Human Rights Commission has dealt with hundreds of Islanders in 36-year history

Ryan Ross
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Changes to legislation include age and physical disability, definition of political belief

The following is the second in a three-part series on the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission.


When UPEI instituted a mandatory retirement policy, Thomy Nilsson knew it was going to discriminate against him when he eventually reached retirement age.

But Nilsson said there was nothing he could do about it until he turned 65 because he hadn’t been discriminated against yet.

“It’s sort of like you can’t charge a person with attempted murder until he attempts to murder you,” he said.

Eventually, he was forced into retirement and Nilsson joined a group of UPEI employees who took their complaint to the Human Rights Commission, got their jobs back and were awarded a settlement.

Nilsson is one of hundreds of Islanders the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission has dealt with since it was founded 36 years ago.

P.E.I. was the last jurisdiction in Canada to pass human rights legislation, which it did in 1968 with An Act Respecting Human Rights. But it wasn’t until 1976 that the province established the Human Rights Commission to administer the Human Rights Act, investigate complaints and attempt settlements.

Initially, if settlement attempts failed, the commission would refer complaints to the minister responsible for the Human Rights Act, who could then appoint a board of inquiry to continue the process.

Over the years, the commission adapted to changes in the Human Rights Act, including the addition of age and physical disability.

The commission also had to deal with a change to the definition of political belief in 1989, which would lead to a peak of 658 political discrimination complaints in 1997 after a change in government the year before.

That was up from 12 in 1996 and none in 1995.

By the time it was all said and done, the commission received more than 800 complaints related to the change in government.

These days, discrimination complaints related to employment make up the bulk of what the commission deals with.

Greg Howard, the commission’s executive director, said the commission panel handles about three or four complaints a year, although some may settle before a hearing opens. A lot more get settled before they even get to the hearing process, he said.

“It is very unusual for them to be referred to a hearing.”

According to the commission’s annual reports, the organization gets more than 1,000 phone inquiries every year from people concerned about their rights.

Howard said the commission has about 120 files open at any time and the commission gets about 55 or 60 new complaints every year.

“If only half a dozen are being referred to a hearing, you know that the settlement success rate is well over 90 per cent,” he said. “That tells you how much we try to emphasize settlement.”

There is also a lot of uncertainty about what will happen when a complaint goes before a panel for a hearing, Howard said.

“You never know what an adjudicator is going to do.”

That uncertainty is something Noel Ayangma has experience with, as both a complainant in several cases and an agent representing Aritho Amfoubalela in his case involving the French Language School Board.

If only half a dozen are being referred to a hearing, you know that the settlement success rate is well over 90 per cent. Greg Howard

Ayangma says P.E.I.’s entire complaint process is flawed, including the potential for delays, a lack of minority commissioners and commission panel members who are not knowledgeable in the law.

Ayangma said progress has been slow in dealing with discrimination in P.E.I. because the system allows it to happen.

“Discrimination is everywhere,” he said.

As for how Nilsson felt about the process, he said it took four years to get through his complaint after many delays that were largely for the convenience of the lawyers.

“The fact that I was put out of a job seemed to be of minor importance to a lawyer who could simply say, ‘we’ll have the hearing six months down the road’,” he said.

Delays can be costly, as was seen in Amfoubalela’s case in which the respondent racked up more than $228,000 in legal bills.

Howard said one thing parties should realize when it comes to a panel deciding the outcome of a complaint is commissioners can only order costs for a complainant and not the respondent.

“It’s generally all or nothing,” he said.

When it comes to panel hearings, the Human Rights Commission can carry a case for a complainant who doesn’t have their own legal representation.

Howard said that came about after Ann Magill filed a sexual harassment complaint, hired a lawyer and went through a hearing after which she got a small award for damages, which wasn’t enough to pay her legal fees.

The problem led to the change that allowed the commission’s executive director to carry a case for a complainant, Howard said.

Costs can be one of the things that stands in the way of settlement, but Howard said the change means a complainant doesn’t have to worry about having to recover legal costs associated with a hearing.

“They can rely on the commission to present their case so legal costs shouldn’t stand in the way of a settlement,” he said.

For Leo Trainor, who was the commission’s chair for 10 years, he said the commission has been reasonably successful and its biggest role has been educating people about established rights, which led to society looking at things differently.

“It was a battle,” he said.

Although one of the most important issues Trainor said the commission has dealt with over the years was discrimination based on sexual orientation, political discrimination was one of the biggest.

“The Human Rights Commission basically took a stand that these people had certain standing and they should be adhered to and they shouldn’t be discriminated,” he said.



Organizations: Human Rights Commission, Islanders, French Language School Board.Ayangma

Geographic location: Canada, P.E.I.

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Recent comments

  • I would have preferred to deal with the mob rather than HRC
    November 19, 2012 - 21:57

    When they talk about the settlement successful rate, they do get a settlement but at a great cost to the victim and the settlement is reached by telling the victim; take this settlement or this is what we will do which is to appeal processes, continue to harass and defame you, and the list goes on...they will also say that it will cost thousands and years where you will be constantly harassed. So, there are the options. Most would try to settle. But then when you settle, the violators do not follow the signed contract but holds you to the contract and threatens law suits for breach of contract. The victim now cannot even protect themselves. Even when this is brought up to the HR mediator, the mediator sides with the abusers. They make the victims sign a gag and silencing contract but they can continue to harass the victims. HR is fine with that. Then they give you an choice, settle with an unfair contract or we will stall your case for years and you will spend hundreds of thousands in legal fees, and we will continue to fight you and discredit you so you can not work, go to school, I would have rather dealt with the mob. Please close this office.

  • Open request to Hon. Janice Sherry
    November 19, 2012 - 21:46

    An open request to the Minister overseeing the PEI HR: Hon.Janice Sherry Minister of Environment, Labour and Justice, and Attorney General Please have an outside investigation conducted on the PEI HRC regarding violations and wrongdoing, conflicts of interest with this office. Victims who make complaints and go into mediation are re-victimized, abused, slandered, threatened, entire process is stalled, harassed, violated, and have additional human rights violated. There are breaches in contract, abuses of trust and power. This needs to stop. If you do not want to call for an outside non-biased investigation then please close this office. It is a disservice to victims and causes them a great deal of suffering in addition to their suffering from the initial human rights violation Thank you, Islander abused and re-victimized by PEI HRC

  • I had to hire a lawyer as I was refused a legal mediator
    November 19, 2012 - 21:26

    Please investigate this HRC as it is corrupt and a multitude of conflict of interests. I was bombarded with legal issues by a lawyer representing the institution that I had made a complaint against. I kept asking for a legal mediator but was REFUSED! The mediator (who was not a lawyer) agreed with everything this lawyer stated to discredit my complaint. This was unfair. I then hired a lawyer, only to learn that the laws they were throwing at me by both the lawyer for the institution and HR mediator were not legitimate, in that they had twisted the laws to suit their logic, made up laws, etc. I should have never had to hire a lawyer if I was permitted to have a legal mediator. PEI HRC always refused my requests for a legal mediator and legal help. I had to pay for all my legal fees as I did NEED a lawyer. I was threatened many times and yelled at during this long drawn out process- over 6 months, where it usually takes 2 days when I wanted outside help as it was so corrupt. I confronted the HR mediator with biases, requested new mediator, my support person did same and so did my lawyer. She refused to step down although there was an abundance of evidence of her being biased and breaching the contract that she signed as mediator, The HRC is corrupt. It does nothing to help protect rights; rather it violates and causes more abuse to victims. Please have this office investigated. It also promotes the sexual harassment of women. I would ask this reporter to do some hard investigative research and you will find the conflicts of interests and the corruption. Please get this office investigated before more victims are further abused and harassed because they put in a human rights complaint.

  • Mary MacDonald
    November 19, 2012 - 15:57

    The PEI Human Rights Commission does absolutely nothing to address discrimination against adult adoptees. In fact, it colludes with government by making excuses for the secrecy and discrimination faced by adult adoptees who are trying to access their personal information that is kept by the PEI government. The PEI Human Rights Commission condones discrimination against adult adoptees by claiming that the Supreme Court Act gives judges the right to impose sealed records that guarantee adult adoptees are denied access to their own information. The Human Rights Commission may as well not exist in protecting the rights of adult adoptees. Islanders who think judges were not complicit in the corrupt activities of adoption practices should understand that records were ordered sealed to protect (coverup) secrecy - but not the mother's. The secrecy of sealed records that the Human Rights Commission condones is the secrecy of corrupt government and judicial officials who were involved in the trafficking of infants from the 1950s to the late 1970s.