What's going on with human rights commissions?

AuthorMcKay-Panos, Linda
PositionHuman Rights Law

Recently, some Canadians have been calling for the abolishment of human rights commissions ("Commissions"). Articles by David Warren, Rebecca Walberg, Ezra Levant, and even Rex Murphy have strongly criticized Commissions and some have called for their demise. A few others, such as Janet Keeping, Nigel Hanneford and Aaron Goldstein, have noted that moderation is needed and have recommended changes to human rights legislation, but not abolition.

There are two sources of concern that have fueled this debate. First, there are provisions in some provincial and federal human rights codes that permit complaints based on discriminatory or hateful published statements, such as those that might be found in a newspaper editorial or letter to the editor. Second, over the years, there have been concerns about various aspects of the human rights complaint process. Neither of these concerns should result in the demise of Commissions. Although there may be legislative and procedural changes required to make Commissions work more efficiently, Commissions are definitely needed.

First, it is clear that discrimination is alive and well in Canada, particularly in the areas traditionally covered by human rights legislation. These include accommodation, employment, employment advertisement, signs and symbols, services customarily available to the public and membership in organizations such as trade unions. In Alberta, for example, in 2006-7 the Human Rights and Citizenship Commission opened 659 files dealing with discrimination. In 2006, the Canadian Human Rights Commission opened close to 1,000 files. The most common grounds cited were discrimination based on disability and race/ national or ethnic origin. Employment discrimination was and is the most commonly cited area, followed by services customarily available to the public (e.g., stores, restaurants, hotels).

Second, without Commissions, most people would have no legal recourse when they experience discrimination. There is no tort of discrimination recognized in Canadian courts, so suing someone for discrimination is difficult. In addition, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms only applies to the government, so individuals could not rely on the Charter to obtain remedies for discrimination by companies or other individuals.

Third, complaining to Commissions gives some of the most vulnerable people in our society the opportunity to assert a claim to dignity and respect. The cost of going to court is...

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