As of June 18, the Canadian Human Rights Act was changed to include 700,000 aboriginal Canadians who were previously exempt under provisions of the Indian Act. While this change comes thanks to the Conservative government, it could be undermined almost immediately if a court challenge plays out in the government’s favour.
“The Canadian Human Rights Act is an instrument that has shaped Canadian society to reflect values we share,” says David Langtry, deputy chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. “Just as the Act has contributed to the quality of life enjoyed by so many in Canada, it now has the potential to be a catalyst for improving many aspects of life in first nations communities. However, the Commission is concerned that the positive impact intended under C-21 may be limited.”
The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations are before the Federal Court arguing that federal funding of child welfare services on reserves is inequitable and therefore discriminatory. The attorney general of Canada wants the case dismissed, arguing that the CHRA doesn’t apply to federal government funding for services to first nations communities.
“If the attorney general of Canada were successful in narrowing the scope of the [CHRA] to exclude federal funding for services, it would have serious implications,” Langtry says. “We fear, in effect, this could nullify the intent of Parliament when it voted to give people living under the Indian Act the right to live free from discrimination. If this interpretation prevails, the scope of the CHRA would be severely limited.
“The government of Canada would get sweeping immunity from human rights law,” Langtry says. “Complaints against the government of Canada pertaining to access to clean water, health and education would be turned away before they are even heard, and first nations governments would be left solely accountable for breaches of the Act.”
Given the era of a Conservative majority, where certain government MPs are actively hostile to the current human rights regime in the country, Langtry is not concerned that the Commission is facing the axe.
“The reality is that the government are the ones who brought in this change in 2008, and of course it was supported through Parliament,” Langtry says. “We commended the government for taking this initiative.”
The Commission accepted 853 complaints in 2010, referring 166 to alternate redress, approving 177 settlements and referring 191 to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
“By large, the main number of complaints that we are receiving are on the grounds of disability; that would be approximately 40 percent of our complaints,” Langtry says. “Certainly race and gender are also fairly high.”