Manitobans wait 2 years to have human rights complaints assigned to investigators

Anyone filing a complaint to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission can expect a delay of two years before an investigator is assigned, despite efforts in recent years to address a backlog of cases.

At the beginning of this year, there was a backlog of about 400 cases waiting to have an investigator assigned, data from the commission shows, resulting in a complainant having to wait about 24 months before an investigator begins working on a file.

“I think there’s a lot of people that just give up at that point or think it’s not worth it,” said Michelle McHale, who filed a complaint with the commission years ago.

“That can be a really bumpy road for people,” she said in an interview.

McHale was part of a complaint with three parents alleging the provincial government’s education curriculum discriminates against LGBTQ families by not including gender identity or sexual orientation in the curriculum and learning materials. 

The two-year wait takes a toll on anyone who goes to the human rights commission to formally challenge an organization, a workplace or a place of worship, she said.

“That takes a physical toll, an emotional toll, a mental toll, a spiritual toll,” McHale said. 

Once an investigator is assigned to a complaint, the process that follows can then take months or potentially years to complete. 

Impact on public trust

The human rights commission acknowledges the wait times are too long, said Delaney Coelho, the commission’s director of intake and mediation.

The commission recognizes the wait times have an impact on the people involved and on public trust in the human rights system, she said.

“We take this really seriously and realize we’ll be the first to say that the current wait times are unacceptable and not OK,” said Coelho.

The current backlog of about 400 cases is an improvement from 614 files in the queue in April 2022, she said.

The commission is committed to eliminating those wait times by 2025, Coelho said. 

“We’re feeling good about the work that is being done and the reduction in wait time that we’re seeing.”

A smiling woman with brown hair is dressed in a purple shirt.
Delaney Coelho, director of intake and mediation at the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, says the commission recognizes that wait times can impact public trust in the human rights system. (Submitted by Lindsay Martin)

There were just two investigators at the commission before last fall, but now there are six, she said.

After a funding increase in the 2023 provincial budget, the commission hired additional administrative staff to help continue reducing wait times, she said.

“Due to this recognition of how serious it is and frustrating it can be for the complainant, that’s part of the reason why we’ve focused so much of our work and our resources on backlog reduction,” she said.

The backlog in human rights cases is also felt in other provinces, she said, especially in light of a large volume of complaints stemming from issues related to COVID-19 in recent years.

The commission expects to update the wait time projection within two to four months, and Coelho expects the wait time to be significantly reduced.

She also said the commission is trying to be as transparent as possible with the public by posting information about delays on its website.

McHale’s complaint to the commission about the education curriculum was filed in 2017 and is still unresolved. 

The commission’s board of commissioners voted to dismiss the complaint in 2019. 

McHale and the other parents then sought a judicial review, which led to a 2021 decision by a Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench justice that ordered the human rights commission to take a second look at the case.

A public hearing date has not been scheduled.

Lawyer Allison Fenske, a specialist in human rights law at the Public Interest Law Centre, worked on the case involving McHale. 

Fenske said her work at any given time relates to human rights cases that have the potential to make a systemic impact in law and affect a broad group of Manitobans. 

Among her cases currently being investigated at the human rights commission are a series of complaints filed in 2019, she said. 

A woman wearing a grey suit jacket stands outside on the sidewalk in an urban setting.
Allison Fenske, a staff attorney with the Public Interest Law Centre, says the delays in cases at the Manitoba Human Rights Commission are of great concern to her clients. (Gavin Boutroy/Radio-Canada)

“The continuing delays associated with the investigation of complaints are of great concern to the clients that I represent,” Fenske said in an interview.

“And to be, you know, basically put on hold or put into a queue for years, that’s a really tough pill for my clients to swallow.”

Facing a potential two-year wait to have an investigator assigned, complainants “really have to weigh whether this is a process that is going to assist them in having the discrimination they’ve faced remedied or their rights respected,” she said.

As a lawyer, Fenske says it’s frustrating that a human rights complaint can have so much potential to result in important resolutions for people but “continues to be mired in institutional delays.” 

She’s glad the commission is making efforts to resolve the delays in cases, but said there are still significant delays with many parts of the complaint process.

With the number of investigators increased from two to six, “whether or not that is going to be enough remains to be seen,” Fenske said.

“People can’t continue to wait.” 

In November 2021, the Manitoba government proclaimed legislation amending the Human Rights Code to improve the commission’s ability to provide timely reviews of complaints.

A government news release at the time said the changes “empower the commission to make decisions sooner by allowing the commission’s executive director to dismiss complaints, including those outside its jurisdiction, and to decline to investigate complaints that are being adequately addressed in another forum.” 

The provincial ombudsman drew attention to the wait times issue with a June 2020 report on the cases of seven people concerned about the length of time it took the commission to investigate their cases. 

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