Using our imperfect institutions

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday February 27 2013 in Opinion
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Among the legacies of many of our local heroes are a number of institutions and institutional changes that came into being because of their hard-fought campaigns. The activism of Dr. Daniel Hill, Frances Endicott, Marlene Greene, Dudley Laws and others which my colleague, Lennox Farrell, referred to in a recent column, have left us with changes that help us in our struggle for equity and social justice.


The creation of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) and Ontario Human Rights Code evolved from a commission led by Dr. Hill, coupled with his own experiences of racism and racial discrimination. The OHRC now only exists primarily as an educational body, leaving the adjudication of discrimination in the hands of the Human Rights Tribunal.


With the frequent shootings of African-Canadians by the police, activists, including Dudley Laws, took to the streets and other means of demonstration to demand changes to how these shootings and other wrongs committed against our community are investigated. Clare Lewis was commissioned to look into this by way of a task force. That led to the establishment of the Police Complaints Commission, headed up by Lewis.


Later, the Province of Ontario established the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), a body that investigates incidents of serious injuries, deaths and sexual assaults involving the police. The SIU is automatically called in when these situations occur. So a public complaint does not have to be registered to trigger action. In the SIU’s Annual Report – 2010-2011, there were 291 cases, or “occurrences”, investigated resulting in 12 charges being laid. The year before, there were 287 cases resulting in 10 charges. Bear in mind that these are province-wide occurrences.


The Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), on the other hand, requires a formal complaint from individuals or groups to enable an investigation. The OIPRD, headed up by Gerry McNeilly, like the SIU, is essentially an evolution from the old Police Complaints Commission. Its mandate is to investigate public complaints against the police in Ontario, including the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). Outside of its mandate are the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), on-reserve police services and services such as campus police.


The OPIRD’s Annual Report, 2011-2012, shows that there were over 3,400 complaints filed. The figure for Toronto was just over 1,000. The OIPRD cannot lay charges but can make recommendations on disciplinary action.


Even if you make allowances for the fact that Toronto is the largest city in Canada, 1,000 complaints is not a small number. The breakdown of the complaint statistics do not provide any clarification, for example, of what proportion of racially-motivated complaints are filed. That would have been an interesting number to watch and indeed it may be available. However, these kinds of complaints are under the generic “discreditable conduct”. Some outcomes of disciplinary hearings are published on the OIPRD’s website.


Without going into all the numbers, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) has also demonstrated that there is a considerable number of racially-motivated complaints, not to mention other forms of discrimination. The numbers from its 2009-2010 annual report (combining five grounds: race, colour, ancestry, place of origin and ethnic origin) show over 2,400 complaints. It is possible that some of these complaints are listed in more than one category.


These are only three of the institutional changes or additions which respond to the activism and “I’m not going to take this anymore” attitude that many members of the community took on.


These institutions do not bear the names of the people involved in the struggle and with the possible exception of the OHRC, their names are rarely included in the historical backgrounders. So, by default, governments are credited for taking the initiative to establish them.


There are legitimate criticisms of many of these and other institutions. It is fair to say that none of these organizations is perfect. Some are restricted by budgets, a key factor in being thorough in their investigations or dealing with complaints and other issues in a timely manner. Nevertheless, the message is that it has been a long, hard struggle to reach this point. While they may not respond completely and efficiently to correct inequities and injustices, they need to be used. I believe it is easier to push for changes and improvements instead of starting over.


The repeal, for example, of the Employment Equity Act and the elimination of the Employment Equity Commission under Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré; the elimination of the Ontario Anti-Racism Secretariat under Anne Marie Stewart and its counterpart in the Ministry of Education – Anti-Racism and Ethnocultural Equity, headed by the late Dr. Ouida Wright, is evidence that we can lose these institutions.


When these bodies try to provide access for our community, they are often subject to the whims of the government we elect. Waiting in the wings, if the polls are to be believed, is a political party whose leader wants to cut government spending quite significantly, reminiscent of one of his predecessors. Concern for social justice issues is not at the top of this party’s list. Let us not make that mistake again.


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