Perhaps it is an attempt to ensure Ann Coulter has a harder time filing that human rights complaint against the University of Ottawa in person. According the Public Service Alliance of Canada, three offices of the Canadian Human Rights Commission will soon close, Vancouver, Toronto and Halifax.
In a news release the union says the closures are part of a strategy by the Conservative government to destabilize human rights and women’s groups in Canada. "When the Conservatives took power in 2006, one of their first moves was to abolish the Court Challenges Program and close Status of Women Canada offices across the country," said John Gordon National President of PSAC. "Women's groups were denied government funding if they engaged in research or advocacy work, and equality-seeking groups lost the ability to fund Charter of Rights challenges.”
Gordon calls this part of an ongoing trend. The union, which represents the workers at these offices says, “The closures will make it much more difficult to challenge both systemic abuses and individual instances of discrimination.”
Gordon puts the closures and job cuts, which have not been confirmed in public by Commission staff, squarely at the feet of the Harper government. Yet a spokesperson for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson says “The Canadian Human Rights Commission is an independent agency that administers the Canadian Human Rights Act without interference from the Government. This internal re-organization was a decision made by the Commission without direction or input from the Government.”
While the union sees this as part of the Conservative government’s attempts to undermine human rights groups, documents filed with Parliament show the CHRC is set to grow, not shrink. Despite the looming office closures the CHRC’s budget is expected to grow from $21.5 million in the current fiscal year to just under $23 million in 2011-2012 fiscal year. The number of employees is set to rise as well from 197 full-time equivalencies to 203.
Over the next few years the Commission plans to expand operations overall rather than shrink them as the repeal of section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act gives First Nations people across the country full access to the act and the Commission for the first time.
Over the last few years there have been calls from conservative pundits and civil libertarians in Canada to rein in the CHRC, especially on the issue of free speech and concerns that section 13.1 of the act was being used to infringe on the fundamental freedoms of speech and expression. The CHRC notes this in its report to Parliament in a section on risk assessments.
"The risk that the Commission's reputation may be damaged by misinformation and misperceptions about its role and mandate, resulting in reduced public confidence. For example, over the course of discussion about the repeal of section 67 of the CHRA and the debate on section 13 (the section of the CHRA prohibiting hate messages on the Internet), it became clear to the Commission that many people do not clearly understand the way human rights redress processes work and the potential impact on communities and individuals. The Commission mitigates this risk through raising awareness and understanding of the Acts and the role of the Commission, through consultations with stakeholders, collaborative events and outreach activities; developing or identifying tools and best practices for promoting equal opportunity; and sharing information and tools systematically with federally regulated organizations."
While the CHRC is concerned about its reputation, it appears they have little to worry about when it comes to the future of section 13. The furore around the controversial section of the act, which allows a person to be deemed in violation if what they have written online is “likely to expose” a person or group to hate, has died down, at least in Parliament. A planned review of section 13 was underway prior to prorogation but has so far not resurfaced at the Justice Committee.
Minister Nicholson, despite voting for a resolution to repeal section 13 at a Conservative Party policy convention in 2008 has never expressed a similar desire in Ottawa and has always deferred on the issue to the Committee. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has similarly shied away from any attempt to alter the work of the Commission, saying that while he understands some people have concerns, “the most egregious” cases he says are at the provincial commissions.
Get more from Examiner.com's Canadian Politics Examiner