Human rights in Canada

Human rights in Canada

Since signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Canadian government has attempted to make universal human rights a part of Canadian law. There are currently four key mechanisms in Canada to protect human rights: the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and provincial human rights laws and legislation.

The issue of human rights in Canada has not attracted significant controversy relative to human rights issues in other countries. Most Canadians believe the country to be a strong proponent and positive model of human rights for the rest of the world. For example, in 2005, Canada became the fourth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide with the enactment of the Civil Marriage Act.

Canada does have to deal with some issues of human rights abuses that have attracted condemnation from international bodies, such as the United Nations. For example, some provinces still allow the use of religiously segregated schools. The treatment of Canada's First Nations people or Aboriginal Canadians and the disabled also continues to attract criticism.



Human rights concerns the private rights and power of people. This typically has broad meaning, covering all human rights protected under the law outside of the criminal law context. Civil rights primarily gravitates around issues such as discrimination, accommodation, suffrage (voting), and to a lesser extent, property rights. Human rights are primarily protected under the federal and provincial Human Rights Acts in private context, and under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms where the state is a party to the matter.[1]

Controversial human rights issues in Canada have included patient rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, parents' rights, children's rights, abortion rights vs rights of the unborn, minority rights, majority rights, rights of the disabled, aboriginal rights, tenant rights and economic, social and political rights.[2]

From the 19th century to the advent of the Canadian Bill of Rights and the first provincial Human Rights Act, the laws of Canada and the provinces did not provide much in the way of civil rights and it was typically of limited concern to the courts. This is not to say that Canadians did not have rights. However, there was no enumerated list of rights which citizens could use to press a claim against the state, as in the American Bill of Rights or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Instead Canadian law followed British tradition in which the (unenumerated) "Rights of Englishmen" have traditionally been defended all the branches of the state (the courts, the parliament, and the Crown) collectively and sometimes in competition with each other. In Canada this concept was interpreted in light of Canadian federalism, where the courts frequently prevented provincial legislatures from legislating in ways that impinged on individual rights, leaving that power only with the federal parliament. This concept is know at the "Implied Bill of Rights".

During this early period there were a number legal cases arising from discriminatory or repressive conduct. The courts typically dealt with these cases strictly as a matter of law with no explicit consideration to the social element of the matter.

The earliest cases typically turned on the question of constitutional jurisdiction of the law. In Union Colliery Co. of British Columbia v. Bryden (1899), Bryen, a shareholder in Union Colliery, accused the company of violating the provincial Mining Act which prohibited the hiring of "Chinamen". The company successfully challenged the constitutionality of the Act on the grounds that it legislated on a matter that was in federal jurisdiction. In Cunningham v. Homma (1903), the provincial law prohibiting people of Japanese descent from voting was found to be constitutional on the basis that it was a matter within the province's jurisdiction to legislate on. Similarly, in the case of Quong Wing v. R. (1914), the Saskatchewan law prohibiting the hiring of white women by businesses owned by "Chinamen" was constitutionally valid as a matter of jurisdiction.

In the 1938 decision of Reference re Alberta Statutes, the Supreme Court of Canada first recognized an implied bill of rights. The Court had struck down an Albertan law that prohibited the press from criticizing the government. In Reference re Persons of Japanese Race (1946), the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a government order to deport Canadian citizens of Japanese descent. However, in dissent, two justices invoked the implied bill of rights as a valid basis for invalidating the law.

In Noble v. Alley (1955), the Supreme Court of Canada refused to enforce a restrictive covenant prohibiting the sale of land to those of Jewish descent on the basis that it was too vague.

Beginning in 1947, the provinces began adopting human rights legislation: the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights (1947), Ontario (1962), Nova Scotia (1963), Alberta (1966), New Brunswick (1967), Prince Edward Island (1968), Newfoundland (1969), British Columbia (1969), Manitoba (1970) and Quebec (1975). In 1977, the federal government enacted the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Notable violations

First Nations in colonial period

There has long been controversy over the actions of the British and early Canadians in relation excessive hunting and desecration of Native lands. There have also been many accusations of coercion and deceit on the part of the Canadian government in the signing of land contracts.

World War I treatment of Ukrainian Canadians

Ukrainian Canadians were treated as enemy aliens during World War I. They were forced to do heavy labour for the profit of their jailers, interned in 24 Canadian concentration camps, lost whatever wealth they may have had (some was returned, but some remained in government coffers), were subjected to restrictions of their freedom of association, movement and speech, suffered disenfranchisement (1917) and other state-sanctioned censures, solely due to their ancestry. A campaign aimed at securing recognition of this historical episode in Canadian history, spearheaded by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (, resulted in a 2008 settlement with the Government of Canada and the establishment of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund (

Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Immigration Act of 1923

The Chinese head tax was a fixed fee charged for each Chinese person entering Canada. The head tax was first levied after the Canadian Government passed the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885. It was meant to discourage Chinese from entering Canada after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The head tax was ended by the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which stopped Chinese immigration except for business people, clergy, educators, students and other categories. Immigration from most countries was controlled or restricted in some way, but only the Chinese were so completely prohibited from immigrating.

World War II treatment of Japanese Canadians

Japanese Canadians were interned during World War II, their property confiscated.

Cold War forced relocation

In the early 1950s and in the context of the Cold War, the federal government forcibly relocated 87 Inuit citizens to the High Arctic as human symbols of Canada's assertion of ownership of the region. The Inuit were told that they would be returned home to Northern Quebec after a year if they wished, but this offer was later withdrawn as it would damage Canada's claims to the High Arctic; they were forced to stay.[3] In 1993, after extensive hearings, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples issued The High Arctic Relocation: A Report on the 1953-55 Relocation.[4] The government paid compensation but has not apologised.[5]


PROFUNC (1950 - 1983[6]), which stands for "PROminent FUNCtionaries of the communist party", was a Government of Canada third rail top secret plan to identify and intern Canadian communists and crypto-communists during the height of the Cold War.[7][8]

Residential schools

Until the mid-twentieth century, many of Canada's native communities were forced to send their children away from home to boarding schools run by religious establishments, or, later, the predecessors to the federal department now known as Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Abuses at these schools were widespread. Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in June 2008 for previous governments' roles in their administration, and the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been set up to create a record of what happened.

Separate Schools

Some Canadian provinces, including Ontario and Alberta, continue to operate separate and publicly funded schools that allegedly discriminate by religion, although students attending these schools need not be Roman Catholic by faith. In Canada these are usually Roman Catholic schools which are run parallel to the public school system that historically had been either Protestant or Roman Catholic, but which in recent years has become secular. In addition to Roman Catholic school boards, Alberta and Ontario each have one Protestant separate school district.

On November 5, 1999 the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned Canada and Ontario for having violated the equality provisions (Article 26) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Committee restated its concerns on November 2, 2005, when it published its Concluding Observations regarding Canada's fifth periodic report under the Covenant. The Committee observed that Canada had failed to "adopt steps in order to eliminate discrimination on the basis of religion in the funding of schools in Ontario."

Bill 101 in Quebec

Bill 101 in Quebec is a collection of laws instituted in order to propagate the French language and severely restricted the use of English. In 1993, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that Quebec's sign laws broke an international covenant on civil and political rights. "A State may choose one or more official languages," the committee wrote, "but it may not exclude outside the spheres of public life, the freedom to express oneself in a certain language."

See also


  1. ^ See s. 32 of the Charter for discussion on its application
  2. ^ Human Rights Canada[dead link]
  3. ^ McGrath, Melanie. The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006 (268 pages) Hardcover: ISBN 0007157967 Paperback: ISBN 0007157975
  4. ^ The High Arctic Relocation: A Report on the 1953-55 Relocation by René Dussault and George Erasmus, produced by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, published by Canadian Government Publishing, 1994 (190 pages)[1]
  5. ^ Royte, Elizabeth (2007-04-08). "Trail of Tears". The New York Times. 
  6. ^ "End of PROFUNC letter" (PDF). CBC News.,%201983.pdf. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  7. ^ "CBC: Secret Cold War plan included mass detentions". 2010-10-14. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  8. ^ "The Fifth Estate: Enemies of the State: Synopsis". Retrieved 2011-02-28. 

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