New human rights commission head to take aim at accessibility, racism

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Joseph Fraser is the new director and CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. (Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission - image credit)
Joseph Fraser is the new director and CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. (Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission - image credit)

The new director and CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission says tackling accessibility issues and systemic racism are two of his main priorities as he begins his five-year term.

Joseph Fraser, a native of Dingwall, N.S., in northern Cape Breton, stepped into his new role on April 19.

Fraser was previously the director of human rights and equity services at the Nova Scotia Community College. He has also worked for the Nova Scotia Public Service Commission, where he was responsible for government-wide workplace policy and diversity programming.

Fraser said he comes to the role with professional experience working on diversity and equity, but also with personal experience of discrimination.

"As a gay man I have experienced discrimination and harassment based on my sexual orientation, which has given me a perspective on the importance of advancing human rights," he said.

But Fraser also acknowledged he has white, male and other forms of privilege — "none of which I've done anything to earn."

"The privilege I've been afforded has made things easier for me than for many. My aim is to use my lived experience as well as the forms of privilege I've been afforded to advance human rights for everyone."

Tackling discrimination, improving commission

According to the most recent publicly available statistics, the greatest number of complaints filed with the commission related to discrimination based on physical and mental disability, with race accounting for the next highest number.

Fraser said he will use partnerships and education to work on reducing the number of complaints about disability and race.

"Anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, it's alive and well in Nova Scotia, and that's a problem," he said.

"It's not enough to chip away at something or to make small changes. Of course they contribute, but if we're going to change the tide on racism, a movement is required, the sort of movement that got people to quit smoking or start wearing seatbelts. And it takes all of us being in it together."

Members of Equity Watch, a group that keeps tabs on the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, protests the dismissal of a sexual harassment complaint on April 8, 2021.
Members of Equity Watch, a group that keeps tabs on the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, protests the dismissal of a sexual harassment complaint on April 8, 2021.(Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Another priority, Fraser said, is ensuring the commission is "firing on all cylinders" and is as accessible, effective and efficient as possible.

The commission has a diverse and committed staff, he said, but large caseloads — human rights officers are working on up to 35 cases at any given time — and the increasing complexity of those files mean there are challenges such as lags in responding to inquiries and meeting deadlines.

Fraser said one of the first things he will do is ensure all staffing vacancies are filled.

He also noted that providing resources such as legal support to self-represented complainants and respondents may make the complaint process smoother and more efficient.

Recent cases

In recent weeks, the cases of two women who came forward to the commission with sexual harassment complaints made headlines. Christine Shupe's complaint was dismissed because commission staff made a mistake and the Human Rights Act would not permit it to be corrected.

"That should not have happened," said Fraser. "When someone brings a matter forward to the commission, it's imperative that we treat it with the highest level of care and concern."

He said he's been assured management has worked with its team to ensure there's a process in place to prevent that mistake from happening again.

Christine Shupe said she was in disbelief when she learned her complaint had been dismissed due to the commission's error.
Christine Shupe said she was in disbelief when she learned her complaint had been dismissed due to the commission's error.(Robert Short/CBC)

When Samantha Chapman approached the commission to file a complaint against the same employer, she was turned away because she was past the 12-month limit for making complaints. Some advocates have called for that statute of limitations to be extended.

Fraser said while he understands that experiencing discrimination can make it difficult for people to come forward within the 12-month time frame, extending that window could also make it more difficult to investigate and substantiate claims.

Asked whether he would be willing to work on changing the statute of limitations, Fraser said "that's something that we would want to turn our minds to."

He said the commission has been in discussions with the Justice Department about potential amendments to the Human Rights Act, but he hasn't had a chance to delve into what those recommendations could look like yet.

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