Last year’s Supreme Court of Canada decision in favour of a controversial Quebec comedian forced the province’s human rights commission to close 194 files involving discrimination complaints during the 2021-22 fiscal year.
The findings are contained in the commission’s activity report for the time period and marks the first time the government body has been able to quantify the number of cases affected by last October’s ruling in support of Mike Ward. Commission chair Philippe-Andre Tessier had previously said in April that the top court’s decision would likely force the organization to abandon dozens of cases.
In 2016, Quebec’s human rights tribunal ordered Ward to pay $35,000 in moral and punitive damages for mocking Jeremy Gabriel, a singer with a disability.
But the Supreme Court overturned that decision last year, ruling that Ward’s disparaging comments about Gabriel did not amount to discrimination under Quebec’s rights charter. The high court said the Quebec tribunal, which hears cases brought to it by the provincial rights commission, had overstepped its legal bounds in several cases where it awarded thousands of dollars in damages after finding that comments alone amounted to discrimination.
Tessier expressed disappointment with the court-imposed limit on the actions of the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse.
“These cases, previously, could be investigated by the commission and ultimately by the tribunal (of human rights), but obviously, these cases are no longer covered,” Tessier said in response to the activity report released on Friday. “That, indeed, has human consequences for people who are victims of this kind of comments to no longer have access to this resource and we are sorry.”
The activity report found the commission received 2,290 requests for investigation during the 2021-22 fiscal year and opened 548 probes, down sharply from the 839 launched the year before.
The most frequently cited grounds of discrimination have remained consistent through the years, the report found. Data showed 38 per cent of the most recent complaints were related to disability issues, most of which concerned access to public transportation and public spaces.
Race-related complaints pertaining to a person’s skin colour, ethnicity or national origin ranked second, accounting for 27 per cent of complaints covered by the report and addressing subject matters such as employment, racial profiling and racial slurs.
Eight per cent of complaints related to discrimination based on age, while complaints based on criminal record accounted for six per cent and matters pertaining to sex and social condition totaling four per cent each.
The commission recorded an overall drop in the number of racial profiling cases it investigated, opening 69 during the last fiscal year compared to 86 in fiscal 2020-21 and 76 the year before that.
The report also addressed the commission’s efforts to tackle youth rights, a matter of concern it raised during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the time, it said it had seen a drop in requests for investigations involving young people, attributing the decline to the fact that children had less supervision from adults outside the home during extended lockdown measures.
While the 417 requests received this past fiscal year eclipsed the 348 logged the year before and nearly rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, the report said the number of investigations the commission could undertake was declining. It opened 249 youth-related files in 2021-22, down from 272 and 360 in the two previous fiscal years, respectively.
“We opened a record number of investigations on our own initiative, often after being alerted by the media to situations of potential rights violations,” said Tessier.
The report also found the commission launched 36 investigations related to the exploitation of older residents, though it received 205 such complaints.