The head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) says she was surprised by the recent appointment of two new commissioners by the Ford government, one of whom may have a conflict of interest in a major ongoing investigation.
Toronto police Const. Randall Arsenault and McMaster University philosophy professor Violetta Igneski were named part-time commissioners earlier this month.
However, OHRC chief commissioner Renu Mendhane said Arsenault and Igneski were not among the more than 330 applications submitted to the commission by its typical public appointment system.
She is now asking Ontario’s Attorney General’s office to explain how the two were selected.
“I was certainly surprised to hear about the appointments because they didn’t follow the process that I had engaged in with the ministry,” she told CBC’s Metro Morning on Wednesday.
Mendhane is asking the Ford government to “clarify the process by which these two individuals were appointed,” but said she has not yet received any answers.
The OHRC is an arms-length watchdog with the mandate of preventing discrimination and promoting and advancing human rights in Ontario. It was established by the province in 1961.
It is separate from the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, which considers and rules on claims of discrimination and harassment under the province’s human rights code.
The controversial appointments were first reported by the Toronto Star.
Ford government says appointments were made properly
The Attorney General’s office said Arsenault and Igneski were appointed by the Ford government cabinet, a standard practice for OHRC commissioners.
“The appointments were made in accordance with the Ontario Human Rights Code. It states that every person appointed to the Commission shall have knowledge, experience or training with respect to human rights law and issues and it provides that appointments to the OHRC are appointed by the Lieutenant Governor in council, based on the advice and recommendations of cabinet,” wrote government spokesperson Jesse Robichaud in a statement.
Mendhane agreed that the appointments were legally valid. However she said the process violated an agreement established between her office and the Attorney General in December.
Under that agreement, the government was to review Mendhane’s shortlist of candidates and consult with her before making appointments to the commission.
“That was not followed,” she said.
“Legally what they say is correct but it definitely surprised me given the process that I believe that we had agreed upon.”
The Ford government opened up applications to the OHRC in November after the contracts of most former commissioners expired.
Mendhane, Igneski and Arsenault are now the only three commissoners at the agency, which has historically had around nine members.
Chief commissioner to investigate conflict of interest issues
Arsenault is an 18-year veteran of the Toronto Police Service and currently works as what the service calls an Aborignal liaison officer.
In a statement, Toronto police said Arsenault’s experience “will make him a valuable asset to the OHRC and his experiences with the Commission can only translate positively for the TPS.”
The OHRC is currently investigating allegations of racial profiling and discrimination by Toronto police officers, an ongoing inquiry that is raising questions about Arsenault’s appointment.
“Obviously the appointment of an active-duty police office raised conflict of interest issues,” Mendhane said. “Both real conflicts but also the possible perception of conflict.”
Mendhane said she is also seeking advice from Ontario Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake on the possible conflict of interest, though she said it was too soon to determine if Aresenault’s appointment could be challenged in any way.
Igneski is an associate professor who focuses on moral philosophy and ethics. She is the author of several papers on the topic of human rights and the duties of individuals living in society.