What Can BC Learn from Ontario's Human Rights Commission?

Written by: Reakash Walters, Summer Articled Student

For the first time in 17 years, BC will have a Human Rights Commissioner.1 On November 27, 2018 the BC Human Rights Code was amended to establish the position. Former West Coast LEAF Executive Director Kasari Govender was appointed as BC’s next Human Rights Commissioner on May 302 after the unanimous recommendation of a special committee to the Legislature.3 Ms. Govender’s term begins September 3, 2019 and she will hold the position for five years. As the regime to protect human rights in the province shifts, equality seekers may look to Ontario, whose human rights commissions has a similar mandate, to anticipate what to expect in BC.

This year’s Canadians Association of Labour Lawyers’ conference provided some helpful insight into Ontario’s Commission, which may offer some clues about what to expect when BC’s Commission gets up and running this fall.

Every year, the Canadian Association of Labour Lawyers (CALL) hosts a conference for its members to connect and discuss emerging issues in labour law and develop strategies to build a stronger labour movement in North America. I was fortunate to be one of three law students chosen to attend CALL through their student sponsorship program. Every year, law students currently attending a Canadian law school with a demonstrated interest in union-side labour law are invited to apply for full funding to attend the annual conference. This year’s conference took place May 30 to June 2 in Toronto, Ontario, where leading labour lawyers, academics, and arbitrators presented on topics like Truth and Reconciliation in Labour Law, How to Ensure Clients Disclose, Civility in the Shadow of Groia, and #MeToo--just to name a few of my favourites.

1 British Columbia, Legislature, Special Committee to Appoint a Human Rights Commissioner, (May 2019) at 1.

2 Ministry of Attorney General, Media Release, "New commissioner to promote and protect human rights" (30 May 2019).

3 Supra note 1 at 4.

In “A Fireside Chat with Renu Mandhane”, Ontario’s Human Rights Commissioner spoke candidly about the work of the Commission and how labour law can help advance human rights across the country. Similar to BC’s new Commission, the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s mandate is to prevent discrimination and advance human rights in the province through public education and advocacy. Ms. Mandhane shared that the Ontario Commission takes a multidisciplinary approach to its role. Although the Commission has the ability to intervene in applications if one of the parties consents, the Ontario Commission does not play a gatekeeping role for complaints submitted to the Tribunal. Instead, the Commission reserves much of its resources to focus on systemic issues of discrimination with the intention to reduce every day discrimination more broadly. In contrast, BC’s Commission will have the ability to intervene in complaints at any time after the complaint is filed according to terms established by tribunal members adjudicating the case.4

The Ontario Human Rights Commission works to prevent instances of discrimination by developing policies that both explain the law and attempt to move human rights law in a progressive direction. They educate organizations with obligations under the Human Rights Code (housing, contracts, employment, goods and services, unions and professional associations) to ensure organizations know what is required of them. Ms. Mandhane pointed out that one important power of the Commission is its power of inquiry. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has pursued an important inquiry under Ms. Mandhane’s direction into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto Police Service. The goal of the inquiry was to help build trust between the police and Black communities in Toronto by identifying issues and offering recommendations to address them.5

BC’s new Human Rights Commissioner is tasked with promoting and protecting human rights, but how she decides to execute that mandate is largely up to her and her team. According to the Code, the Commissioner has the power to develop policies, resources and guidelines, publish reports, make recommendations, disseminate public information, examine legislation, consult community groups and organizations, establish working groups, intervene in complaints and promote compliance with international human rights obligations, and any “other means the commissioner considers appropriate to prevent or eliminate discriminatory practices, policies and programs..”6 The Commissioner can employ each of these powers to fulfill her mandate of promoting and protecting human rights. 7

Having had no commission for the last 17 years, BC residents will welcome the effective human rights advocacy Ms. Govender and the Commission will provide. Considering Ms. Govender’s impressive tenure with West Coast LEAF she will bring her experience as a powerful advocate and effective educator to her new role.

As the new Human Rights Commission is established over the coming months, Moore Edgar Lyster will be watching closely to see what opportunities emerge -- both for our clients and for the future of human rights in the province.

4 Human Rights Code, RSBC 1996, c 201 s 22.1 (1)
5 Ontario Human Rights Commission, "A Collective Impact: Interim report on the inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto Police Service"
6Supra note 4 s 47 (12)(1).
7Ibid s 47.12(1)(c).