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  • Writer's pictureThe Moot Times UCalgary Law

What are Human Rights Worth to You?

By Athina Pantazopoulos

The BC government recently announced a huge funding increase to the BC Human Rights Tribunal (BCHRT) for the 2023/2024 fiscal year. In their January 4th news release, the office of the Government of British Columbia announced that they were approving an increase of up to $4.5 million per year in funding to the BC Human Rights Tribunal and Community Legal Assistance Society. This increase is said to be a response to both a significant increase in the number of claims being brought to the Tribunal in the past 4 years, the associated increase in need for legal assistance, and the recent implementation of new measures at the Tribunal to support Indigenous victims of human rights violations. This funding increase is acknowledged by the Chair of the BCHRT to be a huge boon that will go a long way to “ensuring everyone who needs it can access appropriate recourse under the B.C. Human Rights Code.”

We at The Moot Times decided to do some investigation to figure out just how significant this budget increase is to the BC Human Rights system, and to determine whether a similar budget increase might be due in Alberta.

BC Human Rights Tribunal

British Columbia’s Human Rights bodies are established and governed under BC’s Human Rights Code. Currently in British Columbia, there are two provincial bodies responsible for the advancement and protection of Human Rights: the Human Rights Tribunal and the Human Rights Commission. These bodies are operated separately and have different but complimentary roles.

The Commission is an independent statutory office responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights through “education, research, advocacy, inquiry and monitoring.” It was (re)established in 2018 after initially being dismantled in 2003, briefly making BC the only province without some form of Human Rights Commission. The intention of dismantling this body was to reform and expedite the human rights complaint process. A 2018 amendment to the Code brought the Commission back, but it operates separately from the Tribunal on its own budget. Information about the Commission’s budget used in this article is taken from the appropriate Annual Review of the Budgets of Statutory Offices documents, prepared by the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services.

The Tribunal is a quasi-judicial body responsible for all steps in the human rights complaint process, from screening all the way through to adjudication. This is the provincial “human rights court” that many will picture when they envision human rights regulation. The Code outlines both the protected areas (ex. employment, housing, public services) and the protected grounds (ex. age, gender, sexual orientation) that make up the jurisdiction of the Tribunal. The Tribunal publicly publishes annual reports on their website, which include fairly detailed financial disclosures.

Human Rights Funding in British Columbia

Both Human Rights bodies have mandatory reporting requirements, which are outlined in the Code. Therefore, we can look back on the allocated budgets of previous years to see what trends emerge.

The graph below sets out the allocated budgets of both the Tribunal and Commission over the last 4 years (in millions), as well as a projected budget if we assume that a majority of the $4.5 million is allocated to the Tribunal.

[Sources: Commission – 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022/2023; Tribunal – 2019, 2020, 2021]

The first notable observation in reviewing this graph, is that the government is already approving a gradual annual increase in funding to the Commission. While the Tribunal’s budget was more or less the same from 2019-2022, the Commission’s budget has increased steadily since its re-establishment in 2018. This increase could simply be reflective of the development of a new commission, but it may also suggest that the government is giving thought to their human rights framework and is willing to invest in creating a robust system for the promotion and protection of these rights. British Columbia Premier David Eby was quoted in the government’s January news release, saying: “[n]obody should be forced to live with intolerance and bigotry – that’s why our government has prioritized supporting people and communities in fighting racism and other forms of discrimination,” indicating that the issue of human rights protection is a priority of the current provincial government.

This graph also demonstrates the incredible impact that a $4.5 million dollar funding increase could have on the Tribunal. Given that the Tribunal’s 2021/2022 annual budget was reported at around $3.8 million, an increase of this size would more than double what the Tribunal is accustomed to receiving. Even assuming that the government splits this allocation equally with the Community Legal Assistance Society, $2.25 million would be a significant bump in funding.

The Lead Up to Change

However impressive this funding increase may seem, it did not come out of the blue. The Tribunal’s 2021/2022 Annual Report reported that “[o]ver the past 10 years, there has been a 210% increase in the number of cases with only a 27% increase in budget.” The COVID-19 pandemic in particular led to a huge increase in new human rights complaints, with the number going from 1,529 in 2019/2020 to 3,192 in 2021/2022. As the 2021/22 report explains, the Tribunal was initially structured to address about 1,100 cases per year. A significant funding increase is likely necessary to address the structural growth and change required to take on this unprecedented increase.

The Tribunal is also in the process of implementing several systemic and procedural changes to their organization to promote cultural equality, with a specific focus on the experience of Indigenous complainants. These changes were developed as part of a large-scale research study into the experience of Indigenous complainants in the provincial human rights system (released in January 2020). This study revealed a number of systemic barriers that Indigenous British Columbians face in filing human rights complaints, and makes a number of concrete recommendations to address these barriers, many of which require additional funding to be effectively executed (for example, hiring a greater numbers of Indigenous staff and tribunal members, developing a plain language website, tracking and reporting on Indigenous complaints).

In response to the rapidly increasing number of complaints being filed, and the numerous recommendations to be implemented, the Tribunal made an additional funding request to the BC Ministry of the Attorney General in December 2020. This funding request did not receive any response in the 2020/2021 fiscal year or the 2021/2022 fiscal year. It is not unreasonable to say that the funding increase announced in January 2023 had been in the works for a while.

Where Does Alberta Stand?

With this huge increase coming to the BC Human Rights Tribunal, the question becomes, is it time for other provinces to follow suit? How does Alberta’s human rights budget measure up to BC?

It is difficult to compare the BC human rights system to the Alberta human rights system for two reasons. First, the BC system is organized differently than any other human rights system in Canada. Secondly, the provinces report their human rights spending differently.

Organized Differently

When the Government of BC dissolved the Human Rights Commission in 2003, the province moved to what they called a “direct access” model. This meant that complaints were submitted directly to the Tribunal, and the Tribunal was the body responsible for all steps of the complaint process, from screening to adjudication. With the reintroduction of the Commission, BC has maintained this direct model by keeping the roles of the Tribunal and allocating new responsibilities to the Commission that did not exist under the Tribunal-only framework.

Alberta, on the other hand, has a more traditional “indirect access” model. This means that complaints are screened by one body, the Alberta Human Rights Commission (AHRC), and proceed to adjudication with another body, the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal (AHRT). Responsibilities within the human rights system are also allocated differently in Alberta than in BC. In particular, the Office of the Director of the Commission is responsible for many functions within the complain process, such as screening and intake, that would fall to the Tribunal in BC.

These different models are designed to achieve the same main purposes, however organizational and process differences likely result in different budgetary needs. It is therefore an extreme oversimplification to compare provincial human rights budgets based on the final numbers alone. The author acknowledges this oversimplification and will address this by arguing in terms of spending trends, rather than final amounts.

Reported Differently

A separate, but related, difficulty in comparing human rights spending between provinces is that different provinces have different public reporting requirements and practices. This makes it difficult to verify that you are comparing the correct numbers.

The BC Human Rights Commission and Human Right Tribunal budgets are reported separately, by different organizations (as stated above). In Alberta, the entire human rights budget for both the Commission and Tribunal is reported as a single line item in the Alberta Justice and Solicitor General Annual Report.

Overall Comparison

The graph below compares overall human rights spending in Alberta and British Columbia. The BC numbers were calculated by combining the allocated budgets of the Commission and the Tribunal. The Alberta numbers were pulled directly from the Alberta Justice and Solicitor General reports.

[Sources: BC – See Graph “BC Human Rights Budget – Commission & Tribunal” above, AB – 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022]

Taking a closer look at the graph, we see that BC’s human rights spending was quite a bit lower than Alberta in 2019 and then slowly rises above Alberta levels before shooting up with this latest budget increase. Similarly, we see Alberta’s human rights budget decrease by almost $2 million in 2020/2021 and then stay more or less steady for the next three years, with no indication that any increase is forthcoming in the immediate future.

We can break these trends down further if we look at the context of what was happening in the respective provincial governments during this period.

In 2019, BC was just beginning to rebuild the BC Human Rights Commission, and this year represented the first fiscal year that this body would receive funding. A small budget was allocated to allow the Commission to establish itself and while awaiting the appointment of a Human Rights Commissioner. As the Commission became established, the budget was incrementally increased to allow this body to scale sustainably. During this time, Tribunal budgets stayed more or less consistent, only increasing in 2023 in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and new cultural initiatives.

In Alberta, 2019 was the year that United Conservative Party candidate Jason Kenney was elected as Premier. While there was no indication that the UCP government was specifically targeting human rights spending, priority was given to “responsible fiscal management” in the government’s 2019-23 Fiscal Plan. It is logical that budgets would be “reined in” during this 2019-2023 period that the UCP remain in power, and there is no clear indication that the current government is interested in deviating from this status-quo.

Is a Budget Increase Due?

Maintaining that status quo may not be sustainable for Alberta for much longer. The influx of human rights complaints arising as a result of the societal impacts of COVID-19 did not only occur in British Columbia. In the 2019/20 fiscal year, the AHRC accepted 895 new complaints. In the 2021/2022 fiscal year, the AHRC received 2,028 potential complaints and accepted 1,040 of them. Of these 1,040, the Commission identified 329 that were directly related to COVID-19.

Likewise, British Columbia is not the only province that is developing and implementing systemic changes to improve access to the human rights process for Indigenous people. The Alberta Human Rights Commission announced an Indigenous Human Rights Strategy in June 2021 and established the Indigenous Advisory Circle shortly thereafter. This strategy would surely benefit from increased funding just as much as its BC counterpart.

Alberta’s large and unallocated budget surplus may even provide our government with an unforeseen opportunity to allocate additional funding to support these measures without compromising “responsible fiscal management”. This would demonstrate a provincial commitment to human rights, especially given the previously stated desire (or arguably blunder) by current leader Danielle Smith to amend the Alberta Human Rights Act. Based on the latest provincial budget, released February 28, 2023, the Alberta government has not considered these benefits, as the human rights budget is targeted to stay consistent until 2026.

While there are clearly difficulties in making a direct comparison between BC’s Human Rights budget and Alberta’s, it appears that the same factors are present in both provinces. Increasing funding to Alberta’s Human Rights Commission could only bolster the promotion and protection of human rights within the province, an uncontroversial and noble pursuit. As BC Parliamentary Secretary for Anti-Racism Initiatives, Mable Elmore, said: “Everyone has the right to live without oppression or other inequities […] This investment is part of our work to address systemic discrimination and build a better, more inclusive BC.”

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