People still struggle with concept of inclusion

2002 not a banner year for human rights in Canada

Question: When is a statuesque spruce tree, festooned with lights, gracing Toronto’s City Hall Square in the weeks surrounding Dec. 25 not a Christmas tree?

Answer: When some well meaning, but not well understanding, individual decides that it may be offensive and contrary to valuing diversity to recognize an important celebration of one of the world’s major religions.

Talk about getting it totally wrong. An inclusive society is one where we recognize and value what is dear to people of different backgrounds not one where people’s traditions do not receive public recognition. Sadly, Canada’s great satirist, Mordecai Richler, is no longer with us to lampoon this latest lunacy.

Toronto’s “treegate” was not the only event in 2002 to demonstrate what an elusive concept inclusion is for some people. Even the Queen’s helpers couldn’t get it right. People in the United Kingdom were treated to the surprising spectacle of the Hell’s Angels riding in an official parade marking the Monarch’s Jubilee. The individual in charge justified this as proof of the inclusive nature of the parade. It was even suggested that Britain’s Hell’s Angels are the victims of unjustified negative stereotyping. Tell that to the many people, including those in Montreal, whose lives have been devastated by this group.

2002 was not exactly a banner year for Canada on the human rights, equity and diversity fronts. Most seriously, there was a surge in hate crimes in the wake of Sept. 11. There was cold comfort for Canadians expecting that the federal government would protect them from overly aggressive U.S. security measures as a Canadian citizen was deported by our southern neighbours to the Middle Eastern country where he was born but has not lived for decades. As of this writing, this citizen is still missing and his family is wondering about the value of his citizenship.

In 2002 Canada continued to slip from our former top ranking in the United Nations “Index of Human Development.”

While we are still near the top, cuts to public programs and services are taking a toll. One relative bright spot is the improvement in Canada’s child poverty rate, due in large part to a public program, the Child Tax Credit.

However, one can ask whether Canada, one of the world’s richest countries, should be celebrating the fact only one in six instead of one in five children lives in poverty? We still have a long way to go — and that’s a theme this year.

On the law-making and related front, Premier Gordon Campbell of British Columbia is proposing to eliminate the Human Rights Commission and leave only the Human Rights Tribunal.

The minister responsible for this issue says the change will lead to speedier complaints resolution at a more reasonable cost by reducing duplication in the system. Now I have to say that it wouldn’t be hard to be speedier than many human rights commissions so this is not exactly setting too lofty a goal.

However, given the track record of the Liberal government in B.C., I am skeptical that demolishing the commission will be good for those who feel aggrieved by human rights violations.

Without significant resources supporting complainants, the likely result will be individuals pitting their resources against those of a corporation. Only union members may be better off than others. Stay tuned to see the details of what B.C. does. And, if I’m wrong, then, as one of my idols the late Ann Landers would say, “10 lashes with a wet noodle” for me.

The B.C. government deserves further reprobation for its ill thought out referendum on aboriginal land issues. A referendum on a minority rights issue is frequently a bad idea and this proved to be one.

Finally, the feds proved that they can do things in a timely fashion with their mandatory five-year review of the Employment Equity Act. The review took place, a committee report was issued and the government’s response was tabled within a year — which is record speed compared with many other endeavours.

Some changes seem to have significant support and are likely to be implemented. For example, changing the definition of disability so that federally regulated employers may be able to get higher self-identification rates closer to the external statistics being used to judge their representation.

It seems likely that the employment equity requirements for federal contractors will be more stringent and closer to those that apply to federally-regulated employers. This may not be good news for contractors — although greater clarity would be an improvement — but at least it would honour the promise of comparable requirements incorporated in the Employment Equity Act. And it would put covered employers on a more even footing.

However, the downside of the government’s employment equity review efforts to date is that so much of what may be done is unclear — to put it charitably. The government’s 17-page (18 pages in French) offering is a masterpiece of obfuscation full of commitments that lead the reader to conclude it is possible the government definitely might do a whole range of things.

For example, this document says, “The Government will examine ways to develop workplace strategies for persons with disabilities and Aboriginal people…” and, with respect to resources for the Labour Program of HRDC, “The Government of Canada and the Department of Human Resources Development will consider the recommendation, within the context of their overall priorities, their efforts to promote inclusion and their overall fiscal situation.” You get the picture — clear as mud. However, usually reliable sources tell me that real proposals and concrete action are just down the road. Stay tuned.

As I said, 2002 was not a banner year. In many ways it was a worrisome year. Let’s hope that we can turn the corner and get back to a positive agenda in 2003.

Lynne Sullivan is president of Lynne Sullivan & Associates Inc., a human resource consulting firm specializing in diversity and employment equity. She can be reached at (416) 306-2243 or [email protected]

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