Q&A: Barbara Hall, the ex-mayor and human rights commissioner who just can’t quit politics

Q&A: Barbara Hall, the ex-mayor and human rights commissioner who just can’t quit politics

(Image: Claire Foster)

Over the course of her long career, Barbara Hall has been (among other things) an activist, a lawyer, a city councillor, a waitress at The Second City, and, most famously, the mayor of Toronto. In February she ended a nearly decade-long tenure as commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, where she grappled with issues like Islamophobia and free speech. Two weeks later she was already back in the news as head of an advisory panel charged with finding ways of reining in the Toronto District School Board’s massive dysfunction. We caught up with her to talk about her career, the mayoralty and how she really feels about expanding the Toronto Island airport.

You were Ontario’s human rights commissioner for 10 years. Any particular highlights?
There have been a number of them, but a fairly recent one was the change in legislation to add gender identity and gender expression to the Human Rights Code. I had been advocating for that for a number of years. When the code was amended, I realized that I was part of something that brought a significant community from out of the shadows and into society.

Speaking of gender issues, there was a controversial human rights case a few years ago, the John Fulton case, that highlighted a criticism of the Ontario human rights system. Some people say that it gives too much power to complainants. What do you make of that?
Well, the commission doesn’t take cases. The human rights system has three parts to it. There’s the Human Rights Tribunal, which is like the court part of the system. So if you have a complaint you go to the tribunal. There’s also the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, which provides legal services. And then there’s the commission, which deals with systemic issues, not individual ones. We’re not involved with individual complaints. But I think every court, every tribunal, has some complaints where the facts may be unpopular or difficult.

Speaking of systemic issues, there’s that thorny issue of free speech. A few years ago the commission received a well-publicized complaint about a Maclean’s article. How do you deal with being asked to act, basically, as a censor?
The human rights code says that it should not interfere with freedom of speech. Having said that, it’s clear that no right is absolute, including freedom of speech. Hate crime under the criminal code limits speech. Part of our mandate is to deal with situations that can cause tension and conflict in communities. With the Maclean’s case, we took the view that the article didn’t constitute discrimination, but we commented on the fact that even though it was legal speech, maybe the people doing the speaking wanted to think about the impact that their speech was having on other people.

Following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, most Canadian newspapers refrained from publishing the controversial Charlie Hebdo drawings. Do you think that was the proper course of action, from a human rights perspective?
So much of human rights is about context. It would seem to me that the editors who made those decisions knew they could publish certain things. Some of them appeared to make the decision to not publish in order to prevent tension and conflict.

Aren’t tension and conflict sometimes necessary to move discussion forward?
I think in a healthy, democratic society there are many views, and having the opportunity to express differing positions is very important. But we all make decisions about what we say and how we say it. We do it in our personal relationships, and we make decisions to not do things in particular ways because we think it could be harmful. There are a lot of difficult conversations that have to be had in this country, and I think if we have those conversations in a way that’s respectful and safe, then we can find new pathways forward.

Which human rights issue in Ontario is most concerning to you, currently?
The situation of Aboriginal peoples and the persistent discrimination against them is alarming for me as a Canadian. I think it’s an issue that really underlies the future of the country. It needs to be addressed by all governments and by all Canadians. Another persistent issue is anti-black racism. We do a lot of work with police services across the province. For a long time, police services fought the suggestion of racial profiling. Now most police services acknowledge it exists and want help eliminating it.

Are you ever surprised by the amount of racism that continues to exist in Toronto and Ontario?
I’m always shocked by it, but I don’t know if I’m surprised by it, sadly. Society has not had those difficult conversations. There are still a lot of unresolved issues.

What was the recent mayoral election like from your perspective, as a former mayor?
I would very much like to see our city council be more representative of the people who live in our city, and I was sorry that some of the bright young candidates from diverse communities were subject to some racism in the course of the campaign. The good news is that many young people are engaging in the political process at all levels and aren’t being silenced.

What do people not understand about being mayor? What does John Tory have to face that the average person might not know about?
I think the average person doesn’t understand how little direct power a mayor has. In our system, it’s really a position of influence, and a lot of it is about bringing people together to implement a common vision.

You were the first mayor to participate in the Pride parade. What was that like for you?
It seems funny now looking back at it, but it was a very big issue, and many people advised me against doing it. There was national and some international media here on Pride day. It’s been estimated that close to a million people were participating in the parade, and they went crazy. It was one of the most profound experiences in my life. I still have people stop me in the street and say, “I remember how it felt when I saw you in the parade.” People say that they were born here, but they never felt a full part of the community until they saw the mayor embracing their community. Then the next year a lot of other leaders were there, and no sky had fallen. Life went on, and more people were able to be who they are.

Rob Ford’s decision not to participate in the parade must have seemed like an incredible step backwards to you.
What saddened me is that the decision was communicated in ways that gave people who are homophobic permission to rear their heads and have an impact.

The last time you ran for mayor, in 2003, the issue of the waterfront airport was pivotal. Have your opinions on that changed since then?
I fly Porter.

When you look out the window now, do you like the Toronto that you see?
I try very hard not to judge other mayors because I know how much goes into things happening or not happening. It’s complex, and the cities in our country face a lot of challenges. They’re really based on models from the 1800s. They have no direct power. The power of cities is delegated from provinces, and the funding model makes it very difficult. There are no magic wands.