Often in the discussion about the human rights commissions and tribunals in Canada and its provinces, the terms get confused or interchanged. So what is the difference between the two? Here is what their respective websites say:
The Canadian Human Rights Commission is empowered by the Canadian Human Rights Act to investigate and try to settle complaints of discrimination in employment and in the provision of services within federal jurisdiction. Under the Employment Equity Act, the Commission is responsible for ensuring that federally regulated employers provide equal opportunities for employment to the four designated groups: women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, and members of visible minorities. The Commission is also mandated to develop and conduct information and discrimination prevention programs.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) is much like a court. It was created by Parliament to inquire into complaints of discrimination and to decide if what is alleged to have occurred is a discriminatory practice under the Canadian Human Rights Act. As an administrative tribunal, the CHRT has more flexibility than regular courts. This allows those who appear before it a chance to tell their cases more fully without having to follow strict rules of evidence. The Tribunal's main goal is to ensure that the Canadian Human Rights Act is interpreted and applied fairly and impartially at all hearings. The Tribunal is not an advocate for human rights issues: That is the role of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
For a better understanding of the different roles of the Tribunal and the Commission within the federal human rights process, it helps to look at our criminal justice system. Similar to the police, the Commission receives and investigates complaints. If it believes that further inquiry is warranted, and a resolution between the parties cannot be reached, it refers the case to the Tribunal for formal hearing. At this stage, the Commission will take one of three positions:
1) It may act like a crown attorney and fully participate at the hearing in the public interest by leading evidence to prove a case of discrimination;
2) It may participate as above, but in a limited capacity by addressing specific issues or legal questions, but will not by present during the whole hearing; or
3) It may choose not to participate in the hearing process at all.
In the last two scenarios, the complainant, through a lawyer or on their own, will be required to lead the evidence necessary to prove their case to the Tribunal. The Tribunal's role in all situations is comparable to that of a judge, deciding the case fairly and impartially by weighing all the evidence introduced by all parties and deciding if discrimination under the Act has occurred. If yes, the Tribunal will determine an appropriate remedy.
If it all seems a bit Byzantine, I agree. Another helpful article can be found here, if you are still a little unclear about defining and distinguishing these two bodies.
Personally, I think that, as they stand, these quasi-legal bodies have outlived their usefulness as the Criminal Code addresses most, if not all, of the concerns that these bodies were created to deal with.