Report points to “gaping hole” in BC’s system of human rights protection
December 10, 2014 | Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
Today—December 10th—is International Human Rights Day. But what does that mean here in BC—the only province in Canada without a human rights commission?
A new report published by the Poverty and Human Rights Centre and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives addresses BC’s lack of a commission, and examines the volatile history and partisan treatment of the BC human rights system. Strengthening Human Rights: Why British Columbia Needs a Human Rights Commission by Gwen Brodsky and Shelagh Day discusses the role that a human rights commission plays in identifying and preventing human rights violations, and calls for the creation of a new, independent Commission.
Since BC’s commission was scrapped in 2002, the province has had a human rights tribunal, which deals only with complaints—discrimination after the fact. 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.
A commission would have a different and crucial role: taking steps to prevent discrimination, educate the public, undertake inquiries on broad systemic issues, develop guidelines and promote human rights compliance. A commission would also bring BC into compliance with Canadian and international standards for human rights protection.
According to Kasari Govender, Executive Director of West Coast LEAF, “A commission can help reduce and prevent common forms of discrimination, such as pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment. We need a Commission to produce guidelines, and provide advice and education for employers and employees, so that everyone can understand their rights and their responsibilities. Simply processing complaints does not eliminate discrimination.”
Thérèse Boulard, a human rights consultant, adds: “Employers and service‑providers in British Columbia should be able to access human rights education as a public service, rather than paying for it out of their own pockets. It is in the public interest to provide the education that will foster discrimination‑free workplaces and services.”
Sarah Khan of the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre says: “A BC Human Rights Commission could do ground‑breaking research, and consult on conditions of work in this province for temporary foreign workers and workers who are not permanent residents. Human rights abuses and complaints can be prevented when problems are addressed openly and proactively. That’s what BC needs.”
Eyob Naizghi, Executive Director of MOSAIC says: “Why is it that British Columbia is the only province in Canada without a human rights commission? British Columbia is one of the top destinations for immigration in this country and it is critically important that there is proactive education and advocacy of human rights so that the public, employers, service providers and disadvantaged groups all understand that we respect and support diversity in BC too.”
Robin Loxton of Disability Alliance BC adds: “Many people with mental or physical disabilities face discrimination in their lives, especially in the areas of employment and tenancy. A new BC Human Rights Commission could make an important difference in addressing these challenges for our community.”
Despite its key role, the BC Human Rights Commission has had a volatile past. It was first formed in 1973 and operated for 11 years before being disbanded in 1984. After an interim Human Rights Council, the Commission was later re-instituted in 1997, but this time lasted for only five years, until 2002.
“The province should not be playing ‘political football’ with the human rights system,” says Gwen Brodsky, a senior equality rights litigator and one of the report’s authors. “Regardless of their political stripe, governments need to be committed guarantors of human rights and supporters of strong, stable human rights systems.”