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Human Rights

by Carina Blafield

"Since every race-related complaint is investigated, she is at least assured the matter will receive attention."

"For the hundreds of other complaints that were weeded out through the process, a bitter taste may linger with both the accuser and the accused."

Human rights protections in Canada are in place for anyone who feels discriminated against. Under the promise of equal treatment for all, we can register a complaint with a human rights board as a woman in a man's world, an older person battling the cult of youth, a black person swimming in a sea of white.

Last year, for the first time, racism was the most common grounds of complaint to the British Columbia Human Rights Commission, overtaking sex discrimination. Three quarters of complaints related to employment while the rest addressed landlord-tenant issues. While human rights protections seem a powerful tool to attack racism, the reality is a quagmire of complaints, rebuttals, appeals and backlogs. Those seeking a clear response to racism in Canada need not apply.

To simplify and speed up the process of pursuing a complaint, the BC Human Rights Commission last year replaced the BC Council of Human Rights. New complaints are now processed within eight months. Old complaints inherited by the Commission from the Council, are more problematic. Peter Beaudin of the British Columbia Human Rights Coalition, a group that helps people lodge complaints, says he has reviewed cases first filed in 1994.

A human rights complaint begins when a person decides she has been treated unfairly, either as an individual or as part of a group. Even with little evidence, she is entitled to file a complaint with the Commission. Since every race-related complaint is investigated, she is at least assured the matter will receive attention.

Most complaints get no further than this initial investigation. According to Beaudin, the difficulty lies in distinguishing between a reaction to poor workplace performance and racist discrimination.

The complainant must prove that differential or unequal treatment has occurred, and that, at least on the surface, racism might be happening. Then, the person accused of discrimination, called the respondent, must provide an explanation for the incident. If she gives a convincing and satisfactory answer, the case is dismissed and the Commission considers the matter closed. So in the case of a person who feels she has been fired because of her race, a boss who can point to mistakes on the job and poor attendance will probably answer the complaint.

If the boss, or the respondent, cannot answer the charge of discrimination, the complaint is further investigated and possibly mediated. A small fraction of complaints make it to the Human Rights Tribunal, an administrative body which acts like a court and provides a ruling on the complaints.

The statistics are sobering (see gray sidebar) for anyone who envisions immediate redress for being treated unfairly. The commission is slow and is a stickler for proof, set up to protect both those who have been discriminated against, as well as those who might have been falsely accused. Although BC's human-rights system is considered one of Canada's best, complaints can be difficult to prove.

Covert, or hidden racism, is much more common than the easily identifiable, overt acts that make the news. And even when the complainant feels the claim is crystal-clear, she must push it through the tangle of investigations, counter-allegations and rebuttals if she wants to see her boss eventually brought to account. What the complainant felt she experienced can become blurred when held up to close focus.

The process can be time-consuming and not always cathartic as a means of addressing racism. For the one percent of complaints that were upheld by the Human Rights Tribunal in the past year, the experience may have been vindicating. For the hundreds of other complaints that were weeded out through the process, a bitter taste may linger with both the accuser and the accused.

In short, human-rights laws and commissions cannot be relied on as a means for curing racism in our society. They act as powerful watchdogs and as a last resort in a system built on education and societal pressure.

Carina Blafield has a degree in Political Science. She is a volunteer with the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre.

Of a total of 1,439 complaints filed with the BC Commission in 1996-97, 307 were withdrawn, 165 were dismissed, and 358 settled through mediation. Another 176 complaints were dismissed. After further investigation, another 1276 complaints were dismissed and 520 complaints were not pursued by the complainant.

Only 51 went as far as the Human Rights Tribunal. Twenty-eight complaints, or 1.8 per cent of the total of 1439, were upheld.

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