At a time when many Canadians are beginning to notice that provincial human rights commissions – quasi-judicial bodies established to investigate and mediate alleged human rights violations – have become arbitrary, politically correct star chambers, British Columbia is set to do what had previously been thought politically impossible. In late May, the Liberal B.C. government introduced draft legislation that will scrap its human rights commission, making it the only province without such an organization.

B.C. Attorney-General Geoff Plant described his action as “the first necessary step to build public confidence in a human rights machinery that will protect human rights and will do so effectively, fairly, affordably and efficiently.” The government will leave in place a human rights tribunal that will have the authority to dismiss cases deemed to not be in the public interest, and to offer mandatory settlement conferences as an alternative to formal hearings. Under the existing system, the commission receives and examines complaints, and decides if they deserve hearings before the tribunal.

This is a relatively modest change, but it has provoked howls of outrage from anti-racism groups and the political left. NDP leader Joy MacPhail told reporters “it will put British Columbia on the map with the biggest black eye it’s ever had.”

Others disagree. Lawyer Iain Benson told The Interim, “Human rights commissions unfairly tilt the field of analysis in favour of the interests of the human rights commissions themselves. These commissions have shown they are not approaching issues in an even-handed manner, but as we saw in the (Scott) Brockie case in Ontario, from a biased, anti-religious approach.” Benson is currently serving as appeal counsel for Brockie, a practising Christian who was fined by the Ontario Human Rights Commission for refusing to print materials for a homosexualist organization. Adds Benson: “What the B.C. government did was a sensible response, given the circumstances.”

Writing recently in his London Free Press column, Rory Leishman argued Plant had taken “a small step in the right direction” by taking steps to abolish the human rights commission, but the tribunal must go as well. “Plant should pay heed: to receive freedom in British Columbia, he should undertake to rescind the province’s human rights code altogether so private citizens can be free once again to make their own private contracts without interference from provincial ‘human rights’ despots.”

The commission and its tribunal have on several occasions been accused of running roughshod over basic liberties. In 2000, the mayor of Kelowna, Walter Gray, was found to have violated the B.C. Human Rights Code for the simple act of omitting the word “pride” from the Gay and Lesbian Day he proclaimed in 1997. One member of the tribunal claimed the mayor’s declaration was “tantamount to an insult” against homosexuals, and ordered him to treat further gay and lesbian pride requests with more respect. Gray did not have to undergo anti-homophobia “sensitivity training” or pay the Okanagan Rainbow Coalition the sum of $10,000 as the group had requested. Gray told reporters afterwards he had no wish to become a rubber stamp for the commission, and simply ended the practice of declaring special days.

Critics of the commission often point to two other cases as well. The first involves a Victoria drugstore owner named Harold Eisler, who asked one of his employees, Raymond Jones, to display some poinsettias in November, 1998. As a Jehovah’s Witness, Jones claimed he did not celebrate Christmas, left the store in a huff, and accused Eisler of discrimination. The tribunal’s ruling in January 2001 ordered Eisler to pay Jones the sum of $30,596 in damages for lost earnings, vacation pay, and injury to Jones’ “dignity, feelings and self-respect.”

Another case required the Vancouver Rape Relief Society to shell out $7,500 in damages to the “dignity, feelings, and self-respect” of a transsexual the society had refused to train as a crisis counsellor in 1995.