Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Making life better for everyone in Saskatchewan is a passion for Barry Wilcox Q.C., a Prince Albert lawyer recently appointed as the interim Chair of the provincial Human Rights Commission.
His appointment marks the first time in the last decade that a person outside of Saskatoon has held the position.
Wilcox has spent his life and career in the city and has been on the board of the commission since 2011.
“I have a passion for human rights and I have a passion for assuring that we protect the more vulnerable. By doing that and by improving life in Saskatchewan for everybody, it makes it a lot better place to live,” he explained in a telephone interview on August 12.
The Human Rights Commission was first created in 1972 but was given an updated Code to work with several years ago. Wilcox is a firm believer in the direction the commission has been going.
“The HRC has an enforcement process, but it is highly directed towards mediation,” he explained. “We look for resolution between the parties themselves rather than having it imposed on them.”
This is an approach that makes Saskatchewan have the best human rights council in the country, he said, and has made it of note internationally as well.
“I am firm believer in the direction that has been created for the SHRC over my 10 year tenure,” Wilcox said.
The Saskatchewan commission focusses on mediation and education over other methods of reaching their goal of an equal society.
“Myself and the previous chief were in agreement pretty much entirely in direction we wanted to take the SHRC,” he said. “We use education so we can educate people on their rights and responsibilities and the need for respect for all of their fellow citizens. If people do that, it ultimately addresses things like bullying and racism.”
The Commission is also connected to a program that sees anti-bullying messages and related issues taught in schools starting in kindergarten.
“It teaches responsibility and respect right from the get-go,” Wilcox explained. “You can’t start addressing bullying and racism from an educational perspective in Grade 12.You have to start early and keep expanding on it, so that’s what we have been trying to accomplish.”
Wilcox was named Interim Chief of the Commission on August 9, a sudden measure after the previous Chief, David Arnot, was appointed to the Senate.
Senate appointments require the appointee to immediately resign from all other positions which, in Arnot’s case, meant the Human Rights Commission as well as a job as a provincial court judge.
The board itself has a variety of backgrounds that help it do its job. With the departure of Arnot, Wilcox is the only member with a legal background and other members have perspectives that include a disability commissioner, a Jewish commissioner, a Muslim commissioner and a Filipino representative as well.
“It’s a really broad spectrum of people and we try to get different perspectives because that’s what makes an organization stronger,” he explained.
Most people that do run ‘offside’ of the Code are not doing it deliberately, they lack an understanding of how the Code was designed to work, Wilcox said.
“It’s not only about protection, it’s about creating an environment where everybody is as equal as possible. Everybody gets to enjoy the same amenities of life without interference,” he stated.
While progress has happened, there is much work to do and it will likely never end.
“We know bullying is an issue. We know racism is an issue. There’s a long ways to go and it’s going to take many, many years. Every journey starts with a single step and we’ve done more than a single step. We’ve actually started to walk down the path.”
Wilcox is a familiar face in Prince Albert, having been born and raised in the city and having spent his professional career practicing law here.
Along with graduating from the College of Law at the University of Saskatoon in 1977, he has left the profession temporarily to pursue business interests, played for the Huskies football team for two years and volunteers with various organizations including the Lakeland Citizens on Patrol, the Neighbourhood Watch and Prince Albert Crimestoppers.