Manitoba Human Rights Commission Speaks Up! So Do We! How About You?

By Victor Schwartzman and Paul Caune
May 17, 2012

Note: For a Danish translation visit

Recently, Accessibility News International posted an article by Victor and Paul. Victor worked as a Human Rights Officer for over twenty years for the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. The articles written by Paul and Victor reflect their own views. We very much appreciate being able to post our articles on such sites as Accessibility News International and Facebook. The Commission, of course, has significant resources for getting its information to the public.

The article expressed concern that human rights organizations, including the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, did not have a systemic approach to human rights issues, with the result that the same problems have continued for a decade. Examples of how things work at the Commission were included in the article to illustrate the point.

Demonstrating an unexpected sense of humour, here is the Commission’s reply to our article. Please note that the reply helpfully proves the accuracy of our article. We appreciate the Commission’s support. After reading the Commission’s reply, please read our somewhat dumbfounded response.

The Commission Response to the Article

The Manitoba Human Rights Board of Commissioners is responding to the article “Manitoban Voters with Disabilities need Gabriel Dumont, instead they have Ed Grimly.” We would like to address the misconceptions readers may be left with about the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, after having read the original article by Paul Caune and self-disclosed, former employee Victor Schwartzman.

It is possible that Mr. Schwartzman, who has not worked for the Commission since 2008, is unaware of the many Commission achievements and positive strides that have taken place since his departure.

First, just over half the complaints received by the Commission in 2011 are based on disability, with about 65 % based on physical disability and 35 % on mental disability. Of the physical disability complaints, most are very complex, reasonable accommodation issues. Of these however, only 4 of the 84 physical disability complaints related to access issues. These numbers reveal that it is simply wrong to say that “complaints on physical access issues continue to dominate Commission stats.”

Second, although the authors would have readers believe that the Commission only has a reactive role, this is also misleading. For example, the City of Winnipeg began to announce all stops on their buses two months after being contacted by the Commission. In Ontario, a human rights case on this issue took tribunals and courts many years to resolve. In Winnipeg, announcing all stops, which assists visually impaired riders in particular as well as those with other disabilities, started almost immediately. Today an automated system is in place.

Another very recent pro-active initiative is to ensure that taxi drivers in Winnipeg are aware of their responsibilities when picking up and driving passengers with service dogs. The Taxi Board has agreed to attach the Commission’s Fact Sheet A Person with a Dog Guide has a Right to Taxi Service to the drivers’ annual licence.

There are even more ways that the Commission is being pro-active. It was one of 17 groups granted intervener status in the appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada of Moore v BC (Ministry of Education) and School District 44 (North Vancouver). The Appeal, which was heard on March 22, 2012, concerns whether the School District of North Vancouver and the BC Ministry of Education discriminated against Jeffrey Moore, a severely dyslexic student by failing to provide him with meaningful access to an appropriate education.

Also, the Commission’s education initiatives are some of the best in the country. It initiated a new education program for employers to help them deal with the ever-increasing number of complaints based on mental disabilities. The Commission is also in the forefront when it comes to unique publications such as The Rights of Youth with Disabilities and the teaching of rights and responsibilities to young people at its celebrated youth conferences.

Third, to suggest that the Commission “refuses to pursue complex and controversial cases that affect government and other powerful bodies…” can be refuted by the many individual and systemic cases that the Commission has dealt with in recent years. It has settled complaints with cities, municipalities and the Government of Manitoba. This group comprised 16 percent of the number of complaints closed at the Commission in 2011.

The following are just a few examples of mediated complaints against municipal, local or provincial governments, revealing that the comments by the writers are not based on any known fact.

A human rights settlement with the City of Winnipeg benefits people with disabilities when they attempt to cross streets at controlled intersections. This settlement will result in all intersections with pedestrian traffic signals having audible cues and comes with a monitoring role for the Commission to ensure that the timeline for change is maintained.

Examples of successful mediated agreements with the Government of Manitoba include the addressing of the discrepancy in financial support, which adults with disabilities faced when they resided with their families; and a Manitoba health care policy change resulted in more family members receiving funds when providing non-professional home care services.

Another human rights mediated settlement, which began as a complaint by Community Living – Manitoba (CLM), balanced the rights of people with disabilities who live at the Manitoba Development Centre in Portage la Prairie. The intense mediation and the final settlement revealed that diligence and hard work can result in change and residents will be moved out of the Centre on a graduated basis.

And one last example is the successful negotiations between the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg, which resulted in Handi Transit offering its services to people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Finally, we would like to comment on the integrity of the staff at the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, all of whom perform their jobs with pride and dedication. As human rights evolve, different challenges present themselves. The nature of complaints has changed revealing even more complex individual and systemic complaints for the staff to investigate and mediate. We respect the first wave of human rights workers for taking on the major issues of the day. Today’s human rights workers face new difficulties and celebrate extraordinary successes.

Jerry Woods
Chairperson of the Manitoba Human Rights Board of Commissioners

Yvonne Peters
Vice-Chairperson of the Manitoba Human Rights Board of Commissioners
Disclosure: Yvonne Peters is currently serving as in-house Counsel for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and is a leading expert on disability rights and co-authored the recent report Accommodation in the 21st Century (March 2012) with Gwen Brodsky and Shelagh Day.

Victor and Paul Respond to the Response:

We appreciate that the Manitoba Human Rights Commission accepts everything we wrote as fact, at least up until four years ago, and that things changed only after Victor left the Commission. Victor should leave more organizations.

The Commission states the problem with disability complaints has grown considerably worse, noting it is not a third of all complaints, but now nearly half. Despite its actions in its response, the Commission faces a worse situation for people with disabilities than ever. Why? The Commission offers no explanation. Many of the complaints listed in its response are something anyone on the streets of Winnipeg was aware of, for years. Why did it take an individual or organization to file a complaint to make the changes cited? Had none of the Commissioners ever ridden a bus? Had none of them ever had to cross a street?

Each example the Commission provides of its systemic action appears to be from an individual complaint, resulting in very narrowly defined solutions. Individual Human Rights Mediators or Officers do negotiate the changes cited, it is part of their job (the Commission has some excellent staff). However, the Commission does not say that such negotiations are usually because the Complainant wants them. If the Complainant does not see the bigger picture, the bigger picture does not happen.

The Commission has a very thick book of policies to guide its actions. Victor does not recall (he’s not trying to be evasive but heck there were a lotta policies) a Commission policy directing either individual officers or Commission management to pursue systemic complaints. He does not recall a policy requiring the Commission to track patterns in complaints and then to take action on those patterns. He can state he never saw a management directive advising officers it was policy to turn individual complaints into systemic ones where possible.

The lack of Commission action on broad issues, when it has knowledge of the issues but does not act, is a piecemeal approach to human rights. Pursuing individual complaints over the past forty years has rarely resulted in the systemic changes which would stop the need for complaints.

Does the Commission’s approach work for you?

Here are questions we have for the MRHC, based on its response:

–Will the Commission produce its policy on systemic complaints, and then provide examples of how it has followed that policy? For example, did the complaints against governments cited result in any actual changes to how Governments operate? Are any of the affirmative action quotas with the City of Winnipeg or Province of Manitoba being met (it’s been about forty years, and the answer is no).

–Why does the Commission tolerate half of its complaints being on one issue? Why has that situation developed and what will the Commission do about it?

We look forward to the Commission’s response.