World leaders adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a set of 30 fundamental human rights that would become the blueprint for human rights laws in Canada.
This document is the precursor to the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It has been hailed as Mr. Diefenbaker’s greatest legacy.
If someone treats you in an unfair or negative way because of your race, sex or age, they would be guilty of discrimination. But before 1977, there was no federal law to turn to when a person believed they were being discriminated against.
Then in 1977, Parliament created the Canadian Human Rights Act. It was the first federal human rights law in Canada, and the first federal law against discrimination.
The law also created two separate organizations to apply the Act and ensure its effectiveness:
The Canadian Human Rights Commission receives discrimination complaints and helps people settle them. It also promotes the idea of equality in Canada.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal acts like a court. Sometimes the Commission sends discrimination complaints to the Tribunal, which then hears the evidence about the complaint and makes decisions on whether discrimination has taken place and what should be done about it.
The purpose of the Canadian Human Rights Act was the same in 1977 as it is today: to promote equal opportunity and give people in Canada a way to challenge discrimination when based on any of 11 different grounds (reasons) listed in the Act, such as race, age and sex.
The Act protects people who work for or receive services from the federal government, First Nations governments or private companies, like banks and broadcasters, that must follow rules set by the federal government.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes up the first 35 sections of the Constitution Act, proclaimed by the Queen in 1982. The Charter protects every Canadian citizen’s right to be treated equally by the law. Fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion are protected by the Charter.
The Charter has been celebrated as one of the greatest achievements of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The Supreme Court of Canada calls it “the supreme law of Canada." While its predecessor, the Canadian Bill of Rights has been hailed as Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s greatest legacy, it was not written into Canada’s Constitution and was therefore difficult to enforce.
Canada is one of only a few countries in the world that allow women to serve on the front lines in combat. But it was not always so. While women have served in Canada's military since 1885, they were prevented from performing combat roles for over one hundred years.
Four members of the Canadian Forces set out to change this. They believed it was wrong that women were prevented from having roles in combat positions or combat-related jobs, just because they were women.
Isabelle Gauthier, Marie-Claude Gauthier, Georgina Anne Brown and Joseph Houlden, all members of the Canadian Forces, filed a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act claiming discrimination based on sex. In 1989, following a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling, the Canadian Forces opened all occupations, including combat roles, to women.
In 1989, Private Heather R. Erxleben became Canada's first female Regular Force infantry soldier. Since then, hundreds of Canadian women have served in combat roles, and all women have the opportunity to pursue any position in the Canadian Forces.
In Canada, people with a disability have the right to ask their employer to make changes to their workspace or duties so they can perform their job like everybody else. We call this accommodation. Today in Canada, people with HIV or AIDS have the right to be accommodated by their employer the same as anyone else with a medical disability. That wasn't always the case. Not too long ago, a person could be fired for being HIV positive.
Two landmark cases helped steer Canada towards change.
Gilles Fontaine was fired from his job as a cook aboard a Canadian Pacific train after managers learned that he was HIV positive. In 1989, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Canadian Pacific had discriminated against Mr. Fontaine because of his illness.
This ruling was reinforced in 1993 when the Tribunal heard a similar case. Simon Thwaites, a naval officer in the Canadian Forces was forced to leave the military because he was HIV positive. The Tribunal concluded that the Canadian Forces had discriminated against Mr. Thwaites by not accommodating his disability. In other words, the Canadian Forces should have found a way for Mr. Thwaites to make a contribution despite the fact he had HIV.
These decisions were part of a larger shift towards greater understanding and acceptance of HIV and AIDS in Canada.
Today, when Sikh Canadians join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police they don't have to choose between wearing the RCMP uniform and following their religious practices. They can do both. But things were once very different.
When Baltej Singh Dhillon applied to be an RCMP officer in 1988, he was told that the RCMP's uniform policy did not allow him to wear his turban. For Staff Sergeant Dhillon, this meant that if he wanted to join the force, he would have to compromise his religious beliefs.
Staff Sergeant Dhillon's efforts to change the rules sparked a heated debate across Canada. Some felt that Canada's history and traditions were threatened by the country's growing cultural diversity.
In 1990, after seeking guidance from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act, Solicitor General Pierre Cadieux ruled that turbans could be worn by uniformed RCMP officers. He said the decision was "not only the correct one in law but also the right decision."
When the ruling was challenged three years later, the Canadian Human Rights Commission was there to help defend the RCMP's decision to allow turbans. In the end, the 1990 ruling was upheld, and today, officers can choose to wear their Sikh turban while also proudly wearing their RCMP uniform.
- Read the Federal Court’s 1995 decision to uphold the 1990 ruling.
Everyone in Canada has the right to be treated equally. But there was a time in Canada when there was nothing a person could do if they were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
Joshua Birch experienced this first hand. He was serving as a captain in the Canadian Air Force when, in 1989, senior officers learned that he was gay. From that point on, he was denied promotions, postings or further military training.
Mr. Birch believed that his rights were being violated, but the Canadian Human Rights Act offered no protection. So he and his friend Graham Haig asked the courts to look at the Act and see if it should be changed.
Their efforts paid off.
In 1992, the Ontario Court of Appeal ordered that failure to include sexual orientation in the Canadian Human Rights Actwas discriminatory. The Court recommended that the Act be interpreted as if sexual orientation was one of the grounds of discrimination.
It was not until 1996 that Parliament added sexual orientation to the Canadian Human Rights Act, making it an eleventh ground of discrimination that is not allowed in Canada.
For decades, women have contributed to Canada's workforce while also raising children. But working mothers have not always had the same support as other employees.
Cynthia Floyd learned that she was pregnant shortly after losing her job at the Canadian Grain Commission in 1989.
When she began to collect employment insurance, she discovered that because she was pregnant, she was only entitled to half the financial support others received.
Ms. Floyd filed a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act claiming that she was not receiving equal treatment because she was pregnant. In 1993, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the employment insurance rules discriminated against Ms. Floyd, who was awarded compensation.
During the course of Ms. Floyd's case, Parliament amended the Unemployment Insurance Act. One result was to end the discriminatory treatment of pregnant women under the rules at the time. Today, women in Canada are entitled to equal employment insurance regardless of whether they are pregnant.
- Read the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling.
Banks across Canada make an effort to ensure that their services are accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. Some banks offer brochures in braille. Others offer talking bank machines for people who cannot see touch screens. But these options were not always available.
In 1991, two banking customers, Chris and Marie Stark, were frustrated when they could not access important information about their mortgage and other bank services. Since they were both blind, the Starks could not read banking information that was only available in printed brochures.
The Starks filed a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act. The complaint was accepted by the Canadian Human Rights Commission. It was resolved in an out-of-court settlement in 1996. The case inspired Canada's banking system to make important changes. In 1997, Canada became the first country in the world to offer talking ATM machines to better serve people who are blind or partially sighted.
In Canada, everyone has the right to advance their career. It is a matter of choice, hard work and opportunity. But twenty years ago, some people found it hard to get a promotion even though they had all the necessary qualifications and experience.
In the 1990s, a group of federal employees working at Health and Welfare Canada kept being turned down when they applied for management jobs. They believed that the department's hiring practices treated people of certain races or ethnic origins unfairly. They filed a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act, saying that these discriminatory practices were common throughout the department.
In 1997, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Health and Welfare Canada's hiring and promoting practices were discriminatory. The department was ordered to improve its policies, and increase the number of visible minorities in management positions.
- Read about the history of employment equity in Canada's public service.
In Canada, everyone is entitled to receive equal pay for work of equal value. While this idea has always been enshrined in the Canadian Human Rights Act, it has not always been a reality for everyone in Canada.
In the early 1980s, a group of women working for the federal government realized they were being paid less than another group of employees who were doing the same type of work, and who were predominantly men.
In 1984, the female employees filed a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act arguing that they had been discriminated against based on sex. The case proceeded through a lengthy legal process that lasted well over a decade.
In 1999, the case made its way to the Federal Court, where Justice John Evans had the final word. He upheld a previous Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling, and ordered that the female employees be financially compensated for years of undervalued work.
Justice Evans added that the section of the Canadian Human Rights Act about "equal pay for work of equal value" should be applied in the broadest possible way. In other words, all Canadian workers who do equal work should receive equal pay.
- Read more about this case in the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s 1999 Annual Report.
Most TV shows in Canada come with the possibility of switching on a stream of printed words that translate sounds into readable text at the bottom of the screen. So-called “closed captioning” provides a way for people who have difficulty hearing to enjoy the television experience. This is a part of everyday life today, but it wasn’t always so.
In the 1990s, Henry Vlug was frustrated because many of the shows broadcast by the CBC were not accessible to the Deaf, deafened and hard of hearing community. Only a small number of CBC programs had closed captioning at the time.
In 1997, Mr. Vlug filed a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act based on disability. Even though he was Deaf, Mr. Vlug believed he had the right to be served by the CBC the same as any Canadian.
In 2000, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the CBC was discriminating against the Deaf, deafened and hard of hearing by not offering closed captioning service for all its programs. Today, closed captioning is a well known feature on television sets across Canada.
- Read the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s ruling.
she should be confident she will be supported by her employer. But this is not always the reality at every workplace in Canada, as Hayley Cole discovered.
In 2001, Hayley Cole returned to her job at Bell Canada after maternity leave. She asked that she be able to take regular unpaid breaks so that she could go home and breastfeed her son. Bell Canada accommodated her request for one year, but not beyond that.
Ms. Cole believed that she was being forced to choose between being a mom and working at Bell Canada. She filed a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act, arguing she was being discriminated against because of her sex and family status.
In 2007, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled in favour of Ms. Cole and ordered Bell Canada to do a better job of accommodating working mothers. This ruling applies to all employers that are under federal authority.
- Read the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling.
A United Nations convention is a legally binding set of principles and commitments that members of the UN, such as Canada, agree to adopt. In 2007, Canada was among the first countries to sign the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
In signing the Convention, Canada agreed to ensure that the dignity and independence of people with disabilities is respected, and that they are not discriminated against.
Drafting a convention can take the UN decades. But because of support from countries like Canada, the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled Personswas completed in just five years.
Canada's commitment to the rights of people with disabilities is also enshrined in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
- Read the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for yourself.
Everyone in Canada can turn to the Canadian Human Rights Act to protect themselves against discrimination. But before 2008, people living on First Nations reserves did not have full protection under Canadian human rights law. This was because the Canadian Human Rights Act specifically excluded anything that had to do with the Indian Act.
The Indian Act governs daily life on over 600 reserves across Canada where First Nations people live. When the Canadian Human Rights Act was first created in 1977, it did not apply to the Indian Act. This meant that hundreds of thousands of people living on First Nations reserves were left out. They had nowhere to turn if they were discriminated against by the federal government or by a First Nations government about something controlled by the Indian Act, such as who can live on a reserve or who can vote in a local election.
Then in 2008, Parliament changed the Canadian Human Rights Act to include matters under the Indian Act. Finally, everyone in Canada, including people living on First Nations reserves, had the same access to human rights justice.
- Read Still a Matter of Rights – A Special Report of the Canadian Human Rights Commission on the Repeal of Section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act (2008).
- Check out the Do You Know Your Rights website, created by the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
Every voter in Canada has a right to access their polling station. But until recently, not every polling station was accessible to people with disabilities.
James Hughes had to use a wheelchair and walker to get around. When he went to vote in the 2008 elections, a long flight of stairs blocked his way down to the voting booths. He looked for a ramp, but found only a locked door. Determined to vote, and with no other alternative, Mr. Hughes went down the stairs on the seat of his pants. He sent a letter to Elections Canada describing his difficult experience, but nothing was done.
After facing the same challenges at the same polling station during a second election, Mr. Hughes filed a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act. He argued that by failing to accommodate people with physical disabilities, Elections Canada was discriminating against them.
In 2010, the case went to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. Elections Canada agreed to make changes to its procedures and policies to ensure that everyone in Canada could access local polling stations and cast their vote.
- Read the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s ruling.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is a document that affirms the rights of indigenous peoples.
In November 2010, after careful consideration, Canada formally endorsed this Declaration.
Like all UN declarations, the UNDRIP is a set of principles and commitments that members of the UN are encouraged to support. The UNDRIP focuses on the rights and freedoms of indigenous peoples around the world, including:
- the right to the full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms;
- the right to be free from any kind of discrimination;
- the right to self-determination, autonomy or self-government; and
- the right to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of the person.
Recently, the Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies (CASHRA) called on all provinces and territories in Canada to do their part to apply the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. CASHRA is a Canadian organization that connects all of Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial human rights commissions with each other, and serves as a national voice on human rights issues.
- Read the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for yourself.
- Learn more about CASHRA.