Kathryn Blaze Carlson | Sep 13, 2012 8:11 PM ET
Ontario’s top human rights watchdog warned Thursday it will actively challenge discriminatory” bylaws that restrict the location of group homes, but one prominent critic says the Ontario Human Rights Commission is treading clumsily into an area better left to local decision-makers.
Barbara Hall, the OHRC’s chief commissioner, said local governments discriminate against people with addictions and mental health issues when they uphold laws saying two group homes cannot be within a certain distance of one another.
“People shouldn’t have to ask permission to move into a neighbourhood,” Ms. Hall said after a Toronto event releasing a report called Minds that Matter: Report on the consultation of human rights, mental illness and addictions.
But Hamilton Councillor Sam Merulla, whose municipality has faced off against Ms. Hall over the issue, says the city is best poised to protect residents’ interests and promote healthy communities — not the human rights commission.
“I think Ms. Hall, with all due respect, is missing the point; I don’t think she gets it,” he said.
“The reality is that this is not about discriminating against humans, it’s about discriminating against use. It’s a planning issue, not a human rights issue.”
The debate over where to put group homes — and who should get to make that decision — is raging in Ontario, with municipalities either facing human rights challenges or reviewing their bylaws. The City of Toronto this summer asked the Ontario Superior Court to clarify whether the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario even had jurisdiction to weigh in on a challenge to its 250-metre rule, while Kitchener decided to rewrite its law after likewise facing a tribunal challenge.
In Hamilton, the controversy has pit city council against a mental health centre. The Lynwood Charlton Centre wants to move its group home for eight mentally ill teens from a deteriorating building into a space it already owns in another neighbourhood; that neighbourhood, though, is already home to a residential care facility and the new group home would be within the prohibited 300 metres.
This is not about discriminating against humans, it’s about discriminating against use. It’s a planning issue, not a human rights issue
.Mr. Merulla said Hamilton’s bylaw does not breach peoples’ rights, rather it protects them by ensuring services are dispersed and available to people all across the city and that communities are not ghettoized.
“I have a social service background, so I’m in no way suggesting that any of these types of facilities will create havoc in a community,” he said. “But what I do believe is that it destroys the character of a community if you have an abundance in one neighbourhood … Over-concentration of any type of use, I believe, is detrimental.”
The head of the Lynwood Charlton Centre, Alex Thomson, called the bylaw “NIMBYism at its worst,” citing opponents who told city council they “don’t want kids with mental health issues living in their neighbourhood.”
The centre has appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board.