Social inclusion is everyone’s job. There’s never been a more appropriate time to reflect on this than nowâ€” the 35th Anniversary year of the creation of the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC).
We have used this past year to sharpen and update our understanding of Parliament’s intention in creating the Canadian Human Rights Act, the legislation that defines not just the Canadian Human Rights Commission, but the vision of Canada articulated by Parliament to express the aspirations of Canadian citizens.
I thought the Prime Minister eloquently expressed that vision this past summer in answering reporters’ questions about Quebec’s proposed secular charter.
â€œOur job is social inclusion,â€ Prime Minister Stephen Harper said. â€œOur job is making all groups who come to this country, whatever their background, whatever their race, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their religion, feel at home in this country and be Canadians.â€
His words resonated with me, as I believe they did with everyone at the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Social inclusion is our job. And we understand it in an even broader sense. The Canadian Human Rights Act defends the right of all people legally in Canada to make the best lives for themselves they are able to, free from discrimination. And so it applies not just to people newly arrived, but to people whose ancestors have been here for hundreds of centuries.
It applies to people born here who carry a visible legacy of difference. It applies to people living with disabilities, and to people with differing sexual orientation. It applies to women equally as it applies to men. It is a motto of a nation steered by an enduring concern for treating others with dignity and respect.
Canada has made significant progress in 35 years. Individuals have used the Canadian Human Rights Act to bring about change in their lives and in the lives of others. From closed captioning on television, to accessible buildings and bank machines, from the right of female soldiers to serve in combat roles, to the recognition of sexual orientation as a right protected in law, the Canadian Human Rights Act has driven progressive social change because individuals came forward to insist on its application.
Over this past year, we reflected on how we could serve Canadians more effectively in bringing this common vision of inclusion to life. We re-imagined our work as aspiring to â€œan inclusive society where everyone is valued and respected.â€ We built a new tag-line around that: â€œMy Canada includes everyone.â€
We went beyond words and into action. We adopted a smarter process for filtering discrimination complaints. We built a re-engineered â€œPeople Firstâ€ website that focuses not on our own structures and processes but on the needs of the people we serve.
And we made a commitment, together, that we would focus our energies where they are most needed so as to prioritize protection of the most vulnerable members of Canadian society.
I have said before, and I continue to believe, that the situation facing Aboriginal people in Canada today remains one of the most pressing, if not the most pressing human rights issue facing this country.
Aboriginal people face persistent conditions of disadvantage on and off reserve. We released a report that brings together data that details this in depth. We met with James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and shared our concerns with him. Mr. Anaya agreed that â€œCanada faces a crisis when it comes to the situation of indigenous peoples...â€
We listened to Aboriginal women, in small discussion groups across the country, and learned that in too many cases they fear the very authorities tasked with protecting them: police and governments.
In 2008, the scope of the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended to include matters under the Indian Act, extending human rights protections to members of First Nations communities. In 2011, a three-year transition period ended and people in those communities could begin bringing complaints to us about their own governments. Since the amendment, the Canadian Human Rights Commission has received 207 complaints against the federal government and 317 complaints against First Nations governments.
But what we learned in our roundtable discussions with Aboriginal women is that for many of them, particularly in remote communities, the Canadian Human Rights Act is meaningless. They are unlikely to seek its protections, they say, for a number of reasons, including fear of retaliation.
In a separate article in this 35th Anniversary Edition of the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s Annual Report, we go into some detail about the roundtable discussions and what needs to be done to ensure that Aboriginal women are not deprived of access to human rights justice because they fear the consequences of speaking out.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission has heard their concerns, and will act on them.
Our process of inward reflection and re-visioning has led us to re-organize our work into two complementary streams: Promotion and Protection. This process, which I dubbed the â€œPath Forward,â€ energized and mobilized the staff from the grass roots to senior management. Equally, the staff of the CHRC participated with energy and enthusiasm in the government-wide Blueprint 2020 exercise.
Finally, I note the passing this year of former Chief Commissioner Jennifer Lynch, Q.C . We have lost a leader, a role model and a friend. From the tributes that poured in from around the world, we know that Jennifer’s efforts to promote and protect human rights continue to have a positive impact.
I know that I speak for all of us at the Canadian Human Rights Commission when I say that it is a privilege to work here. Our mission and our mandate speak to the core of what Canada represents, inwardly and outwardly. After 35 years, we have paused to take stock, reflect and move forward with renewed vigor.
Acting Chief Commissioner
Canadian Human Rights Commission