Human rights in Canada

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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 commissions.

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]

In 1960, as Prime Minister, Diefenbaker successfully introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights, the precursor of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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 by 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 known as 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), Bryden, 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. Also, many collective agreements between employers and trade unions include non-discrimination provisions.

Notable violations[edit]

Komagata Maru incident[edit]

The Komagata Maru incident occurred 1914 when a group of Indians, all British subjects, arrived in Vancouver with the intention of settling in Canada.[3] One of the Sikh passengers, Jagat Singh Thind, was the youngest brother of Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian-American Sikh writer and lecturer on "spiritual science" who was involved in an important legal battle over the rights of Indians to obtain U.S. citizenship (United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind).[4]

World War I treatment of Ukrainian Canadians[edit]

Memorial at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, east of Edmonton, Alberta. Includes a map showing the locations of the internment camps across Canada. Installed 11 August 2002.

The Ukrainian Canadian internment was part of the confinement of "enemy aliens" in Canada during and for two years after the end of the First World War, lasting from 1914 to 1920, under the terms of the War Measures Act. About 4,000 Ukrainian men and some women and children of Austro-Hungarian citizenship were kept in twenty-four internment camps and related work sites – also known, at the time, as concentration camps.[5] Many were released in 1916 to help with the mounting labour shortage.

Oriental Head Tax and Chinese Immigration Act of 1923[edit]

The Chinese head tax was a fixed fee charged to each Chinese person entering Canada. The head tax was first levied after the Canadian parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 and was meant to discourage Chinese people from entering Canada after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The tax was abolished by the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which stopped Chinese immigration altogether, except for business people, clergy, educators, students, and other categories.[6]

World War II treatment of Japanese Canadians[edit]

A road crew of interned men building the Yellowhead Highway.

Japanese Canadian internment refers to confinement of Japanese Canadians in British Columbia during World War II. The internment began in December 1941, after the attack by carrier-borne forces of Imperial Japan on American naval and army facilities at Pearl Harbor. The Canadian federal government gave the internment order based on speculation of sabotage and espionage, although the RCMP and defence department lacked proof.[7] Many interned children were brought up in these camps, including David Suzuki, Joy Kogawa, and Roy Miki. The Canadian government promised the Japanese Canadians that their property and finances would be returned upon release; however, these assets were sold off cheaply at auctions.[8]

Cold War forced relocation[edit]

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.[9] In 1993, after extensive hearings, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples issued The High Arctic Relocation: A Report on the 1953–55 Relocation.[10] The government paid compensation but has not apologised.[11]


PROFUNC (1950–1983[12]), 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.[13][14]

Residential schools[edit]

St. Paul's Indian Industrial School, Middlechurch, Manitoba, 1901

The Indian residential schools of Canada were a network of "residential" (boarding) schools for Aboriginal peoples of Canada (First Nations, Metis, and Inuit) funded by the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs, and administered by Christian churches, most notably the Catholic Church in Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada.[15] The system had origins in pre-Confederation times, but was primarily active following the passage of the Indian Act in 1876, until the mid-twentieth century. The last residential school was not closed until 1996.[15]

Separate Schools[edit]

Some Canadian provinces, including Ontario, Saskatchewan, 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, Saskatchewan, 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[edit]

Bill 101 in Quebec is a collection of laws instituted in order to propagate the French language and 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.[16] "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 language of one's choice. The Committee accordingly concludes that there has been a violation of article 19, paragraph 2." Bill 101 itself was however considered as adhering to international standards for human rights and the complaint was ultimately rejected as "non-admissible" while recommending an amendment to the law concerning outdoors advertising.[17]

The current law specifies that commercial outdoor signs can be multilingual so long as French is markedly predominant.[18]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

Among the leading works on human rights in Canada, which have added great complexity to the issue by exploring twentieth-century paradigms, are Christopher MacLennan, Toward the Charter: Canadians and the Demand for a National Bill of Rights (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003); Ross Lambertson, Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930–1960 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005); and Dominique Clément, Canada's Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937–82 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2008). On the quest for anti-discrimination legislation in Ontario, see Ruth Frager and Carmela Patrias, "'This Is Our Country, These Are Our Rights': Minorities and the Origins of Ontario's Human Rights Campaign," Canadian Historical Review, vol. 82, no. 1 (March 2001), 1–35. On the situation in Montreal and Toronto, including the Catholic aspect and Cold War discourse, see Patrick Lacroix, "Immigration, Minority Rights, and Catholic Policy-Making in Post-War Canada," Histoire sociale/Social History, vol. 47, no. 93 (May 2014), 183–203. The situation in Quebec may best be explored through the events of the Quiet Revolution. At last, for yet further information, see Dominique Clément and Canada's Human Rights History.


  1. ^ See s. 32 of the Charter for discussion on its application
  2. ^ Human Rights Canada Archived December 3, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: the Sikh challenge to Canada's colour bar. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. 1989. pp. 81, 83. ISBN 0-7748-0340-1. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Internment of Ukrainians in Canada 1914-1920". Retrieved 1 April 2010. 
  6. ^ James Morton. "In the Sea of Sterile Mountains: The Chinese in British Columbia". Vancouver, BC: J.J. Douglas, 1974.
  7. ^ Maryka Omatsu, Bittersweet Passage and the Japanese Canadian Experience (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1992), 12.
  8. ^ “Jap Expropriation Hearing May Last 3 Years, Is Estimate,” Globe and Mail (Toronto: January 12, 1948)
  9. ^ McGrath, Melanie. The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006 (268 pages) Hardcover: ISBN 0-00-715796-7 Paperback: ISBN 0-00-715797-5
  10. ^ 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)"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-10-01. Retrieved 2010-06-20. 
  11. ^ Royte, Elizabeth (2007-04-08). "Trail of Tears". The New York Times. 
  12. ^ "End of PROFUNC letter" (PDF). CBC News. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  13. ^ "CBC: Secret Cold War plan included mass detentions". 2010-10-14. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  14. ^ "The Fifth Estate: Enemies of the State: Synopsis". Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  15. ^ a b John S. Milloy (31 May 1999). A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986. Univ. of Manitoba Press. pp. 51–65. ISBN 978-0-88755-646-3. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  16. ^ Jacques Dorin; Michèle Kaltemback; Sheryl Rahal (2007). Canadian Civilization. Presses Univ. du Mirail. p. 96. ISBN 978-2-85816-888-0. 
  17. ^ Ballantyne, Davidson, McIntyre v. Canada, Communications Nos. 359/1989 and 385/1989, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/47/D/359/1989 and 385/1989/Rev.1 (1993).
  18. ^ "Chapitre C-11: Charte de la langue française" (in French), Éditeur officiel du Québec, À jour au 1er juillet 2014.