Support for human rights? There’s no better investment (Guest commentary)

Alberta used to lead the way on human rights, but now it’s in ‘shameful phase’

The Alberta Human Rights commission is suffering from political neglect. While notice of its death may be premature — as Mark Twain said of his own obituary — the patient is on life support. It is time for an injection of political commitment to bring it back to life.

Of course, compared to the basket cases of the world, such as Darfur or Somalia, things look good. But measured on a more rigorous scale, there is plenty of room for improvement.

The legal protection of human rights wasn’t always taken lightly in Alberta. The province was a leader, for example, in women’s political rights. In 1916, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta were the first Canadian jurisdictions to extend the vote to women. In 1918, two women were elected to the Alberta Legislature — the first females elected to public office in the British Empire. And in 1929 five Alberta women initiated the court case that established women are “persons” in Canadian constitutional law and can, therefore, be appointed to the Senate.

When Alberta’s first anti-discrimination statute was adopted in 1972, it was, many believe, the best law of its kind in the country.

But any such momentum was long ago lost. Neglect by the provincial government has left the Human Rights Commission languishing in the basement of the bureaucracy.

To protect the independence of human rights commissions, some Canadian jurisdictions have them report directly to the legislature. Others have the Minister of Justice, always a particularly prestigious Cabinet post, oversee the commission’s work.

But Alberta marches to the beat of a different drummer. Until March 2008 the commission reported to the most junior cabinet minister — through the Department of Tourism, Parks, Recreation and Culture. Since then it reports to the Minister of Culture and Community Spirit.

The result has been demoralization, a low profile (many Albertans don’t even know the commission exists) and failure to address a host of problems begging for attention.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Albertans are leaders on many fronts, but not in human rights development, which cannot be maximized without strong measures against discrimination. Albertans could lead here, too, if the issues facing the Human Rights Commission were addressed with seriousness.

Improvements needed

Constructive engagement with those issues would include a careful review of reforms that have been made in other parts of Canada and a willingness to adopt measures that could be useful in Alberta.

Some specific reforms are urgent. For example, the words “sexual orientation” must be added as a protected ground of discrimination in Alberta’s human rights legislation. Gay rights are already protected in Alberta as a result of a 1998 Supreme Court of Canada decision. But Alberta law does not state this fact. As a result, Albertans — both potential victims of discrimination and potential offenders (think employers here) — can be confused as to what the law actually is, or requires of them. Adding “sexual orientation” would end a shameful phase in Alberta’s human rights history.

Another urgently needed change would better protect freedom of expression. Section 3(1) (b) of Alberta’s human rights law makes it illegal to communicate in any way that is “likely to expose” someone to “hatred or contempt.” Although this part of the law figures in a very small proportion of cases, it is unacceptably vague and thus repugnant to democratic values. It must be removed as soon as possible.

There is the need for change on human rights law and policy in Alberta. There is also a wealth of law reform experience from across the country on which to draw. Albertans want better and deserve better. But to get better they are going to have to demand ethical leadership on this critical issue.

As I get older, it becomes clearer that treating people with dignity and respect is not only the right thing to do — it’s the smart thing to do. Want a good society? Want a prosperous society where everyone can contribute to the economy as fully as their abilities allow? Protection of human rights is probably the most important ingredient. Where human rights are not respected (again, think of the violence in Darfur or the chaos in Somalia), a decent society is impossible. And the better protected human rights, the better the society.

Janet Keeping is president of the Calgary-based Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. For more information, visit

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