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Discussion paper: Reviewing Ontario's human rights system

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I. Executive Summary

Rationale for Consultation

The Ministry of the Attorney General, which has responsibility for Ontario’s Human Rights Code (the “Code”), has indicated that it is committed to reviewing and strengthening Ontario’s human rights system, and that it intends to develop a blueprint for change in the upcoming months. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (“OHRC”) believes that there is a need, as well as an opportunity, to review the functioning of Ontario’s human rights system, and to consider changes that will strengthen human rights protections in this province. 

Over the years, stakeholders have expressed concerns about the functioning and effectiveness of the current human rights system in Ontario. Not surprisingly, given the diversity of these stakeholders, a wide range of views, sometimes conflicting, has been expressed at different times.

Human rights systems are complex and involve trade-offs between competing priorities, principles and interests. There have been many attempts in recent years to design an optimal model for advancing and protecting human rights and there has generally been recognition that all models present both benefits and drawbacks.  A commitment to revitalizing Ontario’s human rights system is a major undertaking.   Any effort to do so, if it is to be successful, must be informed by a comprehensive understanding of how the system works and has worked historically, the breadth and interaction of the system’s multiple functions, and the complexity of the challenges it currently faces.

Section 29 of the Code gives the OHRC extensive powers to further human rights in the province of Ontario. Pursuant to this mandate, the OHRC is initiating a broad, open, and transparent dialogue about Ontario’s human rights system.  This discussion will include reference to internationally recognized guiding principles in the area of human rights institutions will set the context for the potential development of solutions and possible reform. 

Guiding Principles in Designing a Human Rights System

To establish a common, credible and neutral frame of reference in discussing such a complex system, the Discussion Paper primarily employs the United Nations’ resolution known as the Paris Principles. The Paris Principles identify key responsibilities and roles for an effective human rights system to operate.

Any human rights system will need to ensure that each effectiveness factor identified in the Principles is addressed and optimally fulfilled. In the Paper, the specific effectiveness factors relevant to the discussion are explained and their application reviewed in the context of the current Ontario system. They are:

  1. Independence
  2. Defined jurisdiction
  3. Cooperation
  4. Adequate Power
  5. Accessibility
  6. Operational Efficiency
  7. Accountability

In addition to international instruments, the Paper also reviews the legal requirements and principles governing administrative agencies in Canada, which complement and mirror the Paris Principles.  These are encompassed in the area of administrative law and the accompanying duty of fairness. 

Consultation Process

The Commission’s consultation process aims to:

  • Clarify the principles and elements of an effective human rights system;
  • Create an opportunity for a broad and balanced discussion on the issues and options;
  • Ensure a transparent and open process leading to change;
  • Develop meaningful and viable conclusions that will support a revitalization of Ontario’s human rights system; and,
  • Assist in developing the best human rights system possible. 

The release of this Discussion Paper is the first step in this consultation process,

and is intended to provide a context and framework for public discussion on Ontario’s human rights system. The Discussion Paper will be mailed out to stakeholders across the province. A questionnaire will be posted on the OHRC Web site to enable all interested individuals to share their thoughts on this issue. The OHRC will also be inviting selected stakeholders who represent a variety of perspectives to attend focus groups in September 2005. The results of the consultation will be reported to the public later in the fall.

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