A move by the Ontario government to “modernize” and streamline its human rights system is eliciting criticisms and expressions of concern from social conservatives in the province.

Attorney-General Michael Bryant announced in February that the government will shortly introduce legislation to advance “human rights” and prevent “discrimination.” It also proposes to make the complaints process more efficient by allowing claims to be filed directly with an enhanced Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, which would have “updated statutory powers” to determine its own practices and procedures. Legal and advisory services will be put in place to “support and empower” people seeking remedies before the tribunal.

Bryant said he hopes the new system – which already costs $13.9 million a year and is slated to increase by seven per cent next year – will mean the time to process a complaint in its entirety will be shortened from the current four or five years to one. At the present time, a complaint has to be assessed as to its merit, and an attempt made to mediate between the complainant and defendant, before the tribunal hears a case.

Scott Brockie says he can see some advantages to a more streamlined human rights system. The Toronto printer was the subject of a human rights complaint in 1996 by the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives over his refusal on religious grounds to print homosexually oriented literature for the organization. The case ultimately took nine years to wend its way through the human rights and court system, costing Brockie tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees before its conclusion, which saw him being ordered to produce business cards and letterhead for the archives and fined $5,000 for having refused to do so in the first place.

“Anything anyone can do to speed up the process can be helpful, that’s for sure,” he said. “The fact that they’re going to a more significant (tribunal) stage in the first place can only help the process.”

Brockie said he had not heard of the proposed reforms to the Ontario human rights system when contacted by The Interim, but observed that a key issue is the particular biases of individuals hearing cases within that system. “How you eliminate that out of the process is a difficult question … I’m sure there’s merit to the (human rights) commission. You need to have that kind of process in place. I can’t comment on whether they should scrap the whole thing, but certainly I’d be in favour of speeding up the process.”

Gwen Landolt, a lawyer and national vice-president of REAL Women of Canada, said major reforms, aside from streamlining, are needed in the Ontario human rights system. Speaking to LifeSite News, she assailed a system that sees unaccountable appointees chosen to serve in the human rights system not on the basis of their expertise in law, but because they represent special interests.

In addition, the process is skewed by the fact that defendants must pay their own costs, while those of complainants are covered by the government, she said, citing a lack of objectivity by members of the human rights commission, and the absence of rules of evidence that traditionally protect defendants, as other major problems. “Eliminating the preliminary procedures just means you get cooked that much faster if you are the person against whom the complaint is launched,” said Landolt.

Tim Bloedow, a director for Equipping Christians for the Public Square, told The Interim that whether procedural reforms are beneficial depends a great deal on whether those procedures are manipulated, evaded and/or ignored by those holding the reins of power. “Procedures provide little or no protection to the innocent if those in power have no integrity,” he said.

Bloedow called for the philosophy underlying Ontario’s human rights code to be completely revisited. Like Landolt, he pointed to the lack of rules of evidence, and discriminatory funding with respect to complainants and defendants, as key issues that need to be addressed. “If Ontario is not making reforms to its human rights commission and system to remedy these examples of systemic corruption, then their reforms are not getting to the root of the problems associated with the system,” he said.

Father Alphonse de Valk, editor of Catholic Insight magazine, wrote in a letter to attorney-general Bryant that many human rights complaints are doubtlessly frivolous and malicious in nature. The proposed new process of sending complaints directly to the human rights tribunal, without any prior assessment of whether those complaints have merit, could have the effect of needlessly presecuting persons who have committed no wrongdoings.

“We agree with critics who believe there are numerous other, more serious problems with the human rights complaint process that need to be addressed,” added de Valk. “It is imperative that your ministry take into account the balanced rights of all citizens, not simply those filing complaints.”