Case challenging road test wait-time for refugees goes before human rights tribunal today

Syrian refugee Shyesh Al-Turki, a former truck driver, is challenging the Ontario government on a policy his lawyer says is discriminatory against refugees. In order to bypass the wait time in between licences, drivers must provide documents from their home country — a nearly impossible task for refugees.

Syrian refugee Shyesh Al-Turki claims Ontario road test wait-time is discriminatory

Lawyer Hassan Ahmad is bringing Shyesh Al-Turki's case to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario today to challenge the Ontario government, claiming its policy discriminates against refugees. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

Shyesh Al-Turki was a truck driver in his hometown of Aleppo, Syria. But because of the civil war, he fled to Canada as a refugee with his family at the end of 2016.

Al-Turki is now trying to get his Ontario driver's licence, but, because of a transportation ministry policy, he is forced to start from ground zero.

"There's the mental and emotional stress that comes with the inability to support your family because you're waiting to get the job that you can get and you're qualified to get," said Hassan Ahmad, the lawyer representing Al-Turki.

Ahmad is bringing Al-Turki's case to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario today to challenge the Ontario government, claiming its policy discriminates against refugees.

"What the government's done here is instituted one policy for everybody, not taking into account the nuances of why people come to Ontario," said Ahmad.

What's the policy?

The Ontario government allows newcomers from certain places with certified translated driver's licences to bypass the province's graduated system — G1, G2 then full G licence. In the province, drivers get the learner's permit (G1), then have to wait 12 months before taking the G2 test, and then another 12 months before taking the full G test.

Those with full licences from places like the U.S., the U.K., and other provinces of Canada are allowed to convert their licences into Ontario ones, and most can do so without taking driving tests.

For other countries, it's a more complicated process. These drivers all have to take the G1 written test and G driving test, but some are allowed to reduce the time they wait in between.

In order to cut that time, drivers are required to provide written authentication from their home government that they have sufficient driving experience and a full licence. Al-Turki, for example, would have to provide documents from the Syrian government in order to take his G1 test and then take a full G driver's test without waiting.

This is the policy Ahmad is arguing is discriminatory. Refugees, people who come from war-torn countries or people fleeing persecution, typically cannot access those documents. Al-Turki cannot go back to the Syrian government to ask for the documents without putting himself, his family or his relatives in danger, said Ahmad.

"It's not practically possible to ask someone who's fled persecution from a particular country to re-engage the government of that country because it could harm their loved ones," said Ahmad.

Why is this policy there?

Ontario's ministry of transportation issued a statement saying it would be inappropriate to comment on a case before the tribunal, but included that "the ministry's top priority is to make sure our roads are safe and highways remain among the safest in North America for all our road users."

Ahmad said that the government provided documents expressing similar concerns about safety on the road, and added there might be a concern with forged documents.

Ahmad is arguing in the case that this policy constitutes constructive discrimination, which the Ontario Human Rights Commission defines as a rule that "unintentionally singles out a group of people and results in unequal treatment."

Because refugees cannot access the written documents required to bypass the wait periods, they are forced to wait more than a year to get their full licences, preventing them from starting work.

Ahmad argues this is impacting not only Al-Turki, who has a wife and 10 children in Ontario, but hundreds of other refugees.

"There's hundreds of people, if not thousands of people, in Ontario who are struggling through the same problem, and not able to get the jobs that they want," said Ahmad.

The hearing is expected to last for one week.