Realizing Human Rights in Canada

Human rights represent glorious ideas. We also need effective ways of implementing them and ensuring they are enforced. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights expresses a vision of basic human rights, and a shared commitment to making those rights a reality.

The rights listed in international declarations and covenants such as the Universal Declaration only become enforceable when a government makes them part of a country's domestic law. Human rights documents and legislation exist at various levels: international, national, provincial and territorial, and sometimes, the local, municipal level.

In Canada, the Universal Declaration has inspired legislation that includes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms along with federal, provincial and territorial human rights laws. These laws reflect the Universal Declaration's principle of equality, and the statement in Article Two that "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."

Human rights laws in Canada protect people from discrimination and promote equality in public areas of life including education, employment, housing and public services. 

Canada's federal, provincial and territorial governments have strengthened human rights protections by creating human rights commissions as "arm's-length" agencies to enforce human rights legislation. These commissions need a certain amount of independence from government to ensure they can take action against government, if necessary. As an alternative, some governments have created direct access human rights tribunals to hear and make decisions about individual complaints of discrimination.

Human rights laws give human rights commissions several strategies for preventing discrimination and promoting equality. They include:

public education, communications and policy development;

broad, proactive programs and partnerships;

a complaint process to address incidents of discrimination (this responsibility is handled or shared by a human rights tribunal in some parts of the country); and

the power to conduct inquiries into systemic discrimination and to intervene in situations of conflict and tension.