RIGHT ON Activists winning war of inches with NS Human Rights Commission

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THEY ARE READY TO TAKE ON ALL COMERS TO WIN. And they do. Even if it means using the courts against the very people who are supposed to be looking out for their rights.

Human rights activists in Nova Scotia have taken the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (NSHRC) to court more than once—and won. More than once.

In one instance the court ruled the commission owed a group of five people with disabilities a hearing. In another, the court ruled the commission could not just willy-nilly refuse to register complaints.

A simple right to be heard
A group of five people living on social assistance were having a hard time feeding themselves in 2016. They required special diets. They relied on an additional allowance from NS Community Services to pay for the food they needed. But as food prices rose the allowance was not enough. Community Services refused to increase the special food allowance. The five people filed a complaint with the NSHRC.

The five believed their special needs made them targets of discrimination. They pointed out that while the general personal needs allowance had increased by 91% since 1996, the dietary needs allowance had remained exactly the same.

The five wanted a chance to make their case before a NSHRC tribunal. The NSHRC refused.

A NSHRC investigator originally recommended that a tribunal be held. The NSHRC Board of Commissioners decided against it. They dismissed the complaint without even holding a hearing.

The five took the NSHRC to court. In January 2017 Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice James Chipman ordered NSHRC to reconsider their decision to deny a tribunal.  

The NSHRC could still decide not to hold a tribunal. But, the activists had reminded the commission even they have to do the right thing the right way.

A clear right to make a complaint
A group of wheelchair users won a conclusive double victory when they took the NSHRC to court. Not only did the court order the commission to change its basic operating procedure, the change resulted in a win for the wheelchair users.

The wheelchair users believed the selective enforcement of provincial regulations regarding access to washrooms in restaurants discriminated against people who use wheelchairs. The NSHRC didn’t want to hear about it.

In fact, the commission refused to let the wheelchair users even file a complaint—something the commission considered well within their rights to do. In March 2017 Justice Frank Edwards set them straight.

The judge ruled the commission had no discretionary power before-the-fact, commission officers could not be a law unto themselves and just decide not to accept a complaint.

He confirmed the commission’s authority to rule on whether or not to proceed with a formal complaint. However, he completely rejected the commission argument that they were too burdened with work to possibly allow everyone wishing to register a complaint to do it.

When you lodge a complaint you have the right that this complaint will be inquired into, wrote the judge.

That court decision led to the commission accepting the complaint from the wheelchair users. The commission granted them a hearing.

A couple of months ago the group of wheelchair users won their human rights case. That’s right, the very same case the NSHRC had initially rejected out of hand.

“This shows why we have to fight our own battles,” says Paul Vienneau, one of the wheelchair users who complained. “The government would still be gleefully discriminating against us if we didn’t sue them.

The NSHRC still refuses to say when and how they plan to make the judge’s ruling their new standard operating procedure. Human rights activists in Nova Scotia are sure to stay on their case to make sure they do.



This article was originally published by The Canadian Labour Institute.  

Reprinted with permission for CALM Members use.