Setting the record straight on human rights

Fia Jampolsky In an ideal world, we would not need a human rights commission. Respect for human rights is a fundamental Canadian value. It's among the things that set Canada apart from countries where human dignity and respect are not deeply entrenched.

Fia Jampolsky

In an ideal world, we would not need a human rights commission.

Respect for human rights is a fundamental Canadian value. It’s among the things that set Canada apart from countries where human dignity and respect are not deeply entrenched. It’s among the reasons why Canada has never suffered the ethnic violence that has ripped other countries apart. Ask people in Ukraine, Syria, Burma, Sudan or Afghanistan whether protection and promotion of human rights is a good thing.

Our Yukon legislature created our human rights law almost three decades ago. The aim of our Human Rights Act is to discourage and eliminate discrimination and to promote the inherent dignity and worth of all members of our human family. Those values and the work of the Yukon Human Rights Commission remain as important today as they were then.

While Canada is a country known for celebrating diversity, we are not perfect. Not all Canadians enjoy full equality.

Students are still bullied because they are gay or lesbian; women are still fired because they are pregnant; people are still refused jobs because of a disability; and immigrants are sometimes told to go back where they came from.

Canada’s first people have faced racism from those who came after. Aboriginal women go missing or are murdered in our own community. So what is this talk of abolishing the human rights commission?

Graham Lang’s op-ed in the March 5 edition of the Yukon News proposes exactly that. It is important to correct inaccuracies in Mr. Lang’s article. I appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight.

Mr. Lang says he would be unhappy if he were charged with a crime and then tried by three random citizens. He thinks this happens in the human rights system. In fact, ordinary people do decide criminal cases when they sit on juries. By and large this works. However, the criminal justice and human rights systems are quite different.

Mr. Lang uses criminal law terms like the “accused” and “guilty” to describe the human rights process, but the human rights system cannot punish or deprive individuals of their liberty, as the criminal system does. Rather, the human rights board figures out if discrimination has occurred and if so, provides remedies. It does this outside the court system, which is adversarial, procedurally complex, and expensive.

Mr. Lang says the human rights system is free for complainants but expensive for the “accused.” In fact, the system is free for everyone. Employers, employees, and members of the public call our free help-line daily for information and advice.

No one has to hire a lawyer at any stage in the process, including hearings. Sometimes people do, and that is their right. When the commission’s lawyer takes complaints to hearing, she is there to represent the public interest as the commission’s lawyer, not the complainant’s. She ensures the board of adjudication has all the relevant evidence. When respondents and complainants are not represented, she helps both sides understand the process, to ensure fairness.

Most cases actually don’t go to hearing and not all complaints are investigated. Some are not because there are no reasonable grounds for believing discrimination has occurred. But in cases where there are reasonable grounds, many of these are settled with the commission’s help.

The commission’s role is to be fair to both sides and ensure that any settlement meets the objectives of the Human Rights Act. Sometimes complainants do not want money, but other remedies like respect, understanding, an apology, and a way to repair a relationship.

Our adversarial court system, run by lawyers, is good at some things. But it is not designed to achieve these intangible remedies.

The commission does more than work on complaints. We do research on discrimination. We refer people to other agencies in the community if their issues do not fall within the commission’s mandate. We provide training, education, and help with policy writing so that schools, workplaces and service providers can prevent discrimination and harassment or deal with it more effectively themselves.

We also work with community organizations to advance equality: for example, we helped convince the City of Whitehorse to join the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination as part of Yukon Cultures Connect.

The court system is not equipped to do this education, promotion and prevention work. Consider British Columbia where the human rights commission was abolished several years ago. According to Bill Black, a nationally recognized expert on human rights law, “the lack of a commission in B.C. makes prevention of human rights violations more difficult because no specialized agency is responsible for human rights education or the promotion of human rights.”

An informed public is one of the guardians of democracy. Our law belongs to you, the people, and so does our human rights system. You can find out more, and share ideas to improve our system by calling, emailing, or dropping by at 101 – 9010 Quartz Road.

Or look online at www.yhrc.yk.ca. You will find our recommendations for improving the human rights system through law reform there or can get a copy of those reports from our office.

Fia Jampolsky is chair of the Yukon Human Rights Commission and a lawyer who has practised criminal and administrative law in Yukon.

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