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Perspectives on Human Rights Complaints in Canada

Editor's Note: Mark Iantkow was born and raised in Calgary. In 2003, he left the position of Personal Empowerment Program Coordinator with the Independent Living Resource Centre of Calgary, working on human rights and self-advocacy training of people from widely varied disability groups, to complete a Master of Continuing Education degree (specializing in Organizational Leadership and Development) through the University of Calgary.

Please sit back as this is a somewhat long "treatise". I will begin with my personal views regarding primarily provincial human rights legislation with some federal human rights legislation overtones, then support my small treatise with a human rights case example with which I became familiar some ten years ago. I will not be too specific with the latter, but will outline the general effects of the human rights complaint.

I must say I have always been perplexed as to why people (and sometimes organizations involved in supporting people) are so averse to being involved with a human rights complaint. What is it about the phrase "human rights complaint" that sends the usual advocate or advocating organization "running for cover"?

Is it the term "human"? But do we not want to support "humanity" and be "humane"?

Is it the word "right"? But do we not want to support a person's true constitutional, ethical and moral rights (and even some other "rights" not always conceptualized or covered under human rights legislation)?

Or is it the word "complaint" that sends people scattering? I guess we as Canadians often feel we should not "confront" people or issues; rather, we should always find subtle ways of conciliating prior to filing a human rights complaint, even though we might be genuinely aware our rights have truly been stomped upon. We shudder to think of the "ramifications" of a complaint, even though there are legislative protections against a respondent or any other individual retaliating in any (direct or indirect) way.

Perhaps it is the overall connotation of the phrase "human rights complaint" since we all want to believe we do not offend or tromp upon a person's rights, nor do we want to be seen as accusing others of such an offence. Perhaps it might be we suspect we are current offenders ourselves and believe that "people living in glass houses should not throw stones" (even if the "stone-throwing" retaliation would not be legislatively tolerated).

I am not referring to illegitimate complaints or vexatious forms of litigation here, but to people whom genuinely believe their rights have been violated along with organizations supporting their opinions.

I have often heard organizations and individuals state that human rights should only be considered as a last resort. I believe the opposite--that we should utilize the human rights process(es) (if we are absolutely sure our rights have been violated and we are not using the process in a vexatious manner) as one of the first resorts.

After all, the (Alberta) human rights process involves a conciliatory approach from the initiation of the complaint, and proceeds to investigation if warranted. Also, many individuals are not versed in effective mediation or negotiation and very often have their rights (sometimes unknown to them) not recognized or even removed by a body/organization or individuals in order for the latter individuals to maintain some form of control.

I realize one of the first questions of a potential complainant by a Human Rights Officer is "So what measures have you taken to resolve your potential human rights issue?" Many individuals do not have a clue, the resources or energy to even begin to face a human rights offender against them, and the most appropriate/valued assistance can be derived from the human rights processes (not to mention reference to our overarching Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms).

I simply believe we as a society should speak out much more in support of individuals wanting to maintain their true "rights" (not privileges but real "rights"), and I would hope if I was a proven offender against someone on a human rights issue, I would respond by stating, "I fully recognize your right here, and beg your forgiveness for my transgression--I have learned and will reflect very closely on my offence to ensure it will never happen again. Good for you for maintaining your rights."

Now on to a specific case example, where an individual who had a disability eventually filed a human rights complaint against her previous co-workers. I will not use specific titles, names or even mention the exact work environment or venue where this occurred, but it illustrates how a timely human rights complaint is so important.

The young worker with a disability was being harassed by co-workers due, in large part, to her sustaining a physical disability (sometimes the harassment was blatant and sometimes very subtle, often hidden from other co-workers). After a couple of years of such abuse, the worker resigned from the position. She simply grew tired of the harassment, and her self-esteem was so low she could not concentrate on or conduct her work effectively. She struggled following her resignation, jumping from job to job, not really maintaining a living.

Eventually, she learned such harassment was clearly in violation of her human rights and just short of her being unable to file a complaint due to time limitations, and with the support of some new administration in her previous location of work, she filed complaints against the individuals who had harassed her (Human Rights Officials found for her). The individual offenders, however, had since moved on to other work outside of the mentioned work environment realm; hence, there were no particular ramifications for the respondents due to jurisdictional issues. The worker was, however, reinstated in her previous position with apologies from the particular employer.

Now, I realize the complainant could have taken absolutely all conceivable actions to deal with the issue and still file a human rights complaint as a last resort prior to the time limitation on filing a complaint, if she knew exactly what actions to take and the fortitude to take them, and all the relevant supports or mechanisms were in place for such an individual.

But I truly believe, in such instances as the case I have just cited, that the human rights process would have been most valuable for the individual from the very beginning, and probably most valuable for the employment situation in question, with direct and imminent ramifications related to the human rights offenders.