Former head of Human Rights Commission says it should have full independence

B.C. is not free of discrimination but a well-resourced, independent body with a broad mandate to enforce equality could help us move in the right direction, says Harinder Mahil, former chief commissioner of the BCHRC.

'I would like to see a society where there’s no need for a commission, there’s no need for a tribunal'

David Eby says legislation for new B.C. Human Rights Commission expected by 2018 (CBC News)

Harinder Mahil was running the B.C. Human Rights Commission until it was dismantled by the Liberal government in 2002.

Now, as the NDP government makes early moves to keep one of its campaign promises by restoring the BCHRC, Mahil is calling for a fully independent commission with a broad mandate to protect British Columbians.

"We don't have the kind of society that we would like to have. I would like to see a society where there's no need for a commission, there's no need for a tribunal. We treat each other with respect, but that's not where we are," Mahil told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's On the Coast

"Discrimination is still the reality for a lot of British Columbians."

'The system remains as it is'

Mahil said a new commission should be fully independent from the government in order to hold it, as both an employer and service provider, accountable to human rights standards.

"I would like to see a commission report directly to the legislature, just like the ombudsman does, just like the auditor general does, so that it truly is independent," he said.

Mahil said there are major differences between the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, which acts like a court and has a mandate to rule on decisions put before it but not to investigate beyond individual cases.

A commission would likely be charged with investigating systemic issues within organizations that lead to ongoing discrimination, he said.

In a tribunal setting, employers and employees often reach a settlement and that's the end of the story.

"The system stays as it is," Mahil said. "The commission, if it was around, would look at whether the system as a whole needed to be changed."

He defended the role of the commission and said its mandate does not overlap with the tribunal, adding that previous critiques of the commission's importance were not necessarily fair because it was under resourced.

"[The government] chopped one third of the budget of the commission and then said: 'You know what? You guys got problems. You don't resolve issues quickly enough.'"

B.C. is currently the only province without a Human Rights Commission. Attorney General David Eby announced Wednesday that British Columbians would have a chance to help shape the province's new commission through a two-month consultation process.

The government said the process will include online and in person discussions with Ravi Kahlon, the province's parliamentary secretary for multiculturalism who will submit his recommendations to Eby by the end of the year.

Eby is expected to table new legislation in 2018. Mahil said he hopes to see the commission broadly mandated to protect all British Columbians from discrimination and to ensure "we treat each other with respect and there is true equality in British Columbia."

Harinder Mahil served as acting chief commissioner for the B.C Human Rights Commission until it was dismantled. He discussed the role of a commission and explains why he is calling for absolute independence of any future commission. 8:33

With files from CBC Radio One's On the Coast