Supreme Court Ruling a disappointing setback for human rights justice in Canada

June 14, 2018 – Ottawa, Ontario – Canadian Human Rights Commission

The Canadian Human Rights Commission is disappointed in today’s Supreme Court of Canada ruling, saying that the decision limits  access to human rights justice for people in Canada, especially those in vulnerable circumstances.

Today’s ruling in the case known as Matson and Andrews says that Canadians cannot use the Canadian Human Rights Act to challenge discrimination that results from the wording of a federal law. Instead, they will have to go into the more legalistic and costly court system to file a Charter challenge.  This creates an overwhelming barrier for the most vulnerable people in the country.

The Matson and Andrews case began as discrimination complaints that two families — Matson and Andrews — filed under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Both cases deal with rules under the Indian Act that describe who has “Indian Status,” and who can pass that Status to their children. The Matson family complaints relate to historically sexist discrimination in the Indian Act that imposed different consequences for women than men when it came to marriage.  The Andrews family complaints relate to historically racist discrimination in the Indian Act that could strip someone of their Indian Status, in certain circumstances. The families and the Commission together argued that this historic discrimination continues to have impacts today that violate the Canadian Human Rights Act. But the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal told them that they could not use the Canadian Human Rights Act for this type of complaint. Instead, it said the families would have to proceed on their own to file Charter claims in the more complex and costly civil court system. Today’s ruling upholds that result.

“This is a disappointing ruling for human rights justice in Canada. It closes doors for vulnerable people who need to fight for their rights, leaving them to fend for themselves in a civil court system that is increasingly complex and expensive,” said Chief Commissioner Marie-Claude Landry. “When Parliament passed the Canadian Human Rights Act, the intention was to create an accessible law for everyone. We believe that today’s ruling undermines that intent, as it prevents people in Canada, particularly those living in very vulnerable situations, from accessing an available avenue for human rights justice. This is especially troubling in cases like these, where the discrimination at issue comes from the laws of our land.”

Today’s Supreme Court ruling could affect not only the Matson and Andrews families, but also anyone in Canada who is seeking justice after being treated unfairly because of the wording of a federal law.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission went before the Supreme Court of Canada in November 2017 to make its arguments in support of the Matson and Andrews families and on behalf of the people of Canada. The Commission thanks all the human rights organizations and individuals that intervened in the Supreme Court to support the Commission’s arguments. Although disappointing, this ruling will not keep the Commission from making every effort to help people access human rights justice.

For the full list of the other organizations that intervened in this case, see our accompanying Backgrounder from 2017.

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