On August 4th, 2017, the BC Government announced that it will be re-establishing a BC Human Rights Commission. This is huge news for human rights in our Province, and here is why.
BC historically had both a Human Rights Commission and a Human Rights Tribunal. The human rights complaint adjudication process was heavily criticized for delay, and in 2002, the decision was made by the BC government at the time to eliminate the Commission. This eliminated a step in the complaint process, as complaints at that time went to the Commission first, then to the Tribunal. Since 2002, our province has had a direct access system, which means complaints are made directly to the BC Human Rights Tribunal. The elimination of the Commission left BC out of step with the other provinces, who all have commissions, and also meant that the other functions of the Commission, for example outreach, policy and education, were no longer happening. A number of groups have been lobbying for years to have the Commission reinstated.
Looking to the future
What does this announcement mean? The government has stated that the intention is to form a commission that can take proactive steps to address systemic inequalities and prevent discrimination. This would be a seismic shift from the current direct access model, which does not engage in proactive work. While the Tribunal does publish some summary information about human rights online, it’s primary function is to address complaints of discrimination as they are filed. Much about the future Commission remains to be determined, however, starting with a consultation process that begins in September. Front and centre in that consultation will undoubtedly be the issues of delay and timeliness. Not all provincial human rights commissions have the same functions, and roles can include processing of complaints, but also outreach, education and policy development.
As labour and employment lawyers, a large part of our practice is advising employees and employers on workplace human rights. We frequently represent clients before the BC Human Rights Tribunal. We are concerned about more delays in an already lengthy and costly process. That said, it would be very useful for our clients to have a Commission to provide information and education on human rights issues. We often refer clients to the helpful, plain language publications by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, but always with the caveat that human rights laws vary province to province. A great example is the Ontario Human Rights Commission's brochure on gender identity and expression, which is very helpful for employers and employees trying to understand their rights and obligations related to the protected grounds of gender identity and expression. It would be useful for similar BC-based resources to be available.
I will certainly be engaging in the consultation process and following this development closely. I will post updates to my blog, if you would like to follow.