May 21, 2001
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Canada's HRC hammered on staff rights

Ajit Jain
India Abroad Correspondent in Toronto

The Canadian Human Rights Commission, which is mandated to protect the rights of people, is itself being accused of violating the rights of its staff. Staff morale is reportedly low, infighting is slated to be rampant and some of its vocal lawyers have either been sacked or suspended.

The staff turnover has reportedly reached 40 per cent, being attributed to low morale, a poisoned work environment, harassment of employees and mismanagement.

An internal report released on May 11 found that the staff members believe the commission discriminates against its female workers.

"Respondents indicated that there is a gender bias in the commission with males favoured over females with respect to promotions and development assignments and the level of respect they are given," the 60-page report commissioned by the human rights watchdog said.

The commission's senior lawyer Eddie Taylor said about the report that the commission has lost its moral authority to determine whether federally regulated work places discriminate against their employees: "It is devastating" and "they [the HRC] have no moral authority. They cannot take the high ground," he was quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying.

Taylor has now been suspended with pay pending the results of an internal investigation for his public criticisms of the commission where he has spent 10 years as a lawyer.

Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay, the HRC's chair who was visiting southeast Asia last week, had to cut short her tour and fly back to Ottawa to respond to these charges at a press conference on May 18.

She reportedly said she shouldn't be blamed for the crisis in the federal agency over the watchdog report.

Harish Jain, professor in business faculty at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who was a member of the National Commission on Human Rights that submitted its report last year, told India Abroad on May 20 that the HRC is plagued with internal problems and because the staff doesn't get any recognition the turnover rate, as the report reveals, has reached 40 per cent.

The national commission was primarily mandated to look into the causes of slow processing of complaints. According to their findings, processing of complaints of discrimination on an average takes 3-5 years and there are cases that have taken 8-10 years to resolve, Jain said.

Most resources of the commission go into investigation of complaints, he said. Under its mandate the commission has to investigate each complaint, case by case, instead of investigating the federal agency against whom complaints are made by the staff.

Jain gave the example of Canada Post that has all the legal help and "can hold a case for years".

The HRC is responsible only for 10 per cent of the total work force in the country and they are those employed in the federally regulated industries like the banks, inter-provincial transport, inter-provincial communication industries like Bell Canada, CBC, etc.

The remaining 90 per cent come under the jurisdiction of provincial human rights commissions.

Falardeau-Ramsay said she herself asked for investigation by the watchdog because she was concerned about this high staff turnover.

"We do not deny that there is room for improvement in the way this commission is managed," she reportedly conceded at her press briefing. "But we do have many things to be proud of and remain a model to other nations."

But critics said the watchdog report and the commission's reaction to dissenters have damaged the commission's reputation. "They can't seem to deal with basic human-rights issues within their own organization. That ought to be the first priority for them," said Canadian Alliance Member of Parliament Keith Martin.

Falardeau-Ramsay herself is being accused in the media of invariably travelling outside the country at the taxpayers' expense and devoting less time to what is happening at home.

Pressed by reporters, she admitted she might need to spend more time in her office and less abroad in the future.

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