BC's draft human rights legislation a giant step in the wrong direction

As deadline for submissions on draft legislation passes, human rights expert says proposed changes no improvement to system
September 16, 2002

(Vancouver) Human rights expert Shelagh Day says the provincial government's recommended changes to BC's human rights system are a giant step in the wrong direction. She says the proposed new legislation takes the public interest out of the system and reduces it to a complaint-handling system for private disputes. The deadline for submissions on the draft legislation, Bill 53,a was yesterday.

"A fundamental principle underlying human rights legislation is that getting rid of discrimination is in the public interest," says Day. "It is a matter in which the whole community has a stake. When a person is discriminated against, it does note just affect one individual. Discrimination is also an offense against shared public values of equality and fairness for all individuals and groups. That's why a centerpiece of our human rights system has been a human rights commission with a mandate to take a multi-faceted approach to eliminating discrimination, including education and preventive measures, as well as complaint-handling."

If Bill 53, the provincial government's draft human rights legislation, passes, there will be no commission--no independent public body with a mandate to provide education, conduct public hearings, make special reports to the Legislature, deal with systemic discrimination, investigate complaints, or ensure that complainants receive legal representation at hearings. "These changes mean the human rights system in BC will be reduced to a complaint-handling system only, and complaints will become a private matter between complainants and respondents," writes Day in a brief published today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Human rights advocates have been critical of delays in complaint-processing, and have also objected to the unfairness of the Commission's gate-keeper function--its power to dismiss complaints without hearing. "The government is using these problems as a justification for the new legislation. It claims that getting rid of the Commission will provide 'direct access' to the Tribunal for hearings, and that this will create greater access and efficiency. But the gate-keeper function isn't being eliminated. It is simply being transferred over to the Tribunal. There is no more direct access to Tribunal hearings under Bill 53 than there is under the current code."

"When you add this to the many other changes in the legislation that will have a chilling effect on potential claimants--such as the ability to award costs against complainants who lose at hearings--you don't get an improved human rights system. You get the very kind of hostile system that the Human Rights Commission and current legislation were designed to fix."

Shelagh Day is the author of a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives policy brief on Bill 53, which was submitted to government last week and released publicly today. Ms. Day has worked in the human rights field for more than twenty-five years, including as BC's first Human Rights Officer in 1973. She is a CCPA research associate and the president and senior editor of the Canadian Human Rights Reporter.