Les Leyne: Human rights commissioner’s budget faces hardball queries

Whenever someone prefaces a question by saying it’s going to be “pointed and personal,” it’s best to brace for what comes next. Particularly when a member of the legislature’s finance committee is issuing the warning.

B.C.’s new human rights commissioner, Kasari Govender, got a few hardball questions this week as she appeared before MLAs. She described the urgent need for her new office, saying “the rising tide of hate is awash on our shores.”

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She has been on the job for two months and the dire warning was part of her pitch for her first annual budget as an independent officer of the legislature.

MLAs were generally supportive of her mandate and the approach she outlined to fulfil it. But their job is to suspiciously scrutinize every dollar the legislature sends to the independent officers.

Some of them did just that.

Right off the top, committee chair Bob D’Eith noted that Govender’s budget was twice the amount allocated last year for the office’s inaugural budget, and he wanted to know why.

D’Eith, an NDP MLA from Maple Ridge-Mission, said: “Last time we approved the interim budget, it was $2 million for operating and then $1 million for capital. Now we're being asked to approve $6 million plus. So we really should probably dig into this a little bit just to make sure that when we look at this, we have all the facts.”

That started an examination of how she plans to spend $6 million a year.

Penticton Liberal MLA Dan Ashton said: “Please do not take me wrong as I ask. We have the freedom here to ask some very pointed and personal questions, not individually but about the organizational charts.”

By his count, her office will have 12 managers and eight executive assistants, compared to eight people “on the ground.”

“For such an important new entity in the province, are you not quite heavy on the management capabilities of this?”

Govender said she thought long and hard about office structure and heard from other jurisdictions that a strong executive level is needed.

“On the systemic issues, we need the deeper thinkers. We need the people with the deeper expertise who are going to stay for a while, who aren't turning over quickly, to do this work.”

Ashton insisted: “To be very frank, this seems very, very, very top-heavy.”

Another MLA noted the overall full-time-equivalent count — 37 — and queried how it was arrived at.

Govender said she picked the leaner option at every stage of budget making, while ensuring she could fulfil the mandate.

Comparing her $6 million ask to the $3 million allocated last year isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. The original one was estimated by the Attorney General’s Ministry before Govender was installed, and was just for the start-up year.

A more apt comparison is to the ministry’s estimate of what the office would need in its first full year. Officials said a year ago the office could require a complement of 31 staff to be fully operational, and require just over $5 million in operating expenditures in future years.

Govender’s budget submission is higher on both counts.

B.C.’s previous human rights commission was abolished in 2003 as a cost-saving move, although the tribunal process to hear individual complaints was retained.

The commission is designed to focus on education, and reducing and eliminating discrimination.

It won’t screen or investigate individual complaints, but has powers of inquiry into broader human rights issues or systemic discrimination. It’s the first fully independent human rights commission in Canada.

Govender said there has been a big increase in hate crime reports to police in B.C. and in Canada, and violence against Indigenous women is disproportionately prevalent in B.C.

She said for nearly two decades B.C. has been missing a means to redress systemic concerns and address the forces that give rise to individual complaints.

“I’m charged with being a watchdog for human rights in the province and holding the government and others to account.”

But how much that will cost is up in the air.

Last year, the committee shaved almost a million dollars off the attorney general’s startup estimate.

Sails may be trimmed again when the committee makes its recommendation in coming weeks.

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