British Columbia

B.C. NDP to reinstate human rights commission after 15 years

Dismantled in 2002, British Columbia is currently the only province without a human rights commission.

'Every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,' says Premier John Horgan

B.C. Premier John Horgan announced that the B.C. Human Rights Commission would be reinstated on Thursday. (CBC)

Fifteen years after it was dismantled by the B.C. Liberals, the NDP government has announced plans to reinstate the B.C. Human Rights Commission.

Premier John Horgan said B.C. is the only province without a human rights commission, and one is needed to address issues of systemic discrimination and inequality that are prevalent throughout the province.

"Every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of physical ability, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression," Horgan said Friday at a news conference.

He has tasked B.C. Attorney General David Eby with re-establishing the commission.

Eby said recent incidents of racism and discrimination have made the commission a priority for the new government.

"There have been some high profile incidents of hate that really cause some concern in our province," Eby said, citing the distribution of racist flyers in Richmond that targeted the Chinese community as particularly troubling.

Attorney General David Eby says the renewed commission won't be an exact replica of the previous commission, which was often criticized for slowing down the process of filing human rights complaints. (CBC)

"We want to make sure that it's responsive to the modern needs of British Columbians to really take on the educational pieces, to take on the support for people with human rights concerns and to address the systemic issues in our communities that make people feel less welcome," Eby said.

While there is no human rights commission in B.C., the province does have a human rights tribunal to hear individual complaints, but that body doesn't have the mandate to act in a proactive manner.

Eby has asked parliamentary secretary Ravi Kahlon to begin a consultation process with human rights advocates and activists to develop a set of objectives for the renewed commission.

Consultations will run through the fall. Legislation for the new commission is expected to be tabled in 2018.

'It's been a huge gap'

Human rights commissions are typically arms-length agencies of the government that promote and enforce human rights and engage in education, policy development, public inquiries, litigation and research.

For example, the Ontario Human Rights Commission published a policy position last March on sexualized dress codes in the workplace that advises both employers and employees of their obligations and rights.

Morgane Oger, a transgender-rights advocate who ran for the provincial NDP in a Vancouver-area riding, said she's involved in three human-rights cases, including one challenging the requirement for gender to be specified on birth certificates.

John Horgan, left, campaigned alongside Morgane Oger, right, who was the B.C. NDP candidate for Vancouver-False Creek in the 2017 provincial election. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

"That's a daunting task. It's extremely intimidating. I've helped people who have gone to the human rights tribunal by themselves and they're terrified and they have no idea what they're getting into," she said.

Oger said she advises people to expect that they will spend about $15,000 a day on lawyers' fees and tribunal hearings can last three to five days. Preventing discrimination before it happens is far less expensive, she said.

"If you have to recall all of the cars after they've been on the road, it's way (more costly) than putting up your hand and fixing the drawing at design time."

Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said he hoped the commission would have a strong educational function, which would be helpful for the general public as well as businesses and landlords.

"It's been a huge gap that B.C. hasn't had a human rights commission all this time," Paterson said. "There's been no government agency tasked with education or promoting anti-discrimination, and that's really vital."

With files from the Canadian Press