By Haseena Manek
“Our thing is that, as front line work is being cut, overall it affects the people of Ontario being served. I mean, what are they to do? If they’re being discriminated [against] in a human rights matter, what do they do? It’s not just impacting our front line people, it’s impacting the people of Ontario. That’s why our slogan is Human Rights Matter because it should matter. It should matter to all Ontarians, to all people.” Angela Huynh-Chew, Legal Case Coordinator at the Ontario Human Rights Legal Support Centre (HRLSC), in an interview with Rankandfile.ca
Huynh-Chew is the bargaining team Chair and Treasurer with Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) Local 5118. She’s one of four OPSEU members and HRLSC employees who lead a campaign to protect funding to the Centre (along with Phyllis Kumi, Maureen Chow and Wil Szuhovszky) after the cut was announced. However, as of April 1st, the (HRLSC) still lost 10% of its funding. They are now continuing to campaign to have what was cut restored.
Kumi, a Human Rights Advisor with the HRLSC and Unit Steward of Local 5118, says that the cuts are “devastating” to the centre, which means layoffs, an inability to fill vacant positions for the staff of 59, and changes to the Centre’s services. The HRLSC provides legal support to Ontarians who have experienced human rights violations in the areas of services, housing, employment, contracts and vocational associations.
“The 10% cut equates to eliminating the Mediation Project at our centre,” says Huynh-Chew about the HRLSC initiative which provides support, at the mediation stage, for those who file an application with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. It’s a project which was awarded the Ontario Public Service’s Amethyst Award just last year.
Anyone filing an application has the option of mediation before going to hearing. The Mediation Project offers support (including advice and legal representation) when meeting with the subject of the application (and their legal representation) for mediation. The Project has lead to many cases being resolved before going to hearing. Kumi explains that this extra support is beneficial to Ontarians filing applications with the tribunal; and that it cuts costs for the Province.
“It works for everyone, it’s a win-win process,” says Kumi. “Our government is talking about efficiency. Well we’ve been efficient for a number of years. That’s what they’ve told us; they want efficiency – well we’ve given it to them. So much so that last year we were awarded the Amethyst award, and that’s given by the Ministry of the Attorney General. We got it for service excellence for our Mediation Project, because it helped move the process along and helped to resolve a lot of these cases. So the ministry itself recognized us, our clients recognize us, so why are Minister Mulroney and Premier Ford refusing to recognize us?”
The role of the union
The cut was announced with HRLSC staff in December of 2018 and, the #HumanRightsMatter campaign was launched at the beginning of March.
“What we decided to do as members of OPSEU Local 5118 is to come up with some sort of plan of action to convince Premier Ford and Minister Mulroney to reverse the cuts,” Kumi explains. “The mediation project is an initiation of the human rights legal support centre. We’re a unionized environment so once we heard what was happening we decided to take action as unionized members who work at the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.”
OPSEU is hosting information about the campaign on their website and have been “instrumental” in the planning and execution of the campaign, according to Kumi and Huynh-Chew.
“The union has actually been very helpful with our campaign to support [the Centre],” says Kumi. “We’re very proud to be OPSEU members. Brainstorming ideas, executing ideas – it’s just been very powerful and it would be very difficult to do any of this without them. They’ve been very supportive.”
The campaign has included printed flyers, a Facebook page, and a drafted letter to Attorney General Caroline Mulroney. The campaign page on the OPSEU website encourages readers to write to Minister Mulroney as well as Ford. The letter also provides contact information for NDP MPP Sara Singh, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, Liberal MPP John Fraser, and Green Party MPP Mike Schreiner.
On April 1, the day the cut came into effect, the campaign facilitated a phone blitz encouraging people to call the Attorney General’s office with support of the campaign and the HRLSC.
According to Kumi and Huynh-Chew, the campaign has received no response from the Province.
“We’re just gonna keep working at it,” says Kumi, “because that’s just the climate that we’re in and you know our fellow Ontarians deserve it. They deserve to have somebody go to bat for them. We’ve been doing it for almost 11 years. So if we’ve been fighting for them all this time, we’re just gonna have to do it a little bit more because now, especially, is when it counts.”
Kumi explains that the campaign’s focus is reminding its audience about how human rights standards and the work of the HRLSC impact everyday Ontarians. On their Facebook page, the campaign is sharing infographics and memes demonstrating situations that are actually violations of human rights legislation in Ontario.
“A lot of people are reacting to this which is quite good because not everybody realizes what human rights means, especially what human rights in Ontario means. […] Because it could mean somebody has been injured on the job and is not being accommodated by the employer even though the person has brought all the necessary medical information and there is work available. It could be racial profiling in grocery stores against individuals,” says Kumi.
In just about two weeks, HRLSC workers can already see a difference in their experience at work and the experience of their clients, who along with lacking the support at the mediation stage of an application, will experience longer wait times and who will rely on a smaller legal team.
“We get 25,000 calls a year,” says Kumi. “That doesn’t stop with the cuts.”
Doug Ford’s austerity damaging human rights standards in Ontario
“The Ford government is all about austerity,” says Kumi. “Unfortunately they don’t seem to think that human rights matters, otherwise they wouldn’t have cut the funding.”
Since the PCs came into power under Doug Ford last June, the Conservative government has made alarming cuts to public services and significant changes to workers’ rights, education, healthcare, and more. These changes impact how people experience their human rights. Now, the Province is limiting access to necessary legal support in the event of a human rights violation.
“Sometimes some of the other political decisions that are being made, like issues regarding employment, make people a little more susceptible to human rights violations,” says Kumi. “It just makes employers more likely to want to terminate people when they are very vulnerable. For example when they end up developing depression and have to take sick leave. Or when they’re injured at work. Or if somebody needs accommodation regarding their children. This is how people are experiencing things in the province. When you just don’t care about people, this is what happens. And when you implement policies that make people more vulnerable, they become more susceptible to human rights violations.”
This is an updated story that was originally published April 17, 2019