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January 29, 2009
By Fil Fraser
Former Chief Commissioner
Alberta Human Rights Commission
Barack Obama’s call to become our better selves is inspiring people around the world, including many Albertans. And so it should. We are some of the most fortunate people on the planet. We have the resources, intelligence, and tools to do better on many fronts, including on the protection of human rights.
Thirty seven years ago the Alberta government introduced human rights legislation whose approach was bold for the time. The province led the country by adopting a modern legal instrument – The Individual’s Rights Protection Act – to guarantee a level playing field for all Albertans.
The Act covered those human rights issues that people thought were important at the time: protection against discrimination on the basis of race, religious beliefs or colour, sex, age, ancestry or place of origin, in employment, public goods and services and rental accommodation, and; a prohibition on displays of notices, signs, symbols and the like which promoted discrimination against those protected under the act.
While signs stating “No Dogs or Jews” or “No Indians” were still to be found, the Act made such hateful notices illegal. It promoted equal pay for equal work, protected complainants against retaliation and overrode any other government legislation or regulations that contravened its basic tenets. It also created a Human Rights Commission to administer the law.
In 1972, most Albertans thought that was pretty good. But, over time, it became clear that better human rights protection was needed. Amendments were made from time to time – for example, gender was substituted for sex and physical and mental disability were added as protected grounds – but a serious review of the legislation and how the Commission operates is long, long overdue.
The Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership recognized this and has done something about it. Among other things, the Foundation held a series of consultations in communities across Alberta. The result is the Foundation’s report, Toward Equal Opportunity for all Albertans: Recommendations for Improvement of the Alberta Human Rights Commission, released on January 29, which makes sensible suggestions for re-invigorating the Commission and the legislation.
I was pleased to facilitate the Chumir Foundation’s consultations. A number of things stood out for me. For one thing, many people, even many directly involved in rendering public services from Drayton Valleyto Ft. McMurray to Lethbridge, didn’t know enough about the core mandate of the Alberta Human Rights Commission. The great bulk of the Commission’s work centres on bread-and-butter issues in the areas of employment and accommodation. Most Albertans, if they think about the Commission at all, seem to be influenced by headlines which attack it for interfering with free speech. But cases based on that part of the legislation – although very worrisome – are quite rare.
The Human Rights Commission itself is of critical importance to creating a truly egalitarian society. The courts are overloaded – it takes too long and it’s too costly to try to resolve human rights issues through the judicial process. Human rights commissions were established to provide a less formal, less expensive arena where the objective is resolution not prosecution. But they can only function with credibility if they are autonomous, accountable and transparent.
Accessibility is no less important. No matter how good the legislation, no matter how competent the commissioners and staff, if the agency doesn’t have sufficient resources to carry out its mandate, it can remain inaccessible to those who need it most. Few Aboriginal Albertans, for example, take their cases to the Commission, which is ill-prepared to deal with the discrimination they encounter.
We Albertans have to choose “our better history” (to use Obama’s words), seize the initiative and set a new standard for human rights legislation to meet the needs of our irreversibly diverse world. We are at a watershed, politically, economically and in terms of social equity.
I’m not writing to complain about or attack the Alberta Human Rights Commission or the government behind it. People who work for the Commission do the best they can within the mandate they have been given and with the resources available to them. And I have a great deal of respect for those who enter political life.
But this is no time for face-saving caution. It’s time for a renaissance of political courage, a time to embrace the belief that we can do better. Reforming Alberta’s Human Rights Commission and legislation is a good place to start.