Toronto Star

Friday, April 9, 1999

Former Supreme Court justice to lead review of rights law

Four-member panel has year to study act and watchdog body

By Tonda MacCharles
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA - A four-member panel headed by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Gerard LaForest has been named to conduct a sweeping review of Canada's human rights law and the watchdog body that enforces it.

The LaForest panel has one year to report back to Justice Minister Anne McLellan with recommendations on whether to broaden the 22-year-old law to prohibit discrimination on other grounds such as ``social condition'' or in other words, low-income status.

It will also examine ways to streamline the complaints system, and look at the powers the Human Rights Commission and its adjudicative body, the Human Rights Tribunal, now have.

``A thorough review of the act to determine whether it reflects current Canadian values is long overdue,'' McLellan said in a statement announcing the panel.

Right now, the act applies to the federal government departments and agencies, and federally regulated employers, such as chartered banks, airlines, telecommunications and broadcasting organizations.

Last fall, the federal auditor-general criticized the commission for its ``cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive'' approach to resolving complaints.

Since then, the commission has been scrambling to clear a backlog of 554 cases by the end of the year.

The panel will hold consultations with the public, the commission, employers, unions, equality-seeking groups and government departments.

In releasing the rights commission's annual report to Parliament two weeks ago, the head of the rights body called for broader powers and more money to correct systemic human rights abuses such as discrimination against the disabled.

Chief Commissioner Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay said at the time that she welcomed the coming review, but her frustration at the commission's current limits was clear.

Yesterday, Falardeau-Ramsay said she is ``delighted'' with the review and the panelists.

``I think it's very broad. It covers everything. What's important is that there will be consultation. I hope this will be a very transparent exercise.''

The other members of the review panel are:

Falardeau-Ramsay called the panel ``well-balanced,'' saying it is comprised of ``people who have shown integrity and have a lot of experience both in administrative and human rights law.''

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