The St. Catharines Standard March 25, 2006 Human Rights ‘modernization’ is actually a step backwards

Human Rights ‘modernization’ is actually a step backwards
Access Niagara column
The St. Catharines Standard
March 25, 2006
by Linda Crabtree

In February, Attorney General Michael Bryant announced that the human rights
enforcement system in Ontario would be “modernized” by legislation that he
intends to introduce this spring.

This announcement set off a reaction among the disabled community that was akin to throwing a torch into a hornet’s nest. You’d think that anything that helped get claims through the often clogged human rights mire would be a terrific boon, but what Bryant is proposing, according to many organizations that work with disability issues, is a step backwards. His announcement was lengthy but the part that struck everyone to be unfair said that human rights cases could go immediately to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal and… “the Tribunal, meanwhile, would provide a modern streamlined and efficient way of resolving disputes by allowing individuals or groups to file claims directly with the tribunal.”

As it stands now, claims are filed with the Ontario Human Rights Commission
(OHRC) and if the claim cannot be resolved, they provide legal representation
and it goes to the tribunal. Now, they are saying that you will be responsible
for collecting evidence, hiring your own lawyer or presenting your case yourself
to the tribunal. Yes, some of us might be eligible for legal aid but it, too, is underfunded. Many simply would give up.

As one writer said in a letter to the editor of the Toronto Star, “…Under the
proposed changes, a sexual discrimination victim could be asked to personally
investigate the crime scene, file his or her own police report and then to
personally seek prosecution in the criminal court system.” It’s the same thing
that they are asking of people with disabilities. And, what about people who barely speak English.

There is an old saying used by people with disabilities…”Nothing about us,
without us.” If the Attorney General is going to change or streamline anything,
he should stop the process now and not introduce any change until he has
consulted with the people the law was designed to serve. No one can be
discriminated against because of disability, sex, race or religion. That includes everyone but it affects those who are marginalised due to differences more than those who are normal.

These changes would also gut the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities
Act (AODA) as it was established with the understanding that the Ontario Human
Rights Commission would be its teeth. If the government weakens the OHRC, the
AODA cannot fulfil the government’s promise to have effective enforcement. If there is no enforecement organizations won’t be as pressured to remove and prevent barriers. This makes it harder to achieve the AODA’s goal of a barrier free Ontario within 20 years. The AODA will be just words.

A consultation report prepared by the OHRC, “Strengthening Ontario’s Human
Rights System: What We Heard”, which was released last October, recommended that the government develop a blueprint for a process leading to reform that
includes further consultation…to allow involvement from those whom the system
was intended to serve was not mentioned. Why not?

So far, Bryant’s office has been tight-lipped despite the criticism. Everything
we have worked so hard for the last 10 years hinges on these proposed changes.
It’s no wonder we’re fighting so hard to be heard.