The Ontario Human Rights Commission has produced a new strategic plan for its work over the next five years (Putting People and Their Rights at the Centre – http://www.ohrc.on.ca/sites/default/files/Strategic%20Plan_
2017-2022_accessible_EN.pdf). This is an excellent development. The plan makes the mandate and work of the Commission transparent and comprehensible to the public and to the media, who are often still confused about the difference between a Human Rights Tribunal and a Human Rights Commission. Since Ontario is the jurisdiction in which the difference in roles is most marked, it is helpful to have the Commission articulate clearly that its focus is on tackling systemic discrimination, not through adjudication of cases, which is what the Tribunal does, but through the use of powerful and different tools – a public voice, research and inquiry, interventions in cases before the Tribunal and courts, and connection with a network of informed community organizations.
The Commission has chosen four strategic areas to focus on: reconciliation with Indigenous peoples; rights in the criminal justice system; advancing human rights by addressing poverty; and promoting a human rights culture through education.
Promoting a human rights culture through education is work that is needed and expected from human rights commissions. The other three areas are new. First, following the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the OHRC sets itself the goals of developing its own new relationship with Indigenous peoples and Indigenous organizations in Ontario, building a greater understanding of the enduring impact of colonialism, and enhancing accountability for systemic racism and discrimination against Indigenous peoples.
On the issue of human rights in the criminal justice system, accountability is also the theme. The OHRC has already made its mark in this area by bringing to public attention the facts of the shocking solitary confinement of Adam Capay in a Thunder Bay prison for four years. In this case, Chief Commissioner Renu Mendhane demonstrated a much-needed willingness to uncover rights abuses, speak out, and seek change. In its strategic plan, the OHRC states it will work for the establishment of strong and transparent human rights accountability systems within the criminal justice system, and for non-discriminatory practices in policing and corrections, including ending the police use of racial profiling and solitary confinement in provincial jails.
Regarding poverty, the OHRC says it will work to make it clear how interconnected poverty and systemic discrimination are. The Commission says: “Poverty exacerbates marginalization and undermines peoples' ability to redress discrimination … Code-protected communities disproportionately experience poverty, with particular dynamics of marginalization facing persons living with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, women, older persons, children and youth, transgender people and racialized communities”.
The Commission plans to seek explicit Human Rights Code protection from discrimination for people who experience poverty, hunger and homelessness. It also plans to ensure that proposed strategies to address poverty take human rights into account.
This is an ambitious agenda, moving the Commission into a key role in addressing the historical and current discrimination against Indigenous peoples, the resistance of the criminal justice system to discharging its human rights obligations, and the harmful and obvious connection between systemic discrimination and poverty.
The Commission is showing what its role can, and should, be: a leader, a critical commentator, an innovator, and an advocate for honest and thorough implementation of human rights.
Legal representation is essential for meaningful access to justice in many human rights cases. Canadian human rights regimes were originally conceived with an integrated guarantee of legal advice and representation. Today, however, more and more complainants are responsible for ensuring their own representation in so-called “user friendly processes”. At least one human rights tribunal has recognized that unrepresented complainants are much less likely to succeed (Scowby v. Glendinning (1986), 8 C.H.R.R. D/3677 at para. 29132, per La Forest J., dissenting in the result). At the same time, Canadian human rights jurisprudence recognizes that human rights cases are not strictly private and cannot be equated with a lis between the parties in a court because "the ultimate goal is the promotion of human rights for the benefit of the community as a whole" (Senyk v. WFG Agency Network (B.C.) Inc. (No. 2) (2008), 64 C.H.R.R. D/245 at para. 129). There is a clear public interest in providing accessible fora for the resolution of human rights complaints.
A recent decision by the Northwest Territories Human Rights Adjudication Panel sets an important precedent for increased access to justice in the human rights context. In Portman v. Northwest Territories (Justice) (CHRR Doc. 16-3074), the Panel recognized that a blanket policy of refusing legal aid funding for human rights complaints resulted in systemic discrimination of persons with certain disabilities. Importantly, the Panel framed the issue as one of equal and genuine access to a public service, that is, the human rights complaint process. In doing so, the Panel rejected the narrower right to counsel approach developed in the criminal law context at common law and imported into s. 7 Charter jurisprudence. The one drawback of the decision is that it links inability to self-represent with the existence of certain disabilities. Yet, it would not be hard to find a range of complainants with complex human rights issues who are unable to meaningfully navigate tribunal proceedings on their own, particularly when faced with respondents who have the benefit of legal representation.
Portman has the potential to advance equal access to justice not only in the human rights context but also in a broader range of non-criminal cases. Progress on this front has been stymied since the Supreme Court of Canada's groundbreaking 1999 decision in New Brunswick v. G. (J.),  3 S.C.R. 46, extending the right to state-funded counsel to child protection matters. Attempts to extend this precedent have foundered for a variety of reasons including unrepresented claimants who are unable to satisfactorily marshal the factual basis and legal arguments, governments settling with claimants in order to avoid a precedent, claimants abandoning a claim due to the amount of time and energy required to pursue a right to counsel claim in addition to the underlying claim for which they seek assistance. Ms. Portman is a tenacious complainant and she was very ably assisted by Professor Laverne Jacobs and a team of students from the University of Windsor law school.
International human rights instruments emphasize the central important of equal access to fora for the determination of rights and remedies. Equal access to the human rights adjudication process remains a live issue in Canada today. The Government of the Northwest Territories has appealed the Panel's decision and sought and was granted a stay. Ms. Portman was unrepresented at the hearing of the stay application.
One of the great hallmarks of human rights protection in Canada is the existence of our tribunals and panels responsible for hearing complaints, sifting through evidence and applying the appropriate human rights code. Where complaints are substantiated, the tribunals are responsible for awarding an appropriate remedy, a characteristic that distinguishes Canada from many jurisdictions around the world where human rights laws lack the teeth of enforcement and restitution.
Unfortunately, human rights tribunals in Canada are sometimes perceived as the lost cousins to the more high profile human rights commissions, which exist in 12 of Canada's 14 legal jurisdictions. The commissions generally have broader mandates, which not only include receiving complaints (although not everywhere), but also in education and the promotion of human rights. Every year, the federal, provincial and territorial commissions meet at an annual conference sponsored by their umbrella organization, the Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies (“CASHRA”).
Until now, there has been no umbrella organization for Canada's 13 human rights tribunals (Saskatchewan does not have a tribunal). Although human rights legislation is similar in all Canadian jurisdictions, there are some notable differences in structure and mandate. For example, three jurisdictions have direct-access models, where complainants can bring their cases directly to human rights tribunals, while in the remaining jurisdictions, human rights commissions play a gatekeeper role before a case is referred to a tribunal. There are also some differences in the types of remedies available under the respective human rights codes of each tribunal.
Nevertheless, there are many common attributes and many common challenges for Canadian human rights tribunals. Most importantly, we all share the common goal of bringing impartiality and integrity to the adjudication of human rights complaints to ensure that the Canadian public at large continues to support our worthy goals. Surprisingly, notwithstanding all that we share in common, there existed no formal or even informal channels of exchange between our respective organizations.
It was in this context that a National Human Rights Tribunal Forum was held in May of this year. Previously, a national human rights tribunal meeting was held in 1999 and was attended by six jurisdictions. However, the group did not meet again. The organizing for this year's event began last fall and one of the most difficult tasks at the outset was simply identifying and locating the other tribunals. While every commission has a reasonable online profile, most of the provincial and territorial tribunals have none.
Eventually we were able to make contact with all of our provincial and territorial counterparts. The invitation to attend the Forum was met with widespread enthusiasm and in the end, 11 of the 13 jurisdictions were able to attend. I welcomed the attendees with the following words:
We are all gathered here today because we share something very important in common. We have been entrusted by our respective governments to play a small, but very important role in the administration of justice. We are all administrative tribunals with a mandate to expediently and fairly decide on important matters of human rights. We are all challenged with our assignments, to be expedient, accessible and to bring our level of expertise to the inquiry, because in human rights, the stakes are very high. For complainants who have been traumatized by discrimination, the process is very difficult for them, emotions run very high and sometimes the wounds are deep. On the other side, no one likes to be a respondent to a human rights complaint, as alleged discrimination carries with it connotations of serious wrong-doing that are potentially damaging to personal or corporate reputations.
We have a difficult job to do. We have to be committed, true to our values, and sometimes courageous to make decisions we know sometimes will be misunderstood. But it is our passion for human rights that keeps us going, to do our bit for the administration of justice, and to create jurisprudence to guide Canadians about the manner in which we are expected to respect each other in society.
To this end, I am hopeful that this Forum will give us an opportunity to learn more about each other, best practices, experiences and training. But also, hopefully, this Forum will help each of us understand ourselves a little better, the context in which we operate, and to see a clear path forward to making our institutions better, more highly valued and respected. In this spirit, I would like to announce this Forum as officially re-opened, after a short 17-year hiatus.
The two-day event allowed the tribunal delegates to exchange ideas, share best practices and to generally better understand the common work we all do. Each tribunal was also asked to give a short presentation of a leading case or new development in their jurisdiction.
In the end, each of us walked away with more knowledge and a new perspective. Most importantly, there was a firm resolve by all attendees to ensure that our engagement with each other should continue. There is a consensus that our group will meet on a bi-annual basis and there has been discussion about the creation of an umbrella association to ensure the free flow of communication and contact. Indeed, since the days of our Forum, the participants have been sharing news of precedent-setting cases and other developments with each other.
While every tribunal has a need for independence, and certainly our own independence from each other, we remain committed to supporting and learning from each other to better improve our own accountabilities.
The Forum was hosted at the Offices of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in Ottawa. The provincial and territorial attendees were: Kathryn Raymond and Benjamin Perryman (Nova Scotia); Sherri Walsh (Manitoba); The Hon. Ann-Marie Jones and Frédérick Doucet (Québec); Yola Grant and Michael Gottheil (Ontario); George Filliter (New Brunswick); Penelope Gawn and Carmen Gustafson (Yukon); Katherine Hardie (British Columbia); Robert Philp and Janice Ashcroft (Alberta); Brenda Picard (Prince Edward Island); and, Sheldon Toner (Northwest Territories).
David L. Thomas, Chairperson
Canadian Human Rights Tribunal
Andrella David is a Black Nova Scotian and a courageous, determined woman. In March 2009, she went to her local grocery store to buy some ice cream – a Sobeys store in Tantallon, Nova Scotia, a suburb of Halifax.
While she was waiting in line to pay, the store manager, Jennie Barnhill, walked up to her and accused her of being a shoplifter. Barnhill said the store had captured the past thefts on video surveillance cameras, and told Ms. David that if it happened again, Sobeys would press charges.
Immediately, Ms. David said that she had never shoplifted and demanded to see the videotapes. While the images were fuzzy, Ms. David could see that the woman on the tape was darker-skinned than her, and smaller, fuller-faced, with a different hairstyle. She told Ms. Barnhill that the only thing she and the alleged shoplifter on the videotape had in common was that “she is Black and I am Black. If you think that girl looks like me you must think all Black people look alike”.
Ms. Barnhill also accused Ms. David of being present in the store and shoplifting on “cheque day”, inferring that social assistance was Ms. David's source of income. She also said that Sobeys had arrested someone else from Pockwock Road, the Black settlement where Ms. David lives, for shoplifting the week before. Add it up and here's the stereotype: Ms. David is Black, she is on welfare and she steals.
Andrella David got nowhere with Ms. Barnhill and later tried to straighten out the situation with Sobeys' management at head office. But she was told that Sobeys accepted Ms. Barnhill's word over hers. Sobeys continued to back its manager's claim for seven years, even though Ms. Barnhill conceded at the hearing of Ms. David's complaint in 2015 that there was no evidence to support the shoplifting accusation, and, further, that if Ms. David had been white she would not have been stopped.
Sobeys' refusal to acknowledge that Ms. David was not a shoplifter caused not just a temporary harm, but continuous harm.
Ms. David was shocked and devastated by the treatment she received. She never went to a Sobeys store again. She travelled further away from home to shop. She experienced depression, anxiety, shame and humiliation. She was afraid in other stores that she was being watched. Until the complaint went to hearing, she never told her daughter because she did not want her to witness her mother's humiliation and hurt.
Race discrimination complaints are often difficult. One reason is that the response of those who are accused of racism is often so defensive. Any capacity to listen or learn seems to disappear. In this case, even a large and sophisticated enterprise like Sobeys Group Inc., Canada's second largest food retailer, with historical roots in Nova Scotia, could not deal with this complaint with openness and respect.
Instead, Sobeys fought all the way, first to dispute the complaint, despite its lack of evidence, and then to try to keep any remedial award as small and as narrow as possible.
The Board of Inquiry awarded Ms. David $3,000 a year for seven years ($21,000) for the continuous harm caused by the discrimination, and ordered Sobeys to provide training for all its management staff in the province.
But another part of Andrella David's award should be a big thanks from the public for the service she performed by exposing this too ordinary race discrimination, and doing what she could to stop it for others.
On January 26, 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (“CHRT”) released a historic decision ("decision") finding that Canada is racially discriminating against over 163,000 First Nations children and their families by providing flawed and inequitable child welfare services ("FNCFS Program") and by failing to implement Jordan's Principle to ensure equitable access to government services available to other children. In a subsequent order issued on April 26, 2016, the CHRT commented on Canada's failure to take sufficient immediate action to comply with its January decision. It wrote: “[i]t is unclear why and how some of the findings [of discrimination] have not been addressed within the three months since the [January] decision. Instead of being immediate relief, some of these items may now become mid-term relief”.
In response to this inaction, the CHRT ordered Canada to confirm that it had fully implemented Jordan's Principle and to report on the steps it had taken to comply with its January decision. Such reporting orders are exceptional and are generally issued only in cases where the failure to promptly comply with an order may cause irreparable harm, particularly to a vulnerable group, as was the case in Doucet-Boudreau. Similarly, in Caring Society (No. 15), the CHRT heard and accepted evidence that Canada's discriminatory FNCFS Program was causing First Nations children to be removed from their families and communities and put into care at alarming rates. It ordered Canada to immediately cease its discriminating conduct towards against First Nations children in accordance with its ruling.
It is disappointing that in the face of these tragic circumstances and such an exceptional legal measure, Canada failed to take the immediate action necessary to lessen the discrimination experienced by First Nations children receiving child welfare services following the CHRT's April reporting order. By way of example, the 2016 Budget allocates $71.1 million to First Nations child welfare services in 2016–2017, only $60.38 million of which will be directed to service delivery for children and families. By contrast, Canada's own internal documents estimated that a minimum of $108.1 million plus an annual 3 percent increase for inflation was required (in 2012 dollars) to provide First Nations children with child welfare services comparable to those available off reserve. The largest funding allocation in the 2016 Budget for child welfare services for First Nations children will not be conferred until 2020–2021 and that depends on whether the current government gets re-elected. When asked why First Nations children needed to wait five years — or a quarter of their childhood — to receive services comparable to those available to others, Prime Minister Trudeau stated that the government needed to “create the capacity” before providing additional funds to FNCFS agencies. Yet, none of the evidence presented before the Tribunal supports the Prime Minister's claim that First Nations agencies do not have the capacity to deliver equal services to First Nations children. From a human rights perspective, the claim, which is akin to stating that discrimination against certain groups is acceptable because they are not, in the eyes of the party responsible for the discrimination or the public, ready for equality, is also very problematic.
Canada's inaction with respect to the implementation of Jordan's Principle is equally disconcerting. In its May 10, 2016, compliance report to the CHRT, Canada claimed that it had fully implemented Jordan's Principle. Yet, Canada has failed to take the measures necessary to ensure that First Nations children not longer experience discrimination as a result of jurisdictional disputes. For example, the INAC website directs the public to contact a series of telephone numbers for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (“INAC”) regarding Jordan's Principle cases. The Caring Society called each number to test the accessibility of INAC's Jordan's Principle reporting system. Results revealed out of service telephone numbers, automated answering machines that did not include a Jordan's Principle option and government officials who were not aware of Jordan's Principle or referred the caller to a First Nations organization. Only one INAC office was able to send contact information for officials several hours after the original call. The results of the calls were immediately brought to INAC's attention and the Caring Society sought confirmation from INAC that the matter has been addressed but no response has been received. This raises significant concerns regarding Canada's compliance with the CHRT January order. More importantly, it suggests that First Nations children will continue to experience discrimination when seeking access to government services, or simply be denied those services altogether. This is not surprising given that the CHRT found that jurisdictional disputes caused First Nations children to be denied services available to other children due to poor or complete lack of coordination between and within governments. Such ongoing systemic and widespread discrimination cannot be remedied simply by making grandiose statements.
On June 14, 2016, faced with this continued inaction, and upon receipt of Canada's compliance report regarding the CHRT's findings of discrimination relating to its FNCFS Program, the CHRT cancelled an upcoming case conference it had scheduled with the parties to discuss the implementation of the January decision. In particular, it wrote:
The Panel finds there are far more unresolved issues to deal with th[a]n it had expected and is now questioning the benefit of having a meeting at this time. Therefore, the Panel proposes to use its limited resources to address as many of the outstanding issues as it can now.
The CHRT is expected to rule upon the Caring Society's requests for immediate relief later this year. It is unfortunate that such requests are even necessary and that Canada remains unwilling to comply voluntarily with the CHRT's decision by ceasing its discriminatory conduct towards some of the most vulnerable members of our society, First Nations children.
Anne Levesque, B.A., LL.B., MSt (Oxon)
is proud to have been one of the lawyers who represented the
First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada in this case.
1. First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada v. Canada (Attorney General) (No. 15), 2016 CHRT 2, CHRR Doc. 16-3003 (“Caring Society (No. 15)”). When there is a dispute as to which level of government must fund a particular service, Jordan's Principle states that the service must be immediately provided by the government that is contacted first, and that jurisdictional issues must be sorted out later. For more information on Jordan's Principle, visit https://fncaringsociety.com/jordans-principle.
2. First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada v. Canada (Attorney General) (No. 16), 2016 CHRT 10, CHRR Doc. 16-3033, para. 21.
3. In Doucet-Boudreau v. Nova Scotia (Minister of Education),  3 S.C.R. 3 (“Doucet-Boudreau”), the Supreme Court of Canada upheld an order of a trial judge from Nova Scotia in a language rights case to retain jurisdiction to hear reports on the status of the effort of the province to provide adequate school facilities and programs for Francophones. In so doing, the Supreme Court noted that for every school year that governments do not meet their obligations under s. 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there was an increased likelihood of assimilation which carries the risk that numbers might cease to “warrant”, and thus extinguishing the right to school instruction in a official minority language.
4. Caring Society (No. 15), at para. 344.
5. Ibid, at para. 481.
6. APTN Interview with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dated June 3, 2016, available at: http://aptn.ca/news/2016/06/03/pm-trudeau-faces-wide-array-of-question-d....
7. For more information about the calls, see APTN story which aired on June 21, 2016, available at http://aptn.ca/news/2016/06/21/indigenous-affairs-help-lines-dont-work-a....
8. On June 7, 2016, the Caring Society contacted the regional offices and numbers on the website and asked to speak to the person in charge of Jordan's Principle cases noting that the INAC website says that persons with questions regarding Jordan's Principle should call the regional INAC office. The object of the exercise was to ensure members of the public with Jordan's Principle cases were able to bring them to INAC's attention and have them addressed. The Caring Society contacted the 1-800 number listed under the Atlantic, Quebec and Manitoba Regions and the person receiving the call advised that they did not have a contact person and that they would send out a general email. The number listed for Quebec Region (1-800-263-5592) yielded a completely automated system with five options to leave messages about specific topics. None of the topics included Jordan's Principle inquiries. The number listed for the Atlantic Region appeared to be out of order as multiple calls yielded only a tone at the end of the line. Calls to the remaining regional offices of Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Yukon revealed polite responses from staff but did not yield a person to speak to about the cases. The Caring Society received responses ranging from options only to leave messages on voice mail to staff saying they did not know what Jordan's Principle was, to being referred to the First Nations Health Authority (in BC) and suggesting they leave a message for a person who would not be back in the office for several days. Ontario region did contact the Caring Society several hours after our call with the names and addresses of persons to reach.
9. Letter from the CHRT to the parties dated June 14, 2016.
For many years, human rights activists and minorities have complained about the difficulty in getting cases before Quebec's Human Rights Tribunal, citing significant delays and concerns about lack of access to justice. In Ontario, for example, almost 80 percent of cases make it through preliminary screening to some form of hearing before the tribunal. In Quebec, the figure is closer to 5 percent.
In March 2016, these issues were in the news again. Quebec's Human Rights Commission dismissed complaints based on age, race, and disability against the Société de transport de Montréal (“STM”) and Montreal police in a case involving Michaëlla Bassey, a Black high school student in Montreal.
In June 2012, Bassey was 12 years old when she asked a Montreal bus driver for information about a bus schedule. She had difficulty deciphering it because of her dyslexia and a visual-spatial learning disability. The bus was stationary and located several feet before the stop. As any Montreal transit rider knows, it is not unusual for passengers to ask for information from drivers before buses begin their route. In this case the driver refused to answer Bassey's English inquiries; he was on his cell phone, and motioned her towards the bus stop, instructing her in French to read the posted schedule.
Once on the bus, the child reiterated her request. The driver refused to answer or to listen to the child's mother, whom Bassey was speaking to on her cell phone in hands-free mode. Bassey wanted her mother to explain to the driver why Bassey required assistance. Bassey also attempted to obtain the name and number of the bus from the driver, who refused to co-operate.
The bus driver ordered the child to retreat past the yellow line designed to keep people away from drivers. According to video evidence, he motioned to her three times to head towards the back of the bus. Bassey did return to her seat and sit down, but attempted one more time to communicate with the bus driver, again with her mother on the phone.
At this point, the bus driver used his cellular telephone to call a supervisor and immobilized the bus. When the supervisor arrived, the supervisor asked Bassey to get off the bus and offered to drive her home. Bassey, on instructions from her mother, indicated that she wished to stay on the bus because her mother was on her way. The police arrived and forcibly ejected Bassey.
Incredibly, it took the Commission almost four years to investigate the case before dismissing the complaints. The Commission decided that the driver was following the Highway Safety Code that prohibits the use of cell phones while driving.
The STM argued that its two employees had systematically followed the procedure and their training without regard for sex, race, age or handicap. The STM also said it had no knowledge of the child's handicap. The evidence showed that the STM has no protocols, however, to deal with children with disabilities.
In short, formal equality had been respected.
The investigation report offers no substantive rationale for forcing Bassey off the bus when the child had shown no aggressive or disruptive behavior. More important, the simple initial inquiry regarding the bus schedule could have been answered easily while the bus was immobilized at the outset. The explanation regarding the absolute prohibition of cell phones is difficult to square with the fact that the driver had been on his cell phone on at least two occasions.
Equally troubling is the decision to absolve the police officers of responsibility based on a protocol that the police are not required to inquire into the reasons for STM requests for assistance. The logical result of this line of reasoning is that in such circumstances, the police enjoy impunity.
The investigation lacked any analysis of the effects of allegedly discriminatory behaviour – rather than the intent – let alone the importance of substantive equality and of considering the structural impact of the applicable procedures and rules. No intersectional analysis was carried out.
Despite the deficiencies, such dismissals by commissions are notoriously difficult to overturn. They are generally understood by the courts not to be decisions on the merits, but merely responses to preliminary questions about whether a matter should be referred to the Tribunal. In this case, however, the Commission had clearly reached a decision on the merits, terminating a vulnerable complainant's rights and raising fresh questions about the human rights system in Quebec.
The Bassey family has not made any decision about next steps at the time of writing, but the case underscores growing concerns about lack of access to justice in Quebec's human rights system and the need for reform.
* Pearl Eliadis is a human rights lawyer based in Montreal. Her book on Canadian human rights commissions and tribunals, Speaking Out on Human Rights: Debating Canada’s Human Rights System, was named one of the best books of 2014 and won the 2015 Huguenot Society of Canada Award.
On January 26, 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (“CHRT”) released a historic decision finding that Canada is racially discriminating against 163,000 First Nations children by providing flawed and inequitable child welfare services ("FNCFS Program") and failing to implement Jordan's Principle to ensure equitable access to government services available to all other Canadian children.1 While the CHRT requires further clarifications from the parties before making any specific remedial orders, the decision provides that a reform of Canada's FNCFS Program is needed in order to ensure that the services provided to First Nations children are in their best interest and meet their cultural, historical and geographical needs.2
The ink on the CHRT's decision was not yet dry when further allegations of discriminatory conduct by Canada against First Nations children came to light. This time they related to discrimination in the context of health services. On February 21, 2016, CBC News reported that Health Canada has denied several requests for coverage of braces to correct a handicapping malocclusion of Josey Willier, a First Nations teenager from Alberta who is experiencing several headaches and chronic pain as a result of her condition.3 Such essential medical services ought to be covered by the Non-Insured Health Benefits Program (“NIHB”), a program administered by Heath Canada aimed at helping First Nations people and Inuit reach an overall health status that is comparable with other Canadians.4 Though Josey's braces were deemed to be medically necessary by her doctor, and her requests were accompanied by all necessary medical evidence, Health Canada has denied her multiple requests for coverage. A judicial review application was commenced on March 24, 2016, challenging NIHB's decision to deny the child coverage.
As it turns out, Josey's story is just the tip of the iceberg. Shortly after Josey's mother spoke out publicly about her daughter's situation, shocking statistics relating to the NIHB's rejection rate were released. Of the over 534 requests for essential medical services coverage by on behalf of First Nations children to Health Canada, 80 percent were rejected in the first round. The few that went to the second round had a 99 percent rejection rate. On the third round, 100 percent of requests were denied by Health Canada bureaucrats.5
While the CHRT's decision calls for reform to address its numerous findings of discrimination, the scope of its application is limited to child welfare and, as such, does not strictly apply to Josey's case which relates to health services. This is because complaints filed under the Canadian Human Rights Act must relate to only one specific service area. Of course, as any social worker will tell you, child welfare cannot be seen in a silo and requires a holistic approach also involving adequate housing, education and health for children. While the CHRT decision does not specifically require reform in these service areas such as health, the expensive definition of discrimination adopted by the CHRT in its decision relating to child welfare services – one that requires Canada to offer First Nations children services comparable to other children, that are in their best interest and that consider their historical, cultural and geographic needs – may be indicative of how the CHRT will rule when adjudicating further allegations of discrimination against First Nations children relating to services areas linked to child welfare. Given that Minister Wilson-Raybould has recently stated that any form of discrimination is disgraceful and that change is needed in order to honor the respect of reconciliation, it is hoped that Canada will implement the CHRT's calls for reform holistically and across all services its provides to First Nations children rather than spending years and millions of Canadian tax dollars in legal fees fighting a long chain of human rights complaint relating health, housing and education.6
Anne Levesque and Sarah Clarke7
1. First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. v. Canada (Attorney General), 2016 CHRT 2, CHRR Doc. 16-3003.
2. Ibid at para 463–65 (emphasis in original decision).
3. Go to http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/politics/mother-fights-for-daughter-medical-1.3456562 for the CBC article.
4. For more information relating to the Non-Insured Health Benefit Program go to:
5. 42nd Parliament, 1st Session, Edited Hansard, Number 020, February 18, 2016 available online at:
6. In 2014, the Canadian Human Rights Commission reported that it had referred 26 complaints lodged by First Nations Peoples against Canada. See “Special Report to Parliament on the Impacts of Bill C-12” Canadian Human Rights Commission (September 15 2014) Available online at:
7. Anne Levesque and Sarah Clarke both represented the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada in its historic complaint against the government of Canada regarding its discriminatory child welfare services and its failure to implement Jordan's Principle. Sarah Clarke is representing Josey Willier's mother in her efforts to obtain the essential medical services for her daughter.
On January 26, 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (“CHRT”) released a historic decision finding that Canada is racially discriminating against 163,000 First Nations children and their families by providing flawed and inequitable child welfare services ("FNCFS Program") and failing to implement Jordan's Principle to ensure equitable access to government services available to other children (2016 CHRT 2, CHRR Doc. 16-3003).
The decision marked the end of a nine-year legal battle waged by Canada against the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations since they lodged the complaint in 2007. Numerous attempts by Canada to have the complaint dismissed on technicalities and troubling conduct on the part of Department of Justice lawyers who failed to disclose tens of thousands of relevant documents caused significant delays in the case, a litigation strategy that came at an immense cost to Canadian taxpayers. In total, Canada spent well over $5.3 million in legal fees fighting this complaint.
The CHRT's findings against Canada joins the growing chorus of Canadian voices collectively calling for immediate and concrete action by the government to ensure substantial equality for First Nations children. Children have been particularly instrumental in leading the social movement in support of the case. On February 11, 2016, over 600 children marched on Parliament Hill to demand that Canada implement the CHRT's decision without delay, while thousands of other children organised over 40 similar gatherings across the country. Countless more sent Valentine's Day cards to Prime Minister Trudeau urging him to "Have a Heart" for First Nations children.
Despite the children's complete victory before the CHRT and the unprecedented public outcry in support of equality, the new government has still taken no steps to improve the situation of First Nations children living on reserves. This is not for lack of awareness of the discriminatory impacts of the FNCFS Program or how to resolve these problems. As highlighted in the CHRT, Canada has known for nearly two decades that it its child welfare services were not meeting the needs of First Nations families and were driving children into care. More recently, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's first call to action related to child welfare and urged the government to take immediate action reduce the number of children in care and fully implement Jordan's Principle. While on the day of the release of the decision the Minister of Justice stated "there will likely not be any reason why we would seek judicial review of this decision", at the time of writing this article, Department of Justice lawyers had still not confirmed whether they would be challenging the CHRT decision before the Federal Court. Canada's position internationally regarding the case is also cause for concern. In response to a question of regarding the case by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is currently reviewing Canada's human rights track records for the past 10 years, Canada placed more emphasis on an earlier CHRT decision to dismiss the case (2011 CHRT 4, 73 C.H.R.R. D/219) that was later overturned (2012 FC 445, 74 C.H.R.R. D/230; aff'd 2013 FCA 75, 76 C.H.R.R. D/353) than on the CHRT's finding of discrimination. Its reply otherwise vaunted the fact that it had implemented the Enhanced Prevention Focused Approach to funding in six provinces, a funding model that the CHRT found to be discriminatory and which creates incentives to take First Nations children into care needlessly.
While the legal precedent created by the CHRT decision is certainly cause for celebration, it has not yet translated in meaningful change for the over 163,000 First Nations children currently receiving discriminatory child welfare services from the Canadian government. In the absence of the political will or ethical compass to do so, Canada may soon be legally compelled to act by the CHRT which will issues its orders pertaining to immediate and longer term relief remedies in the coming weeks or months.
Anne Levesque, B.A., LL.B., MSt (Oxon) is proud to have been one of the lawyers who represented the
First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada in this case.
1. Hansard, 42nd Parliament, 1st Session, Honorable Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice, January 26, 2016. Available online at http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Pub=Journals&La...
E&Mode=1&Parl=42&Ses=1&DocId=8073490&File=0. It is noted however that in a speech to the Canadian Bar Association on February 20, 2016, the Honorable Jody Wilson-Raybould stated that she should not be seeking a judicial review of the CHRT decision. However, at the time of writing this article, no written confirmation of this has been obtain by Department of Justice lawyers.
2. Replies of Canada to the List of Issues, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, fifty-seventh session, dated February 4, 2016. Regarding the decision, Canada simply stated: “On January 26, 2016, the Tribunal released its decision on the merits of the complaint. The Tribunal's finding of discrimination against Canada is being reviewed to determine appropriate next steps”.
A decision from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on the complaint of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (“FNCFCS”) against Indian and Northern Affairs is expected this month. The Government of Canada, under Stephen Harper, tried to block this complaint from being heard on the merits, and used every legal tool available to delay and complicate the proceedings. Let's hope those days are over.
Filed in 2007, the basic allegation of FNCFCS is that the Government of Canada under-funds child welfare services for on-reserve First Nations children. Provinces fund child welfare services at a higher level, and FNCFCS says that the federal government's under-funding of child welfare services has a systemic discriminatory impact on the lives of Aboriginal children living on reserves.
After first trying to prevent the Canadian Human Rights Commission from referring the complaint for hearing, in 2011 the Government of Canada asked the Tribunal to dismiss the complaint on a preliminary motion. Canada argued that the complaint was not properly grounded in the law because: (1) funding is not a service within the meaning of the Canadian Human Rights Act, and (2) the complaint relies on an improper comparison between federal and provincial governments.
Tribunal Member Shirish Chotalia agreed, and dismissed the complaint on the grounds that the Act does not permit a comparison between services provided by two different service providers to two different sets of recipients (73 C.H.R.R. D/219). In other words, FNCFCS cannot compare services provided by the federal government to on-reserve children to services provided by provincial governments to off-reserve children. Chotalia concluded that, in the absence of a proper comparator group, there could be no finding of adverse differential treatment against the Government of Canada, and so the complaint could not proceed.
In April 2012, the Federal Court of Canada overturned this Tribunal decision (74 C.H.R.R. D/230), breathing some common sense into interpretation of the Act. The Federal Court pointed out that there are many complaints in which a direct comparison is not possible or relevant. The Court noted that comparison is an evidentiary tool that can illuminate how discrimination works in a particular case. But it is not a requirement of the law.
With respect to Aboriginal people, the situation is distinct. The Government of Canada provides some services only to Aboriginal people on reserves. Similar services – health, education, child welfare – are provided to other Canadians by provincial or territorial governments. If the Canadian Human Rights Act cannot apply when Aboriginal people wish to complain that a service provided only to them is so deficient that it constitutes systemic discrimination, the Act cannot respond to the realities of their lives.
When the Government finally, in 2007, repealed the statutory bar to human rights complaints being filed against Band Councils or the Government of Canada when they were acting under the Indian Act, Minister Jim Prentice said that Aboriginal people could now file complaints regarding access to services or the quality of services available to them on reserve. But before the Tribunal and the Federal Court, the Government of Canada argued exactly the opposite. Aboriginal people cannot complain about the quality of a service provided only to them – said the Government of Canada – because they must make a comparison, and they have no other group to compare themselves to.
The Federal Court found this interpretation unreasonable because it excludes First Nations people from human rights protection when services are provided only to them. In March 2013, the Federal Court of Appeal (76 C.H.R.R. D/353) upheld Federal Court's decision, and the complaint finally proceeded to a hearing on its merits.
Soon we will find out what the Tribunal has decided on this ground-breaking issue. We will find out whether the Canadian Human Rights Act can provide an effective legal remedy for on reserve First Nations people when they are discriminated against. But, no matter which way the Tribunal rules, this is the moment for the new Government of Canada to step up and provide adequate funding for basic public services on reserves. Harper's administration obstructed the fulfillment of the rights of Indigenous peoples in many ways and in many venues. Let's hope that the new Ministers of Justice and Indigenous Affairs will sweep that practice away, and give us a new path.
A breath of fresh air just blew through the Canadian human rights community. That breath of fresh air has a name: Marie-Claude Landry, the new Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
First of all, as the newly appointed Chief Commissioner she undertook a cross-country consultation with human rights groups and equality-seekers to introduce herself and to listen. She asked: what support are human rights groups looking for? and what does the Commission need to do now? A lot of diverse groups across the country told Ms. Landry that the Canadian Human Rights Commission needs to have a strong public presence and be a voice for human rights. They told her that they need her to speak up.
Canada's human rights institutions matter. They are the public voice for human rights. When they are “risk‐averse” and soft‐spoken, there is a public silence about some of the toughest human rights problems. That shrinks public understanding of human rights.
We need human rights commissions to engage with the key human rights issues of the day so that, as Canadians, we stay alert to what is happening in our midst, and stay conscientious and determined to achieve equality. Human rights institutions – whose business it is to address inequality – must be vocal about persistent patterns of discrimination in Canadian society.
Our human rights commissions are not simply processors of complaints, or advisors to business about complaint-avoidance. We need them to be public, courageous and outspoken advocates, identifying human rights violations, speaking out about them, and working for an end to discrimination, in all its forms.
The new Chief Commissioner seems to understand this, and has shown herself ready to both listen and speak. Right after the election, Marie-Claude Landry issued a press release calling on a new Parliament to “begin repairing the erosion of human rights in Canada, and to move swiftly to repeal legislation and reverse policies that promote discrimination and prejudice”. Among other things, Ms. Landry called on the new government to:
· accelerate the process for bringing in refugees and asylum seekers and ensure that the selection process is not discriminatory;
· ensure that the arbitrary detention of thousands of undocumented people seeking asylum in Canada, many of whom are suffering from mental illness, is brought to an end;
· immediately convene a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls, and develop a national action plan;
· ensure that all people in Canada have access to safe drinking water and adequate housing;
· end the inequitable funding of child welfare services and schools on First Nations reserves;
· stop the overuse of solitary confinement to manage offenders, particularly those who are Black and Aboriginal and those with mental illness; and
· protect the rights of all women to express their religion.
This is a good start. Now it will be important for Canadians to show we support an outspoken and brave new Commissioner, and for Parliament to show us that this is a new era for human rights in Canada.