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STANDING COMMITTEE ON JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS

COMITÉ PERMANENT DE LA JUSTICE ET DES DROITS DE LA PERSONNE

EVIDENCE

[Recorded by Electronic Apparatus]

Tuesday, June 5, 2001

• 1535

[English]

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose (Oshawa, Lib.)): I call the meeting to order.

Today we're hearing from Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay and John Hucker of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Ms. Ramsay, do you want to go first?

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay (Chief Commissioner, Canadian Human Rights Commission): Yes, please.

[Translation]

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, I am pleased to appear today to talk about the work of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

As we indicated in our annual report, the year 2000 was marked by a number of noteworthy achievements. The Commission reached decisions on the highest number of complaints in its history; we also settled the highest number of cases since 1997, many through the use of mediation. And we referred the highest number of complaints to the human rights tribunal.

Audits conducted under the authority of the Employment Equity Act resulted in 32 additional employers being found to be in compliance with the provisions of the legislation, an increase of more than twice the number of employers in compliance in 1999.

However, these employment equity results, and the resolution of human rights cases, come at a price. Our increasing workload and the changing face of human rights complaints of recent years prompted us to revisit our human rights complaints process to identify where it could be streamlined, while safeguarding a fair, transparent and timely service to Canadians.

We have developed a series of service standards that also enhance the transparency of the complaints process. Establishment of a separate intake unit to initiate the formal complaints process, development of a comprehensive training plan, and policies and procedures manuals all round out the revamping exercise.

The mediation services I referred to were initially introduced as a two-year pilot project in 1998 as a means of providing parties with the opportunity to reach settlements where possible, thus speeding up the complaints process. The initiative has proved so successful that we have made it a continuing feature of our pre-investigation complaints process.

We also adjusted the Commission's meeting cycle, which has maximized both time and decision-making requirements. I should also mention our publication earlier this year of a Special Report to Parliament on Pay Equity, entitled Time for Action. Subsection 61(2) of the CHRA authorizes the Commission to submit special reports on matters within the scope of its mandate. This is the first such report we have tabled since 1987. Pay equity is an issue that grows in significance to Canadians each year.

The report points out the flaws in the current legislation dealing with pay equity, with suggestions on a new approach to achieving pay equity across the federal jurisdiction.

As you may know, the provision for pay equity under the current Canadian Human Rights Act is complaints-driven, that is to say, the Commission is able to address pay inequity only when a complaint is filed against a specific institution. This rather piecemeal approach to pursuing pay equity for Canadians is fraught with pitfalls, not the least of which are the lengthy legal battles that ensue. The 12-year old Bell Canada case represents an example.

• 1540

[English]

It is clear that a human rights agency can be only as effective as the tools it has at its disposal. The key legislative instruments for our commission are the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Employment Equity Act. Legislation is not static. It must be constantly monitored and improved to ensure its continued effectiveness.

When I appeared before this committee last year, it was to convey the commission's views regarding Bill C-23, the modernization of the benefits and obligations act. This is an excellent example of the need for legislation to keep pace with social change. Who better than parliamentarians, who are in touch with Canadians from coast to coast, to both monitor those changes in our society and ensure that the laws of the land reflect the needs of its citizens?

The commission is very much aware of an increasing need for changes to its own legislation, a need that has been expressed by Canadians across the country for quite some time. When the Minister of Justice announced the appointment of a panel in 1999 to review the Canadian Human Rights Act, the commission was therefore fully supportive.

As you know, Justice Gérard La Forest headed the group's efforts, whose recommendations were provided to the minister last June. I understand the minister is currently reviewing the findings, and I await the results with anticipation.

The new Employment Equity Act came into force in 1996, and the expected five-year review of the legislation should take place this fall. To that end, the commission will be undertaking an independent evaluation of its audit program.

As for the commission's plans and priorities, we will continue to focus our efforts on our core responsibilities—that is, processing complaints under the Canadian Human Rights Act and both auditing and monitoring employers under the Employment Equity Act. Although it may seem straightforward, I can assure you, these are complex and challenging activities.

Processing complaints consists of several stages. The first is the intake stage, when a clear understanding of the complaint must be established. Mediation is then attempted. If that is not successful, the next step is investigation, then conciliation, followed by litigation before tribunal, and possibly the courts.

The past two years have seen significant staff turnover at the commission. The reasons for this are complex, but they are, in part, the result of organizational changes brought on by fiscal pressure. Another reason is quite simply the nature of the work.

Consequently, when I met with senior managers early this year to discuss this and other issues, I announced my personal commitment to making our human resource needs the commission's top priority. Fundamental to our future success is a stable, skilled, and satisfied workforce.

With that in mind, we embarked on an exercise to put in place a comprehensive human resource plan to ensure we achieve that workforce. That exercise included an independent assessment of the health of the commission's workforce. I have given staff my commitment that we will fully address the issues found in the report, with their active participation.

Of course, we also have a responsibility as a public educator, which is the core function of the regional offices we continue to maintain across the country. Their presence allows us to preserve links with local and provincial groups and to share in reaching out to Canadians with human rights messages.

• 1545

Our public educational role has taken a back seat in recent years as a result of decreased financial resources, and we have limited scope for new initiatives. Nonetheless, our priority is to broaden understanding of the work we do. We will be looking at cost-effective ways of doing just that—for instance, entering into partnerships with our provincial counterparts and other organizations.

I will end here to provide sufficient time for questions. Thank you for your attention.

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose): Thank you, Ms. Falardeau-Ramsay.

Mr. Hucker, do you wish to address the committee?

Mr. John Hucker (Secretary General, Canadian Human Rights Commission): No, thank you, sir.

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose): Mr. Toews.

Mr. Vic Toews (Provencher, Canadian Alliance): Thank you very much.

Thank you for your presentation and informative report.

There is a question I and some of my colleagues wish to raise. On March 29 of this year, Mr. John Williams, member of Parliament for St. Albert, rose on a question of privilege in the House. This question of privilege was raised in light of the fact that although the annual report of the Canadian Human Rights Commission was tabled that day in the House of Commons, it had been reported extensively in the press already that morning, in the Toronto Star, Hamilton Spectator, and London Free Press. All gave detailed reports describing the contents of this report.

In view of the relationship of the commission with Parliament, this release was clearly a breach of parliamentary privilege. I'm wondering whether the chief commissioner can tell this committee who authorized the release of this report before it was tabled in the House of Commons, and why this was done.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: I thank you for asking the question, because this is interesting. Before the annual report was released, five boxes, each containing at least 60 copies of the annual report, the legal report, and the employment equity report, were sent to the mailroom here on the Hill. That was the day before the annual report was filed with the House. It seems there was some confusion in the mailroom, and those reports were distributed later than they were intended to.

I'm sure measures have been taken to make sure this does not happen again. I apologize if it produced any problems, but the copies were there.

Mr. Vic Toews: So you're satisfied that this was an administrative error and it will not happen again.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: Oh, definitely.

Mr. Vic Toews: All right.

I'm still within my time, am I, Mr. Chair?

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose): Lots of time.

Mr. Vic Toews: All right.

I would like to bring up the issue of international travel by the commissioner. I note that there have been some attempts to have the legislation changed to extend the mandate of the Canadian Human Rights Commission to include a specific reference to international relations or travel. I know the commissioner has been involved in some of the work in East Timor, to develop certain relationships there, to ensure that a general regime of human rights perhaps is put into place there.

If you've been asking Parliament to include that international aspect in your legislation, and it's not there yet, and yet you are going about doing this and taking on this mandate without legislative authority from Parliament, how do we justify that in terms of our concern about the mandate of the commission and what the commission has been specifically directed by Parliament to do? I'm concerned about that.

• 1550

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: That is in fact a very interesting question. We have to realize that we're not living in a little bubble, all by ourselves, but are part of a greater world out there. We also have to realize that Canada, through its Canadian Human Rights Commission, is considered internationally a beacon in the area of human rights. We receive numerous requests from CIDA, from the Department of Foreign Affairs, and from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to help strengthen or establish human rights commissions, mostly in developing countries.

When we deal with this issue, it's always funded through money coming from CIDA, from Foreign Affairs, or from the UN. In fact, it's interesting; last year we received some money specifically for that issue from Treasury Board. So in practice there is a certain recognition by Treasury Board of the work we're doing internationally.

Mr. Vic Toews: Yes, I appreciate that, and I don't doubt that the work you do is laudable. My concern here—and I hope other committee members share that concern—is a question of a specific legislated mandate that has been given to the commission. While all of us may think, yes, that's laudable, I would suggest that legislation be put in place. It causes me some concern that we would have, essentially going through the back door, funding for these initiatives when in fact Parliament itself, the members in the House, have not endorsed that expansion.

So I don't dispute that there may be very laudable aims, but my concern is the legislative authority for doing this. I'm just wondering where you're at in terms of moving that initiative along. I think what you are doing is an important role, but parliamentarians, who ultimately are responsible for the expenditure of moneys, need to assure themselves that you do have that legislated mandate.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: I completely agree with you. That's why we hope that our law will be amended, that there will be a bill in front of you at one point dealing with the report of the review panel Mr. Justice La Forest headed, as I mentioned in my comments. We would feel much better if we had this particular authority within our legislation, of that you can be sure. We have asked many times for that type of amendment.

Mr. Vic Toews: Thank you.

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose): Thank you, Mr. Toews.

Monsieur Dubé.

[Translation]

Mr. Antoine Dubé (Lévis-et-Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, BQ): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I'm not a regular member of this committee. I'm merely sitting in for one of the permanent members. My question ties in with that of my colleague. I currently sit on the Sub-committee on Human Rights and International Development of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. I have several questions for you, more in the nature of seeking information.

• 1555

First of all, have you evaluated the cost of these initiatives and the amount spent on outside activities in relation to your budget? Could you give us a specific example of an outside activity conducted during the course of the year?

And could you also tell me - and that will be my final request - if these outside activities are carried out with the collaboration of the Department of Foreign Affairs? We know that Foreign Affairs operates through its own officials and also through CIDA, that is through a branch of CIDA involved in human rights issues abroad. How do you operate in light of existing mechanisms?

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: Thank you for those questions. Regarding the amount of money the Commission spends on international projects, last year, for example, my visits abroad cost $26,000. We received $139,000 from Treasury Board specifically earmarked for and spent on international affairs. Furthermore, any expenditures incurred are reimbursed either by CIDA or by Foreign Affairs.

I can give you a very specific example for this year. At the request of Ms. Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and with the support of Foreign Affairs and CIDA, we established along with our colleagues from Mexico, a network of inter-american national institutions dedicated to protecting and promoting human rights. This network is destined to become the equivalent of the Asia-Pacific Forum. Its primary objective is to serve as a vehicle through which the different national human rights institutions can exchange information. It also allows institutions in certain countries to take stands they could not otherwise take without the support of an international network.

I could also give you another example. We are currently involved in phase three of a project with Indonesia. One of our officers spent three years on site working to set up and oversee the operation of a commission. During the crisis in East Timor, that commission took a very firm stand on the government's actions.

Obviously, our ultimate goal is to have the commission operate on its own and this is gradually happening. Our role in this commission has been reduced to a monitoring function and to ensuring that projects developed are in compliance with the provisions of the agreement with CIDA. These are just a few examples of the multilateral and bilateral activities in which the Commission is involved.

• 1600

When we work with CIDA and with the Department of Foreign Affairs, we work not only with their human rights policy sections, but also with specific country bureaux. For example, if the initiative in question involves South America or Latin America, we will work with the Latin America bureau. At the same time, we work with CIDA's human rights or policies bureaux.

Mr. Antoine Dubé: It seems to me that your role or influence is international in scope. Therefore, you're in a position to compare Canadian human rights legislation with that of other nations.

Earlier, you stated that our legislation needs to be amended. I have a fairly simple question for you, one that may be difficult to answer, however. Canadian government officials, legislators and others have described Canada has a leader in promoting human rights around the world. Would you say then that our legislation is the best in the world?

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: I wouldn't go so far as to say that our legislation is the best in the world, because I think some amendments are in order. However, since we have been around for 20 years, I think we can point out some of the mistakes we have made to other countries so that they can avoid them. Moreover, Canada is well ahead of many other world countries. Even though, according to our own standards, our laws are still not what they should be, the fact remains that for the majority of countries around the globe, our laws and institutions dedicated to protecting and promoting human rights are viewed as examples to emulate.

[English]

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose): Thank you, Mr. Dubé.

Incidentally, due to our numbers today, I'm being a little generous with time. If you're pursuing a line of questioning, I'll let you complete it as long as you don't take a right turn somewhere.

Mr. Myers.

Mr. Lynn Myers (Waterloo—Wellington, Lib.): Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

Madame Falardeau-Ramsay, on that point, and in answer to Monsieur Dubé's question, I think it is worth noting that Canada is considered to be a leader when it comes to human rights, when it comes to our great Charter of Rights and Freedoms, for example, and our equity laws and the things we've put in place.

It seems to me that we saw at the Quebec summit, for example, on the whole issue of globalization and trade, and trade in the Americas, that human rights took a very leading and prominent role. We saw it being pushed to the forefront. So I'm of the opinion that we shouldn't apologize for that. I don't think we should apologize for being considered world leaders. I don't think you should have to apologize—nor would you, I'm sure—for representing Canada effectively in those world arenas, because it seems to me that's part of being a global player and being in the community of nations, which we are, and well respected in that position.

So I think it's wonderful that we're part and parcel of that kind of activity, and I think we should applaud people like you and others who do that on behalf of the country.

Having said that, I want to get back to Justice La Forest's report, which you spoke about. The government has said that they're taking it and fanning it out to the departments, and there's comment and review coming back and feeding back from those departments. First of all, were you part of that consultation and review with those governments? Secondly, have you been given some sort of timetable as to when we will hear back with respect to that review? Finally, I want to ask whether or not you were part of implementing any recommendations that the panel report had already stated.

• 1605

Once that's through, I want to come back and talk a little bit about genetic testing, because I think that came up in the report and I'm very much interested in that. But maybe you could answer those three questions first.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: First, no, we are not part of the consultations. We have just been made aware by the Department of Justice that consultations are going on. So that's the extent of our participation in the consultations.

As far as a timetable is concerned, there might be a timetable, but I have not been made aware of one, except that it was in progress. That's all I know.

As to whether we are already implementing some of the recommendations of the La Forest report, yes—in fact the report to Parliament on pay equity was triggered, in a way, by the La Forest report, which told us we had the authority to do that, even though we had never used it or had used it once in the past, in 1986 or 1987. So we decided to do that. There are some other recommendations that we could put into practice, but it would mean more resources than we have.

For example, on the holding of public inquiries on specific issues, it is not easy to do that, and it costs a lot of money and human resources. So those are things that would be difficult to put into practice in the present situation.

We have also tried to look at all the recommendations and see how we could start to implement some of them, even if the law was not yet amended. So that would be—

Mr. Lynn Myers: If I might, on the genetic testing—

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: Excuse me, I think the secretary general wants to add something to that.

Mr. John Hucker: I would just add one point, if I may.

One of the recommendations in the La Forest panel report dealt with the internal responsibility model, the idea that employers should establish their own internal systems to deal with grievances and human rights concerns before they become a public issue. We have said that during the current year we will try, on a pilot basis, to see if we can work with two or three key employers to encourage them to put in place some internal responsibility models. That's one feature of La Forest that we're working on now.

Mr. Lynn Myers: I'm sorry, just on that point, have you identified yet the people you will be working with? Are they geographically across Canada, or...

Mr. John Hucker: Yes. These will be federal employers. I don't know that we have identified them. I think we've talked to two or three employers, but we're not at the point of finalizing that yet.

Mr. Lynn Myers: That's good news.

On the biological testing, some people say you can create almost a biological underclass. I'm not sure if that applies or not, but certainly for purposes of insurance, perhaps, or for purposes of employment, there might be concerns on the part of individuals and people.

I wonder whether you are worried about that, whether you have concerns. Are you working with the privacy commissioner in this area, and how do you feel about it? I have to tell you that it makes me, as an individual, feel a little uneasy, but from your position and advantage of knowledge, given your area of expertise, do you have concerns as well?

• 1610

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: First, I would say I share your concerns. I think we are not the only ones sharing the concerns. In fact, there was an allusion to it in a decision from the Supreme Court of Canada recently. I think it was in the Mercier decision, where the court alluded to it as a kind of an arbiter.

I think it is something that is going to be a cause for discrimination in the future, specifically regarding employment. It would be very important for research to be done in this area. Unfortunately, right now we cannot put any resources toward research of that type. I think it's very important for this area to be looked at before we really are seized with the problem. Then it will really be too late in the day to start doing it. It's very important that we be able to do something, be it in partnership with the privacy commissioner or with provincial commissions. This also will have an impact on the work of provincial commissions, as well as other organizations that would be in possible conflict of interest with our commission.

Mr. Lynn Myers: Thank you very much.

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose): Thank you, Mr. Myers.

Mr. Spencer, please.

Mr. Larry Spencer (Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, Canadian Alliance): I'm not sure about this La Forest report. Was it the report regarding internal problems within the commission itself?

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: No.

Mr. Larry Spencer: Evidently the media has mentioned a number of times that you had a high percentage of employees resign over the last couple of years. They apparently surveyed and found 37% of those remaining are still looking for another job. The information I have indicates it was brought about by complaints of favouritism and promotions for reasons they felt were not equitable. Seeing we have a Human Rights Commission, its mandate is to guard against that kind of thing. What's being done in the commission to address the reports?

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: First, I wish to tell you, I'm the one who commissioned the study. When I saw the turnover rate, I wanted to get to the bottom of the matter to really see why people were leaving.

Some of the people leaving can be explained. Obviously it's a small organization, and if you want a promotion, very often you have to go to a larger organization. Also, the type of work being done at the commission, especially in the investigation and legal areas, is very difficult and stressful. You're always dealing with people who are deeply dissatisfied with what they're doing.

I asked Watson Wyatt, an international firm, to do a workplace assessment of the area. While we are working, we have started to work on the recommendations made by the consultant. We have already started dealing with whatever we could deal with quickly. For example, we had a sound engineer come last week to look at the physical layout of the place so it could be improved. It was one of the complaints.

• 1615

We have also looked at reviewing our standard of service through discussion with the employees. We had a meeting with the team of employees, including the union representative, who put together the questions, to start discussing what process would lead to establishing a plan of action.

This plan of action is going to also come out of a retreat we will have with not only the management, but with representatives of each branch of the commission, who will have been selected by the employees themselves. Then we will establish what type of consultation process should be put in place so we will be able to work together, with the input of the employees, in determining the plan of action to follow.

Mr. Larry Spencer: Okay.

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose): You may have one more question, if you want to pursue it a little further.

Mr. Larry Spencer: Yes, I have one quick question.

I think in the report they narrowed it down to three specific senior management persons they felt were more responsible. As the chief commissioner, could you assure us you are not one of them?

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: No, I cannot assure you I am not one of them.

Mr. Larry Spencer: You're not aware of it then?

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: With the employees, we are in the process of looking at what are and where are the exact problems to make sure the problems are taken care of.

It remains that, as chief commissioner, I feel responsible and accountable for whatever happens at the commission. I think the fact that I asked for this particular study to be made shows the type of accountability and transparency I believe in.

Mr. Larry Spencer: Thank you very much.

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose): You made the last question a tough one.

Mr. Larry Spencer: I always try to do so.

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose): Mr. Owen.

Mr. Stephen Owen (Vancouver Quadra, Lib.): Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Welcome, and thank you for your attendance today. I'd like to make a couple of observations and then perhaps lead to a question.

With respect to Mr. Toews' observation, there's no explicit mandate in the statutes under which you operate in international work. I'm not so troubled by the absence of anything explicit. I think an explicit reference is not necessary.

I think of the federal privacy and information commissioners, the correctional commissioner, the Auditor General, and the chief electoral officer. Provincially, there are ombudsmen, auditors general, and children's commissioners. There are parliamentary officers, as well as people within government, whether they're justice officials, environmental officials, or industry officials. It is implicit in their mandates and required for their jobs that they must pay close attention to what goes on in the international sphere. They must participate in it through contribution, as well as through learning.

I'd like to assure the committee that in some of my previous work I have seen very direct evidence of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. I participated with Mr. Hucker and the chief commissioner at various times. I have seen the evidence of the importance of Canada's contribution, through their work with countries struggling with more dramatic human rights challenges than we do here. In addition to the contribution that I think we as a country have an obligation to make—and which is made in part through work such as theirs abroad—I think we as Canadians learn a great deal through that type of participation.

• 1620

So although we may live in a society that's privileged not to be faced with the types of human rights abuses that occur in many parts of the world, we are still living at a time when there has been a tremendous democratic change taking place over the last 15 years, with all sorts of countries that are facing more dramatic situations than we are, but which are bringing in, in some ways, very far-reaching, innovative legislation and practices we can learn from, just as we see them evolve as we contribute to them. So I think there are both an immense responsibility and benefit to Canadians in the type of work that you do abroad, and I applaud you for it.

My question relates to your experience in Canada working with this legislation over the last 10 years, perhaps, personally—and perhaps more to Mr. Hucker—and to the evolution of the situation in Canada. There is a public education component. There is simply a remedial impact which one would hope over time the investigation and even settlement of complaints would have on Canadian society, and specifically on the organizations and people under your direct jurisdiction.

Now, without expecting that human rights complaint handling would become a sunset industry in this country, have you seen improvements? How would you characterize the development of this area of public policy in the last ten years, and, more importantly, the response of the public and government and federal agencies?

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: Well, you see, human rights are a bit like an onion. You peel one, and then you realize that there is something underlying it. And what we're dealing with today is quite different from what we were dealing with, I'm sure, when the law was adopted more than 20 years ago. So I think that it changes. As I said in my presentation, it's not static; it's always evolving.

I think what we can see now, though, is that there is a much better knowledge among the population about what their rights are. There is also much more, I think, protection than there was say 20 or 30 years ago. I'm thinking in terms, for example, of policies on sexual harassment, which did not exist 25 or 30 years ago and which now exist everywhere. You have the same type of policy also concerning racial harassment, which was something that did not exist before. And you have also, I think, a much better awareness at the school level—at the primary, high school, and university level—of what human rights are all about, what discrimination is, and the importance of building an inclusive society that is fair for everybody.

So I think that there have been changes. But, as I said, you see, you always have to follow the times. And there are new things coming up. You, Mr. Myers, were alluding before to the genetic testing. Well, this is something that 20 years ago nobody even thought about, but it will be grounds for discrimination in the human rights area in a few years. So it is this evolution that we have to make sure we follow through.

Obviously we have also to make sure that the systems we have in place are not too heavy and are systems that allow for a quick but fair resolution of complaints. That, I think, is what we are all looking for. And we are all also looking for ways of educating the population about human rights and promoting human rights. I think this is as important as dealing with the complaints.

• 1625

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose): Thank you, Mr. Owen.

Monsieur Dubé.

I have no one else on my speaking list, so if you want to ask a question please let me know.

[Translation]

Mr. Antoine Dubé: Yes. As a Member, I see all kinds of cases, just as my colleagues surely do. Many of our constituents view us as ombudsmen capable of resolving various problems. Some provinces, including Quebec, have ombudsmen to do this job. Some of the problems brought to our attention are not easy to resolve, including cases of persons who have not yet been recognized as Canadian citizens.

Without naming names, because the names as such are of no importance, I'll give you a few examples of situations like this. Foreigners are hired to work in Canada on contract. In some instances, the business fails to uphold the terms of the contract and the worker finds himself or herself unemployed and faced with the prospect of having to return to his or her country of origin.

Here's another example of a case brought to the attention of the Human Rights Committee. Some people have been granted refugee status, but in fact have no formal status in this country, which means that they do not enjoy from full citizenship rights. They fled countries where their lives were in danger, but after arriving here in Canada, they are not recognized as full citizens. They cannot get a passport and neither they nor their children can obtain bursaries from the provinces or from other organizations.

Wouldn't you agree that individuals who are not yet Canadian citizens are at somewhat of a disadvantage? Personally, I find this situation rather unfortunate. Please correct me if I'm wrong. It's regrettable that a country that claims to champion human rights, that claims to a leader in this field, finds it difficult to uphold the human rights of people living right here, even though they may not yet be Canadian citizens.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: This is a contentious issue, particularly the case you spoke of, namely that of refugees who claim refugee status and subsequently have trouble obtaining permanent resident status.

The Department of Immigration has been notified in connection with Somalian refugees who have encountered considerable problems obtaining permanent resident status. I've written to the Justice Minister about this issue and we have also commented on this situation in our annual report.

Regarding the first type of situation, namely when the employer breaches the terms of the contract negotiated with a person newly arrived in this country, thereby putting that person in the position of having to return to his country...

Mr. Antoine Dubé: That individual cannot even collect unemployment insurance, for instance.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: Precisely. That too is a problem, one that hasn't been brought to our attention directly, but is clearly regrettable and deplorable.

Mr. Antoine Dubé: I'm not totally satisfied with that response.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: I understand, but this isn't exactly our area of jurisdiction. We would have...

Mr. Antoine Dubé: What do you suggest I do when dealing with cases like this?

• 1630

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: Come and see me later. I admit that this is a complex matter. In this instance, a contract was breached. I wouldn't want to give any legal advice without looking at the situation a little more closely. To my understanding, a contract has been breached.

Mr. Antoine Dubé: I simply wanted to draw the attention of other committee members to this situation. I know that Mr. Cotler attended the committee meeting at which this subject was broached. I merely wanted to say that while it is all well and good to have a lofty profile internationally, we have people right here in this country with virtually no rights because they have no official status. I think this is something about which we should be concerned.

[English]

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose): Thank you, Mr. Dubé.

Madame, I'll switch you to the other side of the table. It seems to be tough over here.

Mr. Cotler, please.

[Translation]

Mr. Irwin Cotler (Mont-Royal, Lib.): Good afternoon, Ms. Falardeau-Ramsay.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: Good afternoon.

[English]

Mr. Irwin Cotler: You made reference in your submission to the Canadian Human Rights Act review panel, which, as we know, proposed 165 recommendations for reviewing, if not overhauling, the federal human rights system.

I've met with a number of human rights organizations, and pardon me if this question was put to you in any way before I came in. They have expressed their concern to me that the government does not appear to have set a timetable for responding to this report, which they've had since last June, and has not set forth any specific framework for dealing with the proposed reforms.

I have two questions in this regard. To what extent is the commission working with the Department of Justice to facilitate a timely and significant response to the panel's recommendations? I know that you mentioned in your submission that you are “awaiting the results with anticipation”. But I'm wondering whether you are working with the Department of Justice rather than just awaiting the results from the Department of Justice. That's the first question.

Secondly, to what extent is the commission moving to implement some of the panel's recommendations that can be implemented by you within your mandate without awaiting the Department of Justice response? I'll just leave it with these two questions for now.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: Well, thank you. In fact, those questions were already asked—

Mr. Irwin Cotler: Okay.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: —but I can repeat the answers if you wish.

First, we are not working with the department. The department has not asked us to work with it concerning the response to the report of the panel.

Mr. Irwin Cotler: There's been no consultation in that regard?

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: No, there's been no consultation. We are told that they are right now in consultation with various departments and that in due time there will be a response. We have no idea of the timetable either.

As to the second part of your question, yes, we have already been looking at what we can do within the ambit of the present legislation to put into practice some of the recommendations of the La Forest report. For example, one of the outcomes was the utilization of our authority or power to present special reports to Parliament on special issues, and we did that—

Mr. Irwin Cotler: Such as employment equity.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: Exactly. We did that with the pay equity this year.

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As Mr. Hucker has also mentioned the internal committee before, I will leave him to mention it again, because he did it so well. But before I ask him to deal with that, there is obviously some authority that we would have according to our legislation, such as public inquiries into specific problems. But we cannot really put these into practice, because we don't have the resources for that sort of exercise. It takes a lot of resources, both financial and human. At the moment, we cannot put that into place. But we are doing everything we can within the framework of our legislation and our resources.

I will ask Mr. Hucker to repeat—

Mr. Irwin Cotler: Will you provide the Department of Justice with a set of initiatives within the framework of the 165 recommendations you'll be implementing? Those are within your mandate, so in effect, the Department of Justice would be given notice that these are the démarches you're taking.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: I have already met with the Minister of Justice and told her of some of the steps we have already taken, that we are already applying. So I will ask Mr. Hucker to repeat what he said about the—

Mr. Irwin Cotler: Don't bother; I'll read it off the minutes.

Mr. John Hucker: Can I make another point, though? As the chief commissioner said, we were not involved with the Department of Justice and its follow-up to the La Forest panel report, but the unofficial feedback is that there is considerable resistance in the bureaucracy to seeing some of the La Forest changes happen.

Partly this is due to cost, because some of the proposals are quite radical: every human rights case would go to a hearing, and the issue immediately emerges of how much that's going to cost. We'd be transferring any backlogs from the current investigation process to a tribunal, so that everybody would have their chance for a hearing.

Those sorts of issues are percolating around the departments, but we just learn a bit here and there. Nobody consults us directly on that.

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose): Thank you, Mr. Cotler.

Mr. McKay, I knew you couldn't resist.

Mr. John McKay (Scarborough East, Lib.): I have to keep up with my reputation of always asking questions, Mr. Speaker. I wasn't going to ask a question, but the researchers insisted.

Presently the Human Rights Tribunal and the Speaker are locked in litigation involving the chauffeur to the Speaker. I take it that the Speaker's position is that the legislation has no applicability to the Library of Parliament, or to Parliament itself. I'd be interested in your view of whether an argument can be made on jurisdictional grounds that this legislation should not apply to Parliament.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: Normally I would support the other side of it: that the legislation should apply. In fact, there has been some jurisprudence to that effect—especially in the MacBain case some years ago, if I remember correctly. But this question is now in front of the tribunal, and they are in a much better position than I to decide on the issue. They will have heard all the arguments of all the parties involved.

Mr. John McKay: So in your view there's no counter-argument to be made that employees of Parliament in its own precinct—members of Parliament, speakers, etc.—should be exempt from this kind of legislation?

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: I think that will be for the court to decide. My own view is that parliamentary immunity goes with whatever you do as a parliamentarian, but when it comes to an employer, you are a federal employer. If it's outside the employment area and within the role of a parliamentarian, then I think immunity would apply.

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Mr. John McKay: So your argument is that it circles around the immunity of parliamentarians restricted to their job descriptions.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: As parliamentarians, yes.

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose): Thank you, Mr. McKay.

There being no more questions, I would like to thank the two witnesses. I do appreciate—

Mr. Antoine Dubé: I have another small question.

[Translation]

I see here that the Commission referred 123 complaints to the human rights tribunal. However, your report doesn't say how many complaints the Commission received last year. Perhaps you quoted a figure.

Ms. Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay: We received a total of 1,238 complaints.

Mr. Antoine Dubé: Thank you. That's all.

[English]

The Vice-Chair (Mr. Ivan Grose): Thank you, Mr. Dubé.

I would like to thank the two witnesses, and I think we can award Mr. Spencer the award for the bluntest question of the week. It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.

This meeting is adjourned.

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