British Columbia is the only province in Canada that does not have a Human Rights Commission. That makes us the weakest province when it comes to fostering human rights awareness and preventing discrimination.
Currently BC only has a Human Rights Tribunal, which mediates and adjudicates complaints about discrimination after it has occurred. The Tribunal does its job well. But the onus to identify and report human rights violations rests on individual British Columbians, who must know their rights, navigate the complaints process, and handle the risk of failure. We know that the complaints that get to the Tribunal are only the ‘tip of the iceberg,’ and that many of the tougher, more systemic issues are not resolved through individual complaints.
For example, troubling evidence has come to light of abusive treatment of temporary foreign workers and recent immigrants in the food service and tree‑planting industries. Workers have been subjected to intimidation and sexual and racial harassment, and coerced into using over‑crowded and inadequate accommodation provided by the employer. These workers are too vulnerable and face too many obstacles—including fear, financial need, lack of English fluency and isolation—to deal with this discrimination on their own. A Human Rights Commission—if we had one—could investigate, issue public guidelines that would provide information, education and protection to both workers and employers, and monitor the situation.
Recent events have also heightened our awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence against women. Our institutions—even sophisticated ones like the University of British Columbia (e.g. rape chants and campus sexual assaults) and the CBC (Jian Ghomeshi)—have yet to institute adequate practices and protocols that can prevent discrimination against women, and respond effectively when it occurs. Because women often do not trust the police to help them, most do not report sexual assaults. Again, a Human Rights Commission—if we had one—could develop standards, protocols and supports for employers and key service providers like the police.
The accommodation of people with mental health issues, and of workers who are also caring for children, parents, or a disabled family member, is an emerging part of human rights law. A Human Rights Commission—if we had one—could provide education, information, and advice, so that complaints could be avoided. Most employers, service providers and landlords want to comply with human rights law. But right now, we provide little help or encouragement.
These are just a few examples of how a Commission could help advance human rights in British Columbia. And there is no shortage of other pressing issues a Commission could help us deal with: not enough supports for youth with mental health problems; race and sex bias in policing; the concentration of Aboriginal, immigrant and racialized women and youth in low-wage employment; homelessness and lack of affordable housing…just to name a few.
Without a Commission, BC has no public institution that can take steps to prevent discrimination, educate the public, initiate inquiries on broad systemic issues, develop guidelines, and promote human rights compliance. We do not have the institutional machinery necessary to make good on the stated purpose of BC’s Human Rights Code—which includes to “identify and eliminate persistent patterns of inequality” and to “prevent discrimination.”
Despite its importance, BC’s human rights system has had a volatile history. A Commission was first formed in 1973, disbanded in 1984, later re-instituted, but disbanded again in 2002. Now even the truncated human rights system we have left appears to be under review by the provincial government, and may be hollowed out even further by funding cuts for advice and assistance to people who take complaints to the Tribunal.
We should not be playing ‘political football’ with the human rights system. Governments need to be committed guarantors of human rights and supporters of strong, stable human rights systems. That’s what British Columbia needs now—adequate resources for advice and legal representation, and a new independent Commission appointed by the Legislature that provides British Columbians with real tools to prevent discrimination.
Gwen Brodsky and Shelagh Day are co-authors of Strengthening Human Rights: Why British Columbia Needs a Human Rights Commission, published today by the Poverty and Human Rights Centre and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.