By Paul Caune and Victor Schwartzman

[Disclosure: Victor was a Human Rights Officer who worked over twenty years for The Manitoba Human Rights Commission. He retired two years ago.]

For the past decade, about one third of all complaints registered by the Manitoba Human Rights Commission have been based on disability, with the Cowardly Lion’s share based on physical disability. There are thirteen “group factors” on which to base a human rights complaint—it is remarkable that one third of all complaints are based on only one “group factor”. This is part of the ongoing international scandal of how Canada abuses its citizens who have disabilities. See Barrier Free Manitoba’s Feature Issue here:

A little over fifteen years ago, disability complaints were a small portion of the “case load”. In the early years of the Commission—the seventies and eighties—discrimination against women (in various ways) was the primary focus. When the Commission opened its doors, one of its first acts was to approach Winnipeg newspapers about job vacancy ads being grouped as “male” and “female”.

By the nineties, people within the Winnipeg community had seen that human rights law could lead to real improvemets. Reforms did not come easily—the law is the law—but they came. So people looked around at the lack of curb cuts–if they used a wheelchair they could not leave their block–and asked: what about us? Or they looked at restaurants and shops and theatres, and the stairs in front of each, and asked: what about us?

The Commission, under The Human Rights Code, has the power to lay its own complaints, to stop obvious discrimination when no personal complaint has been laid. However, the Commission has always been extremely reluctant to file its own complaints—it is supposed to be the unbiased, neutral investigator. This puts the Commission in a reactive role—it receives complaints and investigates them. If it believes there has been discrimination, and mediation does not resolve the issue, the Commission then can recommend that the Minister of Justice appoint an independent adjudicator to make an actual decision on whether discrimination occurred.

The reactive role allows widespread, visible discrimination to occur.

To get reforms, in the nineties people who had physical disabilities went around Winnipeg, looking for businesses against which they could file complaints. Big or small, restaurant or clothing store, grocery or theatre. All of the complaints related to only one issue of concern: physical access.

Suddenly the Commission had a large number of complaints on physical access.  To the Commission, what could have been a pile of potential reforms instead felt like a big pile of buffalo chips.  The complaints were assigned evenly, so each investigating officer had several. In those days, the Commission did not have full time mediation officers. Investigating officers were responsible for fact finding, attempting mediation where possible, or writing an investigation report with recommendations for the Board of Commissioners to consider.

Out in the field, officers had real freedom to review the issues with individual business owners, while investigating complaints. In situations where putting a small ramp over some stairs solved the issue, complaints were generally successful and owners often created accommodations without reports having to be written. Complaints were not always successful. Inevitably, it came down to cost. Some businesses could not physically install a ramp. The alternative, an elevator lift, could cost up to $35,000. The hefty cost includes a device that will work in Winnipeg’s -30 winters. While there was no real ground rule for weighing what was too high a cost, usually it was obvious. Exceptions would be governments, which had greater resources (and reason) to provide access.

Where physical accommodation could not be provided, business owners often offered, where feasible, to provide a home service—visit potential customers in their homes, showing them items for sale by using catalogues. (This was before websites and personal computers were common.)

The group of complaints on disability issues were filed by several people. There was no ringleader.  There was just a group of very concerned people who understood the power of the law, and were willing to use it. They focused on one issue, physical disability. They focused on one target group: businesses open to the public (and in particular, businesses in older locations built before physical accommodation was automatically included in physical designs). Lastly, they focused on one particular business area of the city.

And the plan was a remarkable success.

Little news of the complaints was in the media, because the complaints filed were small complaints against small businesses. But the improvements to access came, came relatively quickly, and were visible. And, as older buildings were phased out for newer ones, legal requirements for design made one part of the physical access problem pretty much go away, or at least be a lot easier to deal with.

Of course, that just got people into shops and buildings. It did not give them the money to buy what they needed, or the jobs with which to earn the money.

What complainants really hoped for was a ripple effect. Once access was universal and visible, surely other accommodations would follow. Employment, better living situations, easier access physically to the world outside your home. Hope is not a plan.

Ten or fifteen years later, complaints on physical access issues continue to dominate Commission stats.

While individual complaints were successful, they obviously did not lead to systemic reform.

Provincial government violations of the human and civil rights of Canadians with disabilities has been standard operating procedure across this country since the 1840’s. Standard operating procedure by governments has also included plenty of lip service to the issue.  The Province of Manitoba has had an affirmative action quota for hiring people who have disabilities. In the thirty or forty years the policy has been in place, the quota has never come close to being met. Ditto the City ofWinnipeg, with its own affirmative action policies.

Manitoba has been governed regularly by the NDP, the so-called party of the little guy—it has been in Government since 1999. It has neglected the civil and human rights of voters with disabilities exactly as have the various center-right coalitions which dominate other provinces, such as BC. For a small sample of this, see Barrier Free Manitoba’s 2007 report and Civil Rights Now’s

The Commission refuses to pursue complex and controversial cases that affect governments and other powerful bodies—the problem is too consistent to use the word “avoid” instead of refuse. Ditto the social service agencies which know all about the problems but which also do not file complaints. Given that there are still so many complaints on one issue, you would think somebody over two decades would have filed a systemic complaint to help resolve ongoing problems. The Commission refuses to use its power to directly challenge the powerful. And social service agencies will not file systemic complaints because they are afraid such will complaints will damage their relationship with their funder, the Government of Manitoba.

So nothing happens except individual citizens getting mad as hell, not taking it anymore, and filing their own complaints when their “protectors” fail them. But this is a dead-end.

A human rights commission is a bureaucracy, staffed by bureaucrats. In the beginning, social service agencies are often filled with first generation people who, as one advocate in the community puts it, “have fire in their bellies”. After the first wave come well-meaning people who have a job. And then eventually the staff is dominated by risk-averse people who have careers to build and protect.

In spite of a few successes years ago, the Manitoba Human Rights Commission is a barrier to true citizenship for Manitoban voters with disabilities.

Manitobans with disabilities should refuse to have their precious time wasted by Ed Grimley

They need to start acting like Gabriel Dumont

Manitoban voters with disabilities should demand their government pass a law similar to the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Politicians only see the light when they feel the heat.