12/12/2013 08:02 EST | Updated 02/11/2014 05:59 EST

MP Marc Garneau Seeks Overhaul Of Canada's Human Rights Law

The Liberal member of Parliament for Westmount–Ville-Marie, Marc Garneau, is championing the cause of a man who filed a human rights complaint against the Canadian government — more than 25 years after the alleged events happened.

On Tuesday, the MP put forward a private member's bill, C-564, asking that the statute of limitations on human rights complaints be extended to two years from the current one year.

The bill stems from the case of Paul Richard.

Richard, now 72, was an economist for the federal government in the 1970s and 1980s.

He was also an openly gay man at the time of his employment on Parliament Hill. He says he was targeted by his supervisors and colleagues as a consequence of his sexuality.

He acrimoniously parted ways with his employer in 1985 after constant restructuring meant he was shuttled from department to department within the federal government.

Richard says the restructuring was just one tactic used by management to make him uncomfortable.

“I would apply for positions sometimes outside of Ottawa, in the regions, and positions for which I would apply for — for those very positions — I would find out they would disappear after being posted,” Richard says.

He continues, saying that he applied for a job that ended up being offered to a colleague who ultimately refused the offer. Richard says he was second in line for the job, but he never received an offer after the first choice turned it down — a contravention of the federal government's employment rules at the time, he alleges.

He says the harassment went even further, with management moving him around from office to office on Parliament Hill.

“They would physically isolate me from my colleagues. Totally different floors; once, a totally different building,” Richard says.

“In my case it was systemic discrimination. Not only one time; it was throughout my entire career of 15 years — the whole time I was at the federal government,” he adds.

Too late for CHRC

In 2005, after years of suffering from acute clinical depression which he says was related to his experience working for the federal government, he filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Richard said he was unable to file sooner than 2005 for several reasons, including personal health problems, unemployment, the burden of caring for his sick, now–deceased mother and the process of sifting through the emotional fallout of his experience at the federal government.

“When you have been fired from your job in similar circumstances it’s very hard on you and very difficult to sit down and focus on building your complaint,” says Garneau, citing Richard’s case.

However, the CHRC told Richard in 2007 that his case had expired according to the statute of limitations: It didn’t hear complaints over a year old.

The ruling was overturned by a judge a year later, but Richard ran into further obstacles in 2009 when the federal Treasury Board said that it couldn’t find any of the witnesses Richard named in his complaint — and even if it could find them, so much time had elapsed since the alleged events, that no one would be able to recall them anyway.

Eventually, Richard brought his case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada — and lost. At the time of the ruling, he said he was disappointed and didn’t understand how the court could have ruled as it did.

Garneau presents bill to change CHRC rules

Garneau, the Montreal-area MP, didn’t understand the ruling either.

Garneau says Richard approached him with his story, and after hearing him out, the MP decided to take up his cause.

Bill C-564 aims to extend the statute of limitations from one to two years and also aims to extend further discretionary powers to the CHRC to hear cases that have surpassed the statute of limitations but which it deems are appropriate to hear under the circumstances.

The CHRC’s one-year time limit has been challenged at the Supreme Court before.

In the 1998 ruling in the case of Gauthier v. Beaumont, the justices remarked that, “In this case, the trial judge erred in law in drawing a distinction between the appellant’s lack of courage to initiate legal proceedings and absolute impossibility in fact to act.”

Human rights activist Fo Niemi, the executive director of Montreal's Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), says the one-year statute has always been a problem in the work that he does.

“One year is a very short time especially in complex cases of harassment and psychological consequences,” Niemi says.

Two years, he contends, would allow complainants to build more solid cases and find witnesses to attest to the discrimination they say they faced.

Two years, of course, would not have been long enough for Richard.

Justice for others now Richard's goal

After nearly 10 years in the court system and nearly 30 years since he left the federal government, the 72-year-old Richard may never receive compensation for the abuse the CHRC recognizes he suffered — but his work may help others get access to justice.

He says Garneau’s deposition of the private member's bill was a very encouraging day — if not for him, then at least for people in similar situations.

Human rights activist Niemi says that if Garneau’s bill does pass, that it should be named after Richard in recognition of the struggles he’s faced to have his complaint heard.

When Richard hears this, he breaks down sobbing.

“Whatever it’s called, as long as it does what it’s supposed to do,” he says through tears.

“To never allow another person to go through what I went through.”

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