Wednesday April 21, 2010

Canadian Province May Scrap Controversial Human Rights Tribunal

By Thaddeus M. Baklinski and John Jalsevac

REGINA, April 21, 2010 ( – The Saskatchewan government is considering scrapping that province’s controversial Human Rights Tribunals and having human rights cases heard by the regular court system.

Saskatchewan Justice Minister Don Morgan said last week that the chief of the Human Rights Commission, Judge David Arnot, has recommended doing away with the quasi-judicial tribunal and have complaints that can’t be resolved by the Commission go directly to the Court of Queen’s Bench.

“This is a recommendation that’s come forward and is a recommendation that, in fact, may have some merit. There are criticisms that the Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal may be seen as too close to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission,” Mr. Morgan said in the legislature.

The Human Rights Commission is the organization that receives and investigates human rights complaints, and tries to resolve disputes by mediation. The Tribunal becomes involved when a hearing is conducted because the Commission can’t resolve a complaint on its own and refers it to the Tribunal.

The Human Rights Tribunals all across Canada have come under heavy fire in recent years, following a series of cases in which conservatives and Christians have been forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars defending themselves from accusations of “hate speech,” often for doing no more than expressing Christian teachings on sexuality. The vast majority of such cases have resulted in convictions by the tribunal.

In 2002 the Saskatchewan Tribunal ordered Saskatoon Star Phoenix and Hugh Owens to each pay $1,500 to three complainants because of the publication of an advertisement that quoted Bible verses on homosexuality. That ruling was later overturned in the regular court system.

And In 2006, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission (SHRC) ordered Catholic activist Bill Whatcott to pay $17,500 to four complainants who complained that their “feelings” and “self-respect” were “injured” by Whatcott’s pamphlets denouncing the “gay lifestyle” as immoral and dangerous. That decision was also later overturned in the regular court system.

Minister Morgan explained that government appointment of both the human rights commission and the tribunal that hears the complaints forwarded by the commission gives the appearance of collusion.

“But having the courts handle human rights complaints will increase the perception of fairness, while adding a level of expertise by allowing judges to hold these hearings,” he said.

“I think from an optics point of view it would not be a bad idea to have a separation,” Mr. Morgan said.

Critics of the Tribunals have called them “kangaroo courts” and “Star Chambers” because of their lack of due process and normal rules of evidence, which has resulted in a public perception of a system more intent on political correctness than on fair resolutions to legitimate human rights complaints.

“The situation is exacerbated when human rights tribunals end up trying to sort out complex cases that should never have ended in dispute,” said Judge Arnot in a StarPhoenix report.

Justice Minister Morgan told the Winnipeg Free Press that though he appreciates the “less formal” format of the Tribunal, he believes public confidence in the human rights system must be restored by “hearings that follow the formal rules of evidence that are followed in court, which should improve public confidence in the hearing process.”

Another prominent case that has illustrated the disparity between a tribunal ruling and that of a provincial court involves Red Deer youth pastor Stephen Boissoin.

Boissoin was found guilty by an Alberta human rights tribunal of making disparaging remarks about homosexuality in a letter to the Red Deer Advocate. He was fined $7000, ordered to personally apologize to the complainant via a public statement in the local newspaper, and told he may never again express his views on homosexuality publicly.

On Dec. 3, 2009 Justice Earl Wilson of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench overturned the Alberta human rights tribunal ruling, saying the tribunal overstepped its constitutional bounds and took significant procedural liberties that would have never been permitted in a real court.

Subsequently, the Alberta minister in charge of the province’s human rights commission said that the human rights complaint against Stephen Boissoin should never have gone to the commission or been heard by the tribunal.

“[The commission’s] not there to mediate hurt feelings caused by some words or not,” Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett told the CBC earlier this month. “If it’s hateful, then that’s a hate crime. And that’s something for the Crown attorneys and the police services to investigate.”

“But the goal of the commission is to make sure people are protected against discrimination where they work, or access to accommodation, access to government services,” Blackett said.

See related LSN articles:

Alberta Minister: Boissoin Human Rights Case Should Never Have Gone to Commission

Alberta Pastor Fined $7000 and Ordered to Publicly Apologize and Remain Silent on Homosexuality

Pastor Boissoin Exonerated: Judge Rules Letter on Homosexuality Not “Hate” Speech