Given the toxic stew of brutality and intolerance that envelops so much of the world, Canadians are right to feel a deep sense of privilege. We should be thankful not just for good institutions and laws, but for the force of our collective aspiration to build a society in one small corner of the planet where equality, fairness and freedom from discrimination at least have a chance to flourish.
In passing the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1977, Parliament intended to make a difference in people’s lives. For the most part, the law has lived up to its promise. Canadians filing discrimination complaints under federal human rights law have brought about changes that help make equality tangible in everyday life. Closed captioning on TV, accessibility of ATM machines, the role of women in the military, and the principle of equal pay for work of equal value are all examples of change born from discrimination complaints.
Yet with just 21 words, the 1977 Canadian Human Rights Act excluded the Indian Act, leaving hundreds of thousands of aboriginal people, primarily residents of First Nations, in the cold. The law that outlawed discrimination was itself discriminatory.
For over 30 years, First Nations residents did not enjoy the same protections as other Canadians and could not hold their leadership or the federal government accountable for many of the actions and decisions that affect their lives.
This government brought in a bill to correct this anomaly in 2008. Parliament decided then to make the change applicable to the federal government immediately, but gave First Nations governments until 2011 to prepare for their new responsibilities and accountability.
Since they obtained these rights, aboriginal people and First Nations organizations have filed over 300 discrimination complaints. Some are complaints against the federal government concerning alleged disparities in federal funding for on-reserve services. But the bulk of them are against First Nations governments.
The sheer volume of complaints validates Parliament’s conviction that the Canadian Human Rights Act would be useful for improving accountability and governance. It has only been a year since complaints of discrimination for matters under the Indian Act could be made against First Nations governments, and the Canadian Human Rights Commission has already received close to 200 of them. Aboriginal complaints have rapidly become a large part of our work – just over 12 per cent of our caseload.
Filing a human rights complaint often takes courage, especially in small communities or tightly knit organizations. People often fear ostracism or other forms of retaliation for challenging the status quo.
In spite of this, First Nations people have come forward. Their complaints involve allegations they were barred from educational support, health care, housing or other services because of their race, sex or family status. Others have complained they have been denied jobs because of their race or sex. Still others claim they were prevented from voting or running in an election because of the race or family relationships of their spouse.
These complaints do not reflect life in all First Nations communities. Nor are aboriginal people the only ones to be dealing with the impacts of discrimination in Canada today. Sadly, despite Canada’s enviable reputation for respecting human rights, headlines about allegations of sexual harassment, racial discrimination or other forms of abuse continue to be almost a daily occurrence.
Human rights law does not guarantee freedom from discrimination for anyone. What it does guarantee is your right to hold people in power accountable for their actions.
We are just beginning the process of remediating the unjust exclusion of people living under the Indian Act from federal human rights law. Aboriginal complaints are more resource intensive, as many touch on a new area of law. New issues, such as the need to take aboriginal customs and laws into account provided they are consistent with the principle of gender equality, are part of the challenge.
I believe, however, that most First Nations governments support this change. In my meetings with First Nations leaders, I have only seen a willingness to improve accountability and governance. So I am optimistic that the Canadian Human Rights Act will deliver to communities previously excluded from it the same benefits it has brought to mainstream Canadian society, in which freedom from discrimination might not always be a reality, but is always your right.
This article was first published in the Edmonton Journal on October 3, 2012, and is reproduced with the permission of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.