Thursday, January 29, 2009

Human Rights Reform in Alberta?

If only.

Today, the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership released its Report on Human Rights Reform.

The problems with the Alberta Human Rights regime appear to be, according to the Foundation, ones of inertia in the institutional culture, the perception of political interference, and poor public relations. The recommendations are top-heavy with bromides about expanding the scope of human rights inclusion (i.e. overtly including aboriginal status and sexual orientation as prohibited grounds of discrimination de jure where they already exist de facto), improving public relations through province-wide education campaigns, improving the profile of the AHRC by making it accountable to the legislature rather than a junior minister, and making the Human Rights Tribunal more independent of the Human Rights Commission. There are 21 specific recommendations in all.

The Report does toss out a couple of bones for the critics of the HRCs to chew on. It recommends, for instance, "striking out parts of the law that present an “unacceptable limitation on free expression” — namely, allowing people to file complaints about material that is 'likely to expose' people to 'hatred or contempt.'” This recommendation is in reference to Section 3(1) of the Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, the very section that ensnared Rev. Stephen Boissoin and Ezra Levant.

While Janet Keeping, the President of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation, insists that complaints under this section only account for about 1% of AHRC investigations, she correctly concludes that Section 3(1) "is unacceptably vague and thus repugnant to democratic values. It must be removed as soon as possible."

The Report also gives a nod to the criticism that the deck is stacked against respondents in HR hearings. Under the current system, complainants need bear no out-of-pocket expenses, but respondents must cover their own legal defense costs, regardless of the merits of the complaint, or the outcome of the tribunal. If a complaint is found to be without merit, the respondent has no recourse to recover costs and to be "made whole." As Ezra Levant put it, "the process is the punishment." Here the Report meets the critics only half way, recommending "that legal assistance be made available, on the basis of financial need, to both complainants and to respondents in cases that come before the Tribunal." There is still no mention of recovery of costs for those who pay their own defense and are either vindicated before the Tribunal or have their files summarily dismissed by the Commission (often after a lengthy period of investigation).

On the whole, this Report seeks to redeem the AHRC, not to bury it. It is about "renovation" not demolition. There is much here that human rights activists will applaud. There is little here to appease the critics, save for the couple of items discussed above. As for any meaningful reform of the abuses of the HR system, don't hold your breath. But at least a couple of the pertinent issues are being put to the floor, for whatever that's worth.

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