'This is an urgent issue that demands action now': Doug Ford’s Conservatives are starving the human-rights system, says Del Duca

Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have “slowly and deliberately starved to death” human rights protections, charges Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca.

As the province marks the 58thanniversary Monday of the Ontario Human Rights Code, Del Duca warned “the equality and human rights fought for by Black Ontarians are being eroded by the Ford government.”

“This is an urgent issue that demands action now,” said the Liberal chief, noting that on June 15, 1962, under a PC government, Ontario was “the first province to adopt human rights protections.”

Del Duca pointed out “Doug Ford has left positions at the human rights commission vacant, cut or eliminated, resulting in unacceptable delays for those seeking justice.”

Asked Friday why the Tories have yet to announce a successor to Renu Mandhane, who left for a federal judicial appointment on May 22, Attorney General Doug Downey’s office said the government is “currently reviewing potential interim candidates for chief commissioner.”

“We will have more to say on an interim chief commissioner the next few weeks,” said Downey’s office.

“Once an interim chief commissioner is in place, the attorney general’s office will run a fully open and merit-based recruitment competition for a new chief commissioner to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.”

On May 28, Downey quietly appointed Dr. Jewel Amoah, the human rights and equity adviser for the Halton District School Board and a member of the faculty of law at the University of the West Indies, as a part-time commissioner on the OHRC.

Amoah is currently the only Black commissioner at the rights group. There was no news release of her appointment, which was posted Friday on the Ontario government website listing orders in council.

Ontario's Advocate for Community Opportunities Jamil Jivani speaks as Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, and Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Todd Smith listens on during the Queen's Park daily COVID-19 briefing in Toronto on Thursday, June 4, 2020

Some names being bandied about at Queen’s Park as potential chief commissioners of the OHRC are Jamil Jivani, a Yale-educated lawyer and Ford’s adviser on community opportunities, and retiring Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders.

Both men are Black and highly regarded by the premier, though the OHRC’s ongoing investigation of racial profiling and discrimination against the Toronto Police Service might make Saunders’ appointment problematic.

But that potential conflict did not stop the Tories from naming an active-duty Toronto officer, Const. Randall Arsenault, as a part-time commissioner on the human rights commission in January.

“The police officer that’s serving (is) top notch. You can’t ask for a better police officer than what the attorney general appointed,” Ford said after the Star revealed the posting.

“I support our police and I support the appointment that the attorney general made. If there’s a conflict, they remove themselves.”

Del Duca pointed out that controversial appointment came after “Doug Ford ignored a short list put forward by Ontario’s human rights commissioner to fill vacant positions, and instead chose to appoint commissioners with ties to the Progressive Conservative party.”

In 2018, Arsenault posted a picture on Instagram, where he has almost 63,000 followers, of himself and his partner in the uniforms posing with the premier at his annual Ford Fest picnic in Vaughan.

The constable wrote in the caption that officers “have been taking photos with politicians in all levels of government and all political parties for quite some time now. I was proud to stand beside our Premier Doug Ford.”

Also named at the same time as Arsenault was McMaster University professor Violetta Igneski, whose sister Jasmine Igneski held senior posts in the Tory governments of premier Mike Harris and prime minister Stephen Harper.

After the Star disclosed the news about Arsenault and Igneski five months ago, there was a mad scramble to do communications damage control in the attorney-general’s office.

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That’s because Mandhane had written to Downey on Feb. 7 warning that he had “failed to consult” her in advance and urged him to sign an agreement reaffirming the commission’s independence.

QP Briefing, a Torstar publication, revealed last week that the attorney general’s officials couldn’t say exactly when he signed the memorandum asserting the OHRC’s arm’s-length role.

That led to a flurry of texts and emails with Downey finally writing: “all I’m going to say is I signed it in February.”

The OHRC received the signed document on Feb. 27 at the same time as the attorney general was on the defensive to the opposition on the issue during the legislature’s daily question period.

Robert Benzie
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

TORONTO STAR