Advocates call for rethink of Human Rights Commission procedures

As the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission works to update its approach to human rights cases, people familiar with its processes are calling for better supports for those making claims of discrimination. They are also calling for the public release of a report into the workings of the commission.

Public airing of unreleased ombudsman report would help restore public confidence, advocates say

Liane Tessier sits surrounded by paperwork from her 12-year human rights battle. She says the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission is too secretive.

As the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission works to update its approach to human rights cases, people familiar with its processes are calling for better supports for those making claims of discrimination.

They are also calling for the public release of a report into the workings of the commission. 

In a March 2017 report, the Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman raised concerns about the operations of the commission. That report has not been made public, although nine of the recommendations in it have been published. 

The CEO of the commission said in December all recommendations were accepted, six have been implemented and the remaining three are in progress. 

Former firefighter Liane Tessier, right, and Ken Stuebing, fire chief for Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency, recently attended the official apology to her in Halifax. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

CBC News has asked the ombudsman's office, the human rights commission and the Department of Justice to release the full report, but that request has been denied. The commission said under the Ombudsman Act it is not able to release a confidential report unless the ombudsman decides to do so. 

Liane Tessier wants the public to see the full report to understand more about the workings of the commission. Tessier was a firefighter with Halifax Fire and began a complaint alleging gender discrimination in her workplace in 2007. 

"The real issue at the culture of the commission is about extreme secrecy. Why aren't they releasing the full report?" she asked.  

"I think Nova Scotians have a right to see what's in it. I saw nine of the recommendations, and they mean very little to me," she said. "Just the recommendations on their own are meaningless. I can't make heads or tails of it." 

In December 2017, Tessier received an apology from the city for systemic gender discrimination against women, as well as an apology from the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission for its handling of her case. 

'They need to have the faith restored' 

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard was a Nova Scotia human rights commissioner from 1991 to 1994. She also teaches about the work of the commission as a professor of social work at Dalhousie University. 

"I'd be interested in knowing their reasons for not wanting the report to be made public," Bernard said. "If it's in the public interest that the report should be made public I think that would be useful." 

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard says even with her background as a former commissioner, working through a human rights complaint was difficult. (Dalhousie News)

"We have people who have been sort of excluding themselves from the human rights complaints process because they have lost faith that that process would be helpful to them. 

"They need to have the faith restored." 

Procedural problems

Both Tessier and Bernard have first-hand knowledge of cases they feel went sideways during the commission's process. 

"The unprofessionalism, I think, was the worst thing about it: their cold-as-ice approach to addressing my claims," Tessier said. 

On the same day it issued an apology to Tessier, the commission said future cases should not take as long as Tessier's did to resolve. However, the former firefighter says the length of time was not her main concern. 

"It was about how they addressed and didn't investigate my case," she said. "There was no proper investigation. And obviously, other people during that time were having the same issues." 

Liane Tessier alleged gender discrimination within the fire department in her 2007 human rights complaint. (Liane Tessier)

A judge found the commission did not interview the main persons named in Tessier's complaint, and gave Tessier misleading information about the time the fire service was being given to respond. Tessier said her file was passed between six different investigators over the course of five years. 

"They were vague, secretive, they didn't give me any sort of reason. There were times when I had my lawyer send documentation asking for an update and there would be months going by where no one would even get back to her or me about what was going on. It was awful," Tessier said. 

Her initial claim was dismissed by the commission, but a judge found that Tessier's file had been mishandled and ordered the commission to re-open it. 

'Traumatic' complaints process

Bernard believes there are two main procedural problems at the commission: length of time to resolve cases, and the fact that complainants are not represented by a lawyer. 

"It's very traumatic for people to go through a complaints process, and the longer it takes, the more traumatic it will be for those involved," Bernard said. 

Human rights commission CEO Christine Hansen, centre, with commission lead counsel Kymberly Franklin, left. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

In December, the commission said it had reduced the amount of time to resolve cases from an average 570 days to 200 days. Bernard credited the commission for its efforts but said 200 days is still a long time for complainants to wait. 

Complainants are not represented by the human rights commission's lawyers, but must hire independent counsel if they want representation. That is rarely possible for complainants, Bernard said, adding that her brother asked for help with a recent human rights complaint case. 

"It was very, very difficult, even for me — someone who's a former commissioner, who teaches about human rights issues. I found the process very difficult," Bernard said. 

Ultimately, her brother's case was thrown out because it was filed too late. 

"Surely, someone should have noticed that at some point?" Bernard asked, adding the issue of representation for complainants needs "immediate attention." 

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