Throughout my life, I have experienced discrimination. In most cases, I brush it off.
If I pursued every case of discrimination that I have faced throughout my life, I would spend more time in front of a tribunal than I would in any other environment.
Currently, I have two different applications for relief before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO). One of them deals with systemic discrimination and harassment that I faced as a student of my school board. The other deals with legal services I received from Legal Aid Ontario (LAO).
The substance of the allegations matters less than the process itself. Do not misunderstand me; I never take discrimination, harassment or any violation of my rights lightly. On the same note, I believe that litigation should always be a last resort and never a rash response to a situation.
Throughout the process of my involvement with the tribunal, I have discovered a power imbalance. The HRTO is designed to hear complaints of breaches of the code under one or more of the protected grounds under the code. The tribunal is referred to as a quasi-legal system.
While it’s said that you do not need a lawyer to file an application with the tribunal, it is almost always the case that the respondent, usually a corporation or large entity, hires a lawyer or a law firm to represent them. The problem with this is that people with disabilities systemically have less resources than their opponent, which creates a real-life version of David and Goliath proportions.
In my opinion, it is unreasonable that it always has to be the affected person who brings an application alleging wrongdoing. Legal services and access to justice are a huge problem within Canada that needs to be addressed. It is good that, in Ontario, we have a code that protects people against unfair discrimination and harassment. However, that is not helpful if the process meant to protect those rights is inaccessible to the people who really need it.
I should have filed a human rights complaint for treatment I have received in my everyday life more often than I have. However, I would estimate that 90 per cent of the time, I let these cases go unresolved—usually at my own detriment, simply because I do not have the resources to hire the appropriate legal services. It is important to note that there is a Human Rights Legal Support Centre within Ontario. However, their capacity to take cases is extremely diminished due to lack of funding, and I do not see this getting any better under Premier Doug Ford.
If the system is already stacked against us, how are we supposed to feel heard, respected, and valued?
We need a better legal framework that gives people who face harassment and discrimination better tools and legal resources to fight against systems that are largely built on oppression.
In some ways, I think we have come so far. However, in others, I firmly believe that we leave people with disabilities to fend for themselves in a perfect storm created by a set of circumstances where the odds are alarmingly not in their favour. This is particularly dangerous as people who discriminate and harass are well-aware that they have the upper hand.
The discrimination that I faced while in high school and the discrimination that I faced with legal aid and from other people on a daily basis have a lasting impact on me, physically and mentally.