Human Rights Protection: How far have we come?

By John Rae
WORKING POLICY, News, views and research from the Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy (CRWDP), SPRING 2015, volume 2, issue 1

John Rae has been a board member of many human and disability rights organizations over his long career as an advocate for people with disabilities, including Co-chair of the Coalition on Human Rights for the Handicapped, which secured the first human rights coverage for persons with disabilities in Ontario. John is a Past President of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) and today serves as 2nd Vice Chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), and as a Board member of Injured Workers Consultants (IWC), ARCH Disability Law Centre and the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario (ACLCO).

In the 1970s and early 80s, the disability rights movement in Canada invested a lot of time and energy to obtain human rights protection for persons with disabilities at all levels. We were seeking the establishment of an equitable legal framework, and even in a country like Canada that used to pride itself on its human rights record, many jurisdictions balked at providing us with our rights. In many instances, we had to organize and fight very hard. In the end, we succeeded, and today persons with various disabilities are covered under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and all human rights statutes across the country.

In the early days, we had expectations and hopes that achieving equitable legal protection would make a tangible difference in our lives. But 30 years later, it is clear that we have achieved far more in obtaining the Charter’s promise of being equal “before and under the law” than we have in attaining its promise of “equal benefit” of Canadian laws. Today, far too many persons with disabilities remain forced to live on the sidelines in abject poverty in our affluent country.

Experience is consistent across all jurisdictions. Every year, the largest percentage of complaints filed with all human rights bodies involve people with disabilities, especially under the prohibited ground of employment.

This tells me two things. On the one hand, it is clear that members of the disability community have learned what rights we have, and are prepared to file complaints to resolve instances of discrimination. On the other hand, however, it also indicates the extent of discrimination, both by design and through unintended actions, that continues to plague persons with disabilities.

Most human rights cases result in a settlement between the parties. There are times when settling is the appropriate strategy. Sometimes the complainant will achieve a better outcome than might have been attained through the uncertainty of a tribunal, and other times the complainant goes away very unsatisfied, but attains something. Settlements, however, write no new law. I believe considerable pressure, whether subtle or direct, is applied upon complainants to settle.

This high degree of settlements, the content of which remains secret, also makes it impossible for the community to analyze the effectiveness of the Commissions’ work, or to organize community actions, demonstrations or boycotts of organizations that are habitually complained against.

As we look to the future, many of the old priorities remain. There is a chronic need to strengthen the disability rights movement, and give “rights” holder organizations their rightful preeminent place at the table whenever new legislation, policies or programs are being developed. We must continue to educate the public and seek new allies and younger leaders. We must remain focused on fighting poverty and its effects on individuals and their quality of life. And we must be directly involved in reshaping the discourse in this country from its current attack on the poor and dispossessed to a climate where we achieve the objectives of the Ontario Human Rights Code as set out in its preamble, which reads in part: “it is public policy in Ontario to recognize the dignity and worth of every person and to provide for equal rights and opportunities without discrimination that is contrary to law, and having as its aim the creation of a climate of understanding and mutual respect for the dignity and worth of each person so that each person feels a part of the community and able to contribute fully to the development and well-being of the community and the Province.”

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