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Wrong to Quash Public Debate on Bill 107

By Helen Henderson
Disabilities Reporter
Published On Sat Nov 25 2006

No matter what, Ontario’s human rights record will be forever tainted by this week’s effort to quash public input into Bill 107.

With Attorney General Michael Bryant recklessly determined to use the Liberal majority to cut off debate, the battle over reforms to the province’s human
rights legislation turned decidedly ugly.

So ugly that chief commissioner Barbara Hall stepped into the fray, formally expressing her “profound dismay” at the subversion of the process in an open
letter to Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Let’s face it. Hall’s integrity is such that her very acceptance of the job last year bestowed an underlying faith in the integrity of the commission and
the government that appointed her.

My faith is still with Hall. Her letter says it all.

“From the start of the Bill 107 process, more than a year ago, the Commission has commented on the need for full consultation by the Ministry of the Attorney
General,” she reminded the premier.

Instead, “what should have been a broad, consensus-building exercise in the best traditions of promoting human rights, was undertaken in a way which, instead,
caused division within the communities concerned.

“It may seem trite to remind you that justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done,” Hall wrote. “This is an essential truth within the law
and, particularly, in regard to human rights.

“Such rights have come to form the foundation of our democratic principles. There are those who will see your actions as a denial of those principles.”

Hall says she had long ago made her position clear to the province’s justice policy committee. “The Justice Policy Committee clearly felt that an extended
period of consultation would have value,” she noted.

“We at the Commission have stated our support for the amended legislation. However, it remains our intention to make a formal response once we see the legal
text of the amendments. We are left with the question: will it receive appropriate consideration?”

Will it, indeed, in a process that has become so tainted?

No one doubts the need for human rights reform. No one wants rights trampled on the way to achieving it.

Bryant argues his proposed law would make Ontario’s human rights system “stronger, faster and more effective” by offering complainants direct access to
the province’s human rights tribunal.

(As things stand now, they go first to the human rights commission. If it decides a complaint has merit, commission staff take it forward to the tribunal.
The process typically takes years.)

But under the new system, critics point out that victims of discrimination rarely have the training to argue their own cases or the financial wherewithal
to hire lawyers to do so for them.

Bryant has proposed a support centre to provide complainants with free legal representation. He also would limit the powers of the tribunal to dismiss cases
out of hand without first holding a hearing.

But he has failed to allay concerns about funding for the new system. And his approach to the process has been flawed from the start.

Bryant justified his move to cut off public input by telling the Legislature he believes “we need to … have a lengthy debate but not an indefinite debate.”

That’s simply playing with words.

Perhaps Bryant and McGuinty are convinced that former premier Mike Harris inflicted such damage on the name of the provincial Conservatives that the Liberals
have a free ride heading into an election year.

Don’t count on it. 

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Mark your calendars for Monday, Dec. 4.

The City of Toronto, along with community and business partners, will be celebrating the United Nations’ International Day of People with Disabilities from
10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the CNIB Centre, 1929 Bayview Ave.

On the agenda: a celebration of the achievements of unsung heroes and a sneak peak ahead at Toronto’s proposed new 311 non-emergency information service.

It is slated to come on stream in 2008.

Among speakers, CNIB president Jim Sanders will look at E-Accessibility, the theme chosen by the UN, and the need to improve access to information technology
for people with disabilities.

For more information, see www.toronto.ca/diversity. 

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Read Helen Henderson’s column online at www.thestar.com/access. Email life@thestar.ca.