At his annual press conference in July 2005, Chief Commissioner Norton re-iterated the urgent need for improving Ontario’s human rights system in order to deal with a growing caseload. Strengthening the Commission's capacity to promote and protect human rights is also central to building stronger safer communities.
Therefore, the Commission welcomed the Attorney General’s announcement to develop a blue print for reform of Ontario’s human rights system by winter. In response, the Commission undertook an accelerated process to consult the public and stakeholders and report findings in time to be useful to the government.
In August 2005, the Commission released a Discussion Paper entitled Reviewing Ontario’s Human Rights System. The Discussion Paper identified international principles and guidelines that must be applied in the design of any human rights system, and provided a context for reform. The Discussion Paper and a questionnaire were sent to stakeholders across the province and posted on the Commission’s Web site, and a total of 56 submissions were received. In addition, in September 2005, the Commission held three focus groups involving 31 individuals, including stakeholders with divergent views from across the province, experts from across Canada, and staff representatives from the Commission and the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
In October 2005, the Commission released a Consultation Report entitled Strengthening Ontario’s Human Rights System: What We Heard. While the Report reflected varying views, there was consensus that the current human rights system needs strengthening, and general agreement that a reformed system should:
- be timely and flexible in its approach to human rights complaints
- be independent and adequately resourced
- be harmonized with international obligations
- fill a cooperative role in the promotion of human rights
- be accessible regardless of disability, financial means, geography, language, culture or other power imbalances
- be able to effectively address systemic issues, and resolve simple cases more easily
- be expert and representative
On February 20th, 2006, the Attorney General announced proposals to reform the human rights system of Ontario. The proposals call for the Ontario Human Rights Commission to focus on “proactive measures”, such as public education, promotion and public advocacy, as well as research and monitoring to address systemic discrimination in Ontario. Under the proposed changes, the Commission would “maintain the ability to bring a complaint on its own behalf before the tribunal or to intervene in other complaints”, and would become home to a new racial diversity secretariat.
In addition, the proposals call for the institution of direct access to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario to replace the current system in which the Commission handles complaints through inquiries, intake, mediation, and investigation prior to referring cases with sufficient evidence to the Tribunal for a hearing. A third “branch” of the system was proposed to deal with the provision of legal support to complainants, but was not defined.
Throughout this process the Commission has clearly stated that while reform is needed, change must meet the established international principles, by which Ontario has become a leader in human rights both nationally and internationally. The Commission is working with stakeholders and the government to achieve common goals for a strengthened system with a balance between an effective complaints mechanism for individuals and an expanded role for the Commission in public education, prevention and addressing systemic discrimination.