Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Good day, ladies and gentlemen.
I am deeply humbled to appear before such a distinguished group of individuals who have served Canadian society in so many important different ways. I had an opportunity to review your biographies. It is both an honour and a privilege for me to serve as Chairperson of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal and to discuss with you my qualifications for this position.
With respect to the tribunal, it is the adjudicative body that hears complaints of discrimination further to the Canadian Human Rights Act. The tribunal, as you're all aware, is governed by laws written by Parliament and that are interpreted by the courts. The Canadian Human Rights Commission investigates complaints, educates the public about human rights, and advocates positions regarding current human rights issues. The commission, as you're aware, is a party that sometimes appears before the tribunal.
In terms of my qualifications, the Canadian Human Rights Act requires the chair to have been a member of the bar of a province for at least ten years. In addition, all members of the tribunal must demonstrate sensitivity, expertise, and an interest in human rights.
I've submitted to the committee my detailed curriculum vitae in English and in French. I will elaborate in terms of some personal background, which may be of interest to you, that you can't read on the paper.
I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In 1960 my father, who had obtained his LL.B., B.Sc., and B.Ed. from Bombay University, was searching for an articling position. However, he seized an opportunity to teach in Ethiopia and moved to Addis Ababa, where I was born. Both my mother and father taught there.
In Addis Ababa they saw an ad in the local newspaper for openings in Alberta for teachers. So my parents mailed their résumés to the address. In India they had, of course, studied that Alberta was the breadbasket of Canada. Now, I know that some will disagree, but that's what they had studied. Then, somewhat surprisingly, they received a telegram, in 1964, asking if they could begin immediately. So in October 1964, they boarded an airplane and flew to Edmonton. They settled in a small French-Canadian town, McLennan, 438 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.
We moved to Edmonton when I was four, because my father, at the age of 39, redid his entire law degree at the University of Alberta.
An interesting event occurred in grade 4. I was walking to school and passed in front of the newly opened Alberta Human Rights Commission office in Edmonton. I still recall walking down the street and thinking that when I grew up, I'd like to be a lawyer and work for them, which is odd, because people usually don't think of or choose a law career so early in life.
The office had just been opened, and Peter Lougheed had been newly elected in 1971. His first act of government was to table two bills: first, the Alberta Bill of Rights; and second, the Individual's Rights Protection Act, Alberta's human rights act. These two bills were his flagship legislation.
In terms of my education,
I completed my education in the Catholic school system. I graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Alberta. I did my internship and was called to the Bar in 1987. I began practising law with my father at the firm of Pundit & Chotalia. At the same time, I enrolled in a part-time Master of Laws program at the University of Alberta and obtained my Master of Laws in 1991. For my Master's thesis, I drafted a privacy protection bill inspired by Alberta's human rights system.
In the interim, in 1989 I was appointed by the Minister of Labour as a commissioner to the Alberta Human Rights Commission. During this work, I met with aboriginal Albertans and gained an understanding of their concerns.
After this appointment, in 1994 I wrote a legal annotation of human rights law, which is the Annotated Canadian Human Rights Act. I updated this text annually for a number of years. In 1996 I wrote a larger work, called Human rights law in Canada, which included the provincial human rights laws of Alberta, B.C., Quebec, and Ontario.
Meanwhile, in terms of the thrust of my law practice, for the first five years I had a general practice, including extensive criminal law work. I then began to focus my practice in the areas of immigration and human rights litigation. I represented both complainants and respondents with issues of fairness and access to justice. For example, I assisted many live-in caregivers who were facing removal for circumstances beyond their control. I brought a constitutional challenge to legislation for a woman who had contracted breast cancer in Canada and was found to be medically inadmissible. I was also involved in major litigation against the Government of the Northwest Territories for a male client who was falsely accused of sexual harassment. The suit was for conspiracy and defamation.
I was counsel for the Alberta Civil Liberties Association in Grant v. Attorney General of Canada, both before the Federal Court Trial Division and the Federal Court of Appeal. The court ruled that not only was the RCMP within its rights to allow a Sikh officer to wear a turban, but was indeed under a duty to accommodate this religious practice.
Over the last number of years I represented a woman who alleged that she was denied the position of a surface rights administrator with an oil company because she was a woman. She also alleged that she was harassed and retaliated against for having filed a discrimination complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. The Alberta Court of Appeal recently ruled in her favour.
Parenthetically, a few years after my Annotated Canadian Human Rights Act was released, I was appointed to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal as a part-time member. During this tenure, I adjudicated on a variety of cases, including disability in the trucking and shipping industries.
Throughout my legal practice, I have worked toward ensuring that there is fair process for my clients, both complainants and respondents. Recently, in 2008, I was appointed, through an independent vetting committee, as special advocate to represent named persons facing allegations of terrorism. The requirements included expertise and knowledge in human rights law, immigration law, and security law. I had taught terrorism and the law, as well as human rights law, at the law faculty for a number of years at the University of Alberta.
Recently, in 2008, I served as a bencher of the Law Society of Alberta. I was elected by Alberta lawyers to administer the Legal Professions Act of Alberta, which governs lawyers, so we conducted and I sat on a number of disciplinary hearings, as well as competency hearings.
In short, I feel that I bring the qualifications and credentials necessary to serve as chairperson of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. I hope that I may draw on my experience as vice-chair of the Access to Justice Committee when I was a bencher of the Law Society of Alberta. I hope to search for ways to improve the efficiency of the hearing process to enable complainants and respondents to access justice in a timely fashion. Indeed, I am seeking to reach out to lawyers, law schools, and stakeholders in the process to develop strategies.
Thus, I look forward to serving Canadians to the best of my ability, and I'm delighted that you've asked me to come here.
I'm happy to answer any questions you may have for me.