British Columbia's NDP government has unveiled its plan to restore the province's human rights commission and says the body will fight discrimination, remove systemic barriers and educate the public.
The announcement comes 15 years after the BC Liberal government shut down the commission, characterizing it at the time as inefficient and unnecessary and leaving British Columbia as the only province without one. A former leader of the commission heralded Friday's news and said the organization's ability to serve as a party on issues of systemic discrimination has been missed.
The announcement was made at a plaza named for LGBTQ activist Jim Deva, ahead of Vancouver's Pride weekend. Premier John Horgan said every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.
"It is a persistent theme in British Columbia within progressive movements that we have to ensure that if we allow intolerance to rear its head, we together have to stand and push it back down again," he said. "And one critical element to make sure we do that is establishing again in British Columbia, like every other province in the country, a human-rights commission."
When asked if he believed intolerance was on the rise in British Columbia, Mr. Horgan said there have been troubling incidents over the last 24 months.
"There's been incidents that have been brought to my attention … of systemic hate and racism towards ethnic groups, toward faith-based groups. This is something that all of us abhor and I want to ensure that by having a human rights commission we can do the education work that's required, we can do the work of raising awareness about these challenges in communities so that together as a community we can stamp it out," he said.
Consultation with stakeholders and experts is to begin in September, with legislation expected some time in 2018. There were few specifics Friday on exactly which issues the commission will explore, with Mr. Horgan saying the government is just starting down that path.
David Eby, the province's attorney-general, said the BC Human Rights Tribunal currently in place has done well when it comes to hearing individual complaints. But he said British Columbia needs a commission with "the power to do more, to educate about human rights, to prevent discrimination from taking place, and to support people in addressing systemic discrimination."
Spencer Chandra Herbert, MLA for Vancouver-West End, said it was fitting the news conference was held in his riding as it has been a leading voice in the fight for human rights for many years.
"It's auspicious that we're doing this right before the Pride weekend because, of course, Pride is both a celebration of how far we've come but also a protest, a protest against intolerance, against hatred, against discrimination that pushes people into closets, that pushes people into places where violence continues and where they cannot reach their full potential," he said.
Geoff Plant, the Liberal government's attorney-general when the commission was abolished, in an interview said the decision to shut it down was the right one 15 years ago and he has no regrets over it.
But Mr. Plant said it makes sense to take a fresh look at the issue. "Now that 15 years has passed, I think it's always a good idea to open the files and have another look and go talk to people to see if what's there could be improved," he said.
Harinder Mahil, who was elevated to the position of acting chief commissioner in 2001 after the commission's leader was fired, in an interview said he welcomed the NDP announcement.
Mr. Mahil said the commission provided an educational component and was party to important cases, including one in which a woman had been denied benefits because her partner was of the same sex. He said the insurance company involved in the case changed its policy after the commission pushed for it.
Mr. Mahil questioned why British Columbia would be the only province without a human-rights commission and praised the Ontario commission's focus on issues such as carding.
"There is a debate and discussion going on about human rights that is not taking place in British Columbia. We do have a tribunal, which makes reasonably good decisions, but there is no debate and discussion going on," he said.
Mr. Mahil said racism is an issue in the province, particularly when it comes to discrimination against Muslims. He said the singling out of the Chinese community in the context of the Vancouver real estate discussion is also a concern.
"The effect of what's going on south of the border has also taken place in Canada as well, and British Columbia. And we really have to be vigilant," he said.