Reform of Quebec’s human rights commission is long overdue
Montreal Gazette, December 5, 2018
News of Tamara Thermitus’s resignation last week as head of Quebec’s embattled human rights and youth rights commission had been a long time coming. Dogged by accusations of poor management and abuse of power, Thermitus was reportedly about to be removed from her position by the National Assembly.
All this was a bitter pill for many (including me) who celebrated a ground-breaking appointment. (Full disclosure: I know Thermitus from professional circles.)
But her appointment turned out to be a poisoned chalice.
And, as others have said, we have to look forward now. There are pressing if not urgent issues for the Quebec government and the National Assembly.
The most important is not who the new leader will be, but what kind of institution that person will lead.
Thermitus did not walk into a vacuum. The commission’s deep-rooted problems are not only about one person. They include serious delays and inconsistent capacity to address system-wide issues. There has always been a disturbing lack of diversity, especially in the senior ranks.
Quebec’s human rights system (which includes a commission plus a human rights tribunal) is structured as a “first generation system,” meaning that it is decades old and the commission’s legislation predates even the Canadian Charter. It has all the structural problems we have seen in other provinces that reflect a system built for an earlier era and became increasingly dysfunctional. Other provinces have responded by moving to more effective models.
In Ontario and British Columbia, for example, complainants can to go directly to a tribunal where cases are heard quickly and openly, without the burden and expense of months, or even years, of investigation.
In Quebec today, claimants whose cases make it through preliminary screening, mediation, etc. wait years for justice, just as those accused of discrimination may wait years to clear their names.
Apart from delays, just getting a case heard is a major issue. A human rights claim in Ontario is between 10 and 15 times more likely to be heard than a Quebec claim (after preliminary screening of the complaint).