A New Era for Human Rights in Canada

A breath of fresh air just blew through the Canadian human rights community. That breath of fresh air has a name: Marie-Claude Landry, the new Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

First of all, as the newly appointed Chief Commissioner she undertook a cross-country consultation with human rights groups and equality-seekers to introduce herself and to listen. She asked: what support are human rights groups looking for? and what does the Commission need to do now? A lot of diverse groups across the country told Ms. Landry that the Canadian Human Rights Commission needs to have a strong public presence and be a voice for human rights. They told her that they need her to speak up.

Canada's human rights institutions matter. They are the public voice for human rights. When they are “risk‐averse” and soft‐spoken, there is a public silence about some of the toughest human rights problems. That shrinks public understanding of human rights.

We need human rights commissions to engage with the key human rights issues of the day so that, as Canadians, we stay alert to what is happening in our midst, and stay conscientious and determined to achieve equality. Human rights institutions – whose business it is to address inequality – must be vocal about persistent patterns of discrimination in Canadian society.

Our human rights commissions are not simply processors of complaints, or advisors to business about complaint-avoidance. We need them to be public, courageous and outspoken advocates, identifying human rights violations, speaking out about them, and working for an end to discrimination, in all its forms.

The new Chief Commissioner seems to understand this, and has shown herself ready to both listen and speak. Right after the election, Marie-Claude Landry issued a press release calling on a new Parliament to “begin repairing the erosion of human rights in Canada, and to move swiftly to repeal legislation and reverse policies that promote discrimination and prejudice”. Among other things, Ms. Landry called on the new government to:

·     accelerate the process for bringing in refugees and asylum seekers and ensure that the selection process is not discriminatory;

·     ensure that the arbitrary detention of thousands of undocumented people seeking asylum in Canada, many of whom are suffering from mental illness, is brought to an end;

·     immediately convene a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls, and develop a national action plan;

·     ensure that all people in Canada have access to safe drinking water and adequate housing;

·     end the inequitable funding of child welfare services and schools on First Nations reserves;

·     stop the overuse of solitary confinement to manage offenders, particularly those who are Black and Aboriginal and those with mental illness; and

·     protect the rights of all women to express their religion.

This is a good start. Now it will be important for Canadians to show we support an outspoken and brave new Commissioner, and for Parliament to show us that this is a new era for human rights in Canada.

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