In the 19th century, several laws and practises that were prevalent in Canada violated human rights. Before the British Emancipation Act of 1833 (effective a year later), SLAVERY was practised in the colonies, and after Confederation, discriminatory laws were enacted to discourage the immigration of nonwhites (see IMMIGRATION POLICY). Those who had already entered or continued to do so despite the restrictions, as well as native peoples, were subject to laws placing them in segregated schools, denying them the right to vote, restricting their entry into professions and certain types of employment, restricting their areas of residence, prohibiting their consumption of alcohol and even denying them access to public facilities. Women and children were treated as chattels, property rights were restricted (see MURDOCH CASE), and the male head of the family could disinherit his wife and children in his will. Women did not gain the federal vote until WWI and did not gain the provincial vote in all provinces until 1940. Women were not considered "persons" eligible for appointment to Senate until 1929.
By WWII most laws restricting rights to women and children were changed, but some racist laws continued for a few years thereafter, while those denying the franchise to native people were not altered until after the enactment of CANADIAN BILL OF RIGHTS in 1960.
Bill of Rights in Canada
The history of the Bill of Rights reveals how the concept of human rights in Canada has been developed. The result of 2 petitions submitted to Parliament by the JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, many of whom were arrested in Québec during the 1940s, the bill was championed by John DIEFENBAKER, who had been a strong defender of the Witnesses during WWII. The Bill of Rights was not entrenched, however, and this meant it had no constitutional force. It could be amended in Parliament by the normal legislative process like any other law. Moreover, it applied only to the federal jurisdiction and did not affect the provinces in any way.
History of Human Rights
After WWI a series of treaties had imposed upon several European countries the obligation to protect racial, religious and national minorities created by the LEAGUE OF NATIONS to supervise the execution of these obligations. In 1948 the UNITED NATIONS General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms, and by progressive measures national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance." Included were the fundamental freedoms and legal rights (known internationally as civil and political liberties or rights), as well as the equality rights, and the economic, social and cultural rights. The declaration was accepted by unanimous vote, with the 6 members of the Soviet bloc, Saudi Arabia and the Union of South Africa abstaining.
Canada played an important role in the drafting of the declaration. One of the committee members was Professor John P. Humphrey, an international law professor and human rights expert.
Another series of important developments after WWII led to the introduction of legislation in Canada to deal directly with the problem of discrimination. Ontario was first off the mark in 1944 to introduce provincial legislation to deal directly with this in the form of the Racial Discrimination Act. That Act was followed by Saskatchewan's Bill of Rights in 1947, and fair accommodation and fair employment practices Acts were enacted throughout Canada after 1951, followed by equal-pay legislation for women. In the 1960s the provinces started to consolidated fair-practices statutes into comprehensive human rights codes, administered and enforced by permanent human rights commissions.
By 1966 the international scene had evolved in important ways. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was supplemented by 2 binding covenants - the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Together, these convenants are sometimes referred to as the International Bill of Rights. Canada ratified both covenants in 1976 (with the unanimous consent of the provinces) and they are now binding upon Canada in INTERNATIONAL LAW. Canada also ratified the Optional Protocol to the Civil and Political Rights Covenant so that every individual in Canada can now complain to the Human Rights Commission if a Canadian government is not meeting covenant requirements. Canada also accepted another optional obligation, accepting complaints of other states - parties to the covenant - which have also accepted this state party-to-state party complaint procedure.
Since the ratification of the International Bill of Rights, Canada has ratified or signed several other important human rights treaties. They include the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to name just two.
The International Bill of Rights has a tremendous impact on Canada and on its obligations in human rights matters. Eventually, pressure to strengthen our human rights led to the CANADIAN CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS. The Charter is now part of the Constitution Act of 1982. Before 1982, there was little constitutional protection against government interference with human rights. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees fundamental freedoms, democratic rights (such as participation in elections), mobility rights (to and from within Canada), legal rights, equality rights (including equal rights for men and women and protection of multicultural heritage of all Canadians), language rights (and minority language rights), as well as the right to enforce these rights.
Equality rights are another important part of human rights law. In essence, equality rights provide the general rule that all persons are equal before and under the law and that they have the right to equal protection and benefit of the law, without discrimination. This provision came into force in 1985 and it applies to the federal government and to the provincial governments, as well as the Territories.
By 1975 every province introduced human rights legislation in their own legislatures to deal with discrimination that is not outlawed by the charter. This includes discrimination between individuals, or between employers and employees, etc. The federal Canadian Human Rights Act and Commission was created in 1977. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Québec also provided protection for the fundamental freedoms, and Saskatchewan and Alberta added limited legal rights protections in their Human Rights Code and Bill of Rights. The Québec Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1975) provides for extensive legal rights protections, and even proclaims certain economic and social rights.
Effects on Scope of Civil Liberties
But although the Constitution is the "supreme law of the land" and "any law that is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution is, to the extent of the inconsistency, of no force or effect," the adoption of the charter does not of itself guarantee human rights. Although its primary purpose is to restrain government action through judicial enforcement, the scope of civil liberties such as freedom of expression will not be known for some time. To what extent is censorship inconsistent with the charter? When is it reasonable to limit freedom of assembly for reasons of public security or order? These questions can only be answered by the courts. However, because s33 of the charter permits any government to enact laws "notwithstanding the charter," a majority government wanting to act in a manner that infringes a Charter right may do so throughout this "notwithstanding" power. Such action of government will, in most cases, constitute a clear violation of international law. Public interest groups frequently oppose such actions in democratic societies through the actions of individuals, political parties, the media and members of the legislature.
Other recent human rights debates in Canada include the controversy around the right of persons to be free from discrimination and harassment on the ground of sexual orientation. Gays and lesbians have struggled to seek equality under both federal and provincial laws. Certain provinces in Canada still lag behind most developed countries in failing to provide this protection, notably the Province of Alberta.
Author WALTER S. TARNOPOLSKY AND F. PEARL ELIADIS
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Human Rights Commission
The official site of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The Canadian Human Rights Commission administers the Canadian Human Rights Act and is responsible for ensuring compliance with the Employment Equity Act. Both laws ensure that the principles of equal opportunity and non-discrimination are followed in all areas of federal jurisdiction.
Centre for Constitutional Studies
The official site of the Centre for Constitutional Studies at the University of Alberta. The Centre was founded to encourage and facilitate the interdisciplinary study of constitutional matters both nationally and internationally.
Human Rights Research and Education Centre
The website of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa.
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
A detailed guide to Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms and related issues. From the Department of Canadian Heritage.
Watch the Heritage Minute about John Humphrey from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
Tribute To John Humphrey
This Canadian Heritage website offers a brief biography of John Humphrey and information sources about human rights.
The John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights
This website features a profile of John Peters Humphrey and an overview of the Centre’s human rights initiatives.
Canadian drafts human rights declaration
A CBC Radio feature about John Humphrey and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
You and the law - Community Legal Information on the Web
An extensive listing of websites providing general legal information that may be of interest to Canadians. From University of Toronto’s Bora Laskin Law Library.
About children's rights in British Columbia. Topics include choosing which parent to live with, medical treatment and hospitalization issues, and children's input in child protection cases. From the Canadian Bar Association, British Columbia.
Black History Canada
An extensive Internet portal featuring links to online resources about the history and culture of the Black community in Canada. Topics include enslavement, early Black settlements, human rights, immigration, and prominent personalities and community leaders in business, government, religion, sports, the military, and the arts. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP
The website for the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP.
BC Civil Liberties Association
The website for the BC Civil Liberties Association. Their mandate is to preserve, defend, maintain and extend civil liberties and human rights in British Columbia and across Canada.
Zundel case a landmark in Internet hate laws
An artice about Section 13 of the Human Rights Act from the Ottawa Citizen newspaper website.
John Humphrey Freedom Award
The John Humphrey Freedom Award, presented every year to an organization or person who has made an outstanding contribution to the promotion of human rights and democratic development. From the Rights & Democracy website.
Too Close to Home
An online learning guide that examines the history of anti-semitism and fascism in Canada during the 1930s and 1940s. Scroll down to the "Table of Contents" for key topics. From the Vancouver Holocaust Centre.
Ku Klux Klan
A brief history of the activities of the extemist hate group Ku Klux Klan in Saskatchewan. From the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan.
Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse
This site concerns the application of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in the public and private sector in the Province of Québec.
What is a hate crime?
A CBC special feature on Canadian laws that pertain to hate crimes.
Notable Canadian Hate Crime Cases
A brief summary of notable Canadian hate crime cases and related information sources from Dr. Perry, Professor of Criminology, Justice and Policy Studies at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
View a digitized copy of the first page of the third draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, showing John Peters Humphrey's annotations. From the "Tolerance.ca" website.
This site offers an extensive analysis of hate content found on the Internet, related legislation and legal rememdies, and educational strategies for understanding and responding to online hate content. From media-awareness.ca.
A quarterly Canadian magazine devoted to peacemaking, disarmament, conflict resolution, global stability, and related concerns. Offers online articles and letters from current and previous editions (from January 1983 to present). Also, the first Canadian magazine to be produced with desktop publishing software. From the Canadian Disarmament Information Service.
The 30 Articles of Human Rights
See a well-produced video that was entered in the United Nations contest on short films on Human Rights. Also featuring Coldplay's "Life in Technicolor". From YouTube.
Canadian Online Legal Dictionary
The website for Irwin Law's Canadian Online Legal Dictionary.
Besides hockey and the maple leaf, there is little as symbolically Canadian as the CBC – the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It grew out of a developing nation's need to express its identity and find its voice.