revised.

As times change, the needs of the people of Ontario change with them. The time has come – is probably past due, in fact, for important changes to our human rights road map.

The Commission wants change.

A crucial part of our work is identifying and acting on new problems that need attention.

For example – our work on the Forrester case has helped establish new ways to protect the rights of transsexual people.

We have championed the fight against racial profiling, including the development of a new Policy to help guide police services and others.

With a renewed, broad mandate to conduct inquiries, do research and develop enforceable policies we can continue to have a human rights system that is always moving forward.

Finding the balance

From our position, monitoring the system and the people it serves, we are looking for change that will lead us to a better balance.

That balance must be between effectively addressing individual claims and proactively creating a culture of human rights.

We are all too aware of the limitations of the existing Code and have, many times, called for amendment and improvement.

That is why we have welcomed and shared the Government’s vision of a strengthened Commission, based on international principles, more focused on prevention and systemic issues, inside a re-balanced system for enforcing and promoting human rights.

From the time that Bill 107 was first proposed last spring, the Commission has taken an active role in the discussion about its merits. We have met with stakeholders, outside and inside government.

The Commission has carefully considered the potential impact of each section of the proposed legislation, comparing it to what we have now. As I said earlier, we have recommended many improvements to the government.

One that remains outstanding is the Commission’s capacity to appeal Tribunal decisions to the higher courts. In the past, although rare, such appeals have played an important role in advancing human rights through precedent setting case law.


Many individuals and groups have spoken out passionately about the bill.

They have sincere beliefs about what reforms are needed to improve Ontario’s human rights system.

Sometimes those beliefs have clashed. The result at times has been a difficult and even divisive process.

At the Commission, it has often been hard for us to hear criticisms, and sometimes inaccuracies, about our work. However, I believe we’ve learned from the criticisms and we’ve been able to correct some of the public misconceptions.

And I am happy to say we’ve also heard about our strengths and our successes.

Since I began my work here, a year ago this month, I’ve experienced first hand – what has been recognized nationally and internationally – how effective the Commission can be.

We are recognized and emulated around the world not simply because we are one of the first Human Rights Commissions, but because of the outstanding quality of our work. Our thanks are due to the talented and committed staff of the Commission.

Fear of losing these strengths may be the source of some of the concern and alarm expressed about the Bill: the concern that individual complainants might not have what they need going forward; the fear that the good things we do now and that we are recognized for – the outreach, the systemic inquiries and the policy work – might be lost.

At the Commission we’ve listened to these legitimate concerns and considered how they might best be addressed, For us the bottom line is: any change needs to protect vital elements of the Human Rights system but also bring progressive change for the better.

Given the opportunity, I know the Commission - and the system - can do more, and do it better.

A perfect bill?

So here we are with Bill 107, and its proposed amendments. Is it perfect? Frankly, I don’t think I know of any perfect legislation. But it must create a framework strong enough to build on and move forward to a place we want to go, with the tools, opportunities and resources to do that.

Will this bill advance the cause of human rights in Ontario?

Overall, we think it can.

Clearly, not everyone agrees. However:

We do all agree, individual complainants must have their cases dealt with fairly, quickly and effectively.

And we believe the system must change to allow that to happen.

We also believe that a Human Rights system primarily focused on individual complaints, as the current one is, ignores broader issues that cry out for attention.

Consider - there are 13 million people in this province, often described as amongst the most diverse population in the world.

We know from polling, from anecdotal stories, even intuitively, that many more people experience discrimination than those who make it to the Commission; many more than could ever hope to obtain justice in an individual case by case process.

So when we are looking for change, we’re looking for the infrastructure necessary to address tough issues; to identify and get rid of barriers to equity; to make our communities healthy and safe; to create that “climate of understanding and mutual respect for the dignity and worth of each person” spoken of in the Preamble of the Code and in the International Human Rights Declaration.

The best way to reduce the need for individual complaints is to effect genuine social change.

The Commission needs to focus its energy on making social change happen if we are going to achieve a culture of human rights.

We need to tackle the big systemic issues - through public inquiries, Commission initiated complaints, public education and outreach.

We also need to maintain our broad mandate, as set out in the United Nations’ “Paris Principles”.

Working though a transition

We must also make sure we make a smooth transition from the old system to a new framework.

While we talk about what change might look like, the Commission is still working on existing complaints and receiving dozens of new ones, every week.

There will need to be a period of some months when two systems will need to operate side by side. That will be a challenge.

We will also need to find ways to ensure that the skill and knowledge of the staff are not lost to the system.

But with adequate resources, the transition can be made smoothly.

Protecting AND promoting

We believe the key task is to bring balance to the system so that the system can protect and promote human rights.

To do that, we need to be prepared to make big changes. Tinkering with the current system is not enough.

We need to make sure the money is there to do the job right. Balance depends on that.

We have an historic opportunity right now. If we don’t take it, I fear it will slip by, and it may not come around again for years.

This opportunity could help us change focus in important ways.

Our Annual Report this past year reminds us that issues such as racism, Islamaphobia, homophobia, harassment and violence towards women, and barriers faced by people with disabilities, continue to loom large in our communities.

A recent survey indicated age discrimination is on the rise.

Relieved of individual complaints, the Commission could expand its ability to address these issues in a strategic, systemic way.

We could take the lessons learned in the restaurant initiative and apply them proactively in many other sectors.

The Commission also could put more of its energy into addressing fundamental areas of human rights where the United Nations is currently focusing its international attention: economic, social and cultural rights such as the right to housing.

We need to find new ways to involve the community in the work of the Commission, and the Commission in the work of the community – such partnerships are essential as we move towards creating a culture of human rights.

If this bill is passed, the Commission will work hard with all the individuals and organizations for and against to make this a reality.

The new legislation will need to be carefully monitored and reviewed. There may be unforeseen problems that will have to be addressed promptly. We will do that.

The bottom line is that we can make reform work to meet the needs of Ontarians and ensure our position as a leader in human rights - in Canada and abroad.

It is important work that is urgently needed. Together, we can make it happen.

Thank you.

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