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Re-establishing B.C.’s Human Rights Commission, one year later | Kurt Sandstrom

Tuesday, December 17, 2019 @ 11:22 AM | By Kurt Sandstrom

Kurt Sandstrom %>
Kurt Sandstrom
Shortly after taking office in 2017, Premier John Horgan reaffirmed his government’s commitment to re-establish a human rights commission in British Columbia. At the time, B.C. was the only province in Canada without a human rights commission, the previous commission having been dismantled in 2002.

Work began quickly with the appointment of parliamentary secretary Ravi Kahlon to lead a public engagement on the state of human rights in British Columbia. After an eight-week public engagement, which took place from September to November 2017 and involved thousands of site visits, hundreds of online and written submissions, over 80 meetings with British Columbians, and two Indigenous workshops that included representatives from 12 organizations, Kahlon released his report, A Human Rights Commission for the 21st Century: British Columbians Talk About Human Rights, in December 2017.

The report comprised 25 recommendations in five categories, addressing the commission’s creation, purpose, functions, powers and early priorities, as well as additional recommendations associated with British Columbia’s human rights tribunal, human rights clinic, and the Ministry of the Attorney General.

The Ministry of the Attorney General immediately initiated the legislative amendments, planning and administrative work to create the human rights commission. The Human Rights Code Amendment Act, 2018, establishing the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner, received royal assent on Nov. 27, 2018.

Consistent with the report’s recommendations, and with international criteria such as the Paris Principles, which define the benchmarks for human rights institutions, the B.C. government incorporated the following values in the new B.C. human rights commission:  

  • Mandate and competence: a broad mandate, based on universal human rights norms and standards;
  • Autonomy from government;
  • Independence guaranteed by statute or constitution;
  • Pluralism;
  • Adequate resources; and
  • Adequate powers of investigation.​

Simultaneous to the Ministry’s work on drafting legislation, the legislative assembly appointed a special committee to select and unanimously recommend the appointment of a human rights commissioner.

As part of the search criteria, the special committee defined the responsibilities of the human rights commissioner to include: identifying and promoting the elimination of discriminatory practices, policies and programs; developing and delivering public information and education about human rights; undertaking and supporting research respecting human rights; examining the human rights implications of any policy, program or legislation; and promoting compliance with international human rights obligations.

The special committee specifically noted that the commissioner would not have jurisdiction over screening and adjudicating individual and group human rights complaints; this responsibility remains with the human rights tribunal. The commissioner may, however, call an inquiry into broader human rights issues or systemic discrimination and is supported in the role by an advisory council, appointed on recommendation of the human rights commissioner to advise the commissioner on issues respecting human rights and to perform other related functions.

In total, 50 candidates submitted applications for the position of human rights commissioner and six of those individuals were shortlisted and invited to interviews. On May 29, 2019, the B.C. legislature approved the nomination of the human rights commissioner and, on Sept. 3, 2019, following an all-party, merit-based process, Kasari Govender was appointed to a five-year term as B.C.’s human rights commissioner, a non-partisan and independent officer reporting directly to the legislature. British Columbia’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner is Canada's first fully independent human rights commission.

Throughout her career, Govender has distinguished herself as a passionate and dedicated advocate for human rights. She formerly worked with and led organizations involved in protecting the needs of vulnerable populations and promoting gender equality, Indigenous justice and the rights of children, people with disabilities and migrant communities. Most recently, Govender served as the executive director of West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF).

It has been just over a year since the legislation to establish the human rights commission was passed and there has been significant momentum on the commission’s mandate, particularly with respect to enhancing education, information and awareness on human rights issues in B.C.

Since assuming her role, Govender has fostered relationships with her provincial independent office counterparts, including the B.C. Auditor General, Information and Privacy Commissioner, Ombudsperson, Representative for Children and Youth, Conflict of Interest Commissioner and Police Complaints Commissioner. She has also met with organizations representing First Nations communities and leadership; counterparts from the Canadian, Ontario and Yukon human rights commissions; former B.C. human rights commissioners; and the leaders of the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and Human Rights Clinic.

In addition to building critical relationships, Govender has been a sought-after speaker, invited to present at numerous events. In just the last two months she has given the keynote address to the inaugural Simces and Rabkin Family Dialogue on Human Rights, on the topic of online hate and harassment; made speeches at the B.C. Government Employees Union Women’s Conference and the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada; and addressed law students at the UBC Law Students Legal Advice Program and lawyers at the Continuing Legal Education Conference.

The Office of the Human Rights Commissioner is also initiating several key projects including:

  • A provincewide outreach and engagement tour with community partners, which is intended to give commission staff a better understanding of the diverse and pressing human rights issues that exist throughout the province. The commission is unequivocally committed to service provision for every person in any part of British Columbia. To fully comprehend the context of human rights needs and meet those needs in a meaningful way, the human rights commission will engage British Columbians in their own communities.
  • A storytelling video project with human rights leaders in B.C. The first video from the project was launched on Dec. 10 for Human Rights Day and profiles disability rights advocate, author and poet, Teresa Pocock.
  • A “No Wrong Door” project with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal (which is responsible for mediating and adjudicating individual complaints), and the B.C. Human Rights Clinic (which provides free legal assistance to people who have filed a human rights complaint). The project is intended to improve access to the human rights system by promoting integrated and co-ordinated approaches that make any entry point to the B.C. human rights system the “right door” for individuals seeking assistance in identifying their needs, obtaining referrals and receiving appropriate support.

Also in progress is the work to establish a human rights advisory council. This council will be in place sometime in 2020.

The re-establishment of the human rights commission and appointment of the commissioner are changing the justice landscape in British Columbia. Efforts are ongoing to restore and invigorate a key access to justice instrument for those who encounter discrimination or violation of their rights and dignity. And although there has been rapid action to operationalize the human rights commission, this action has been taken with due care and judiciousness.

We continue to heed the caution and advice offered by Grand Chief Doug Kelly of the Stó:lō Tribal Council during the public engagement regarding the new commission: “Listen, learn and then act. Always in that order. Government often does it the other way around.”

Kurt Sandstrom has been the assistant deputy minister of Justice Services Branch, with the B.C. Ministry of the Attorney General, since June 2016. He also teaches law, public policy and dispute resolution at the University of VictoriaHe lives and works on the traditional territories of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples, now known as the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.

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