Human Rights Law Basics

Human rights legislation exists in every province, territory and in the federal jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is determined by the constitutional division of powers: e.g. complaints involving banking, national airlines, railways, or federal government employees are in the federal jurisdiction, whereas complaints involving school boards, city government, or restaurants are in the provincial jurisdiction. In general, both federal and provincial human rights law prohibits discrimination in all aspects of employment; the leasing and sale of property; public accommodation, services and facilities; membership in labour unions and professional associations and the dissemination of hate propaganda. Grounds of discrimination vary slightly depending on the jurisdiction, so the current human rights legislation should be checked.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms defines the rights of the Canadian people. These rights cannot be infringed by any government or legislation (including human rights legislation). Therefore a case involving a challenge against the federal Income Tax Act disallowing child support deductions for the custodial parent receiving support payments was challenged using the Charter, not using the Canadian Human Rights Act. The same is true of a case which challenged the validity of a provincial human rights Act that did not include sexual orientation as a prohibited ground (see the summary for Vriend v. Alberta).

C.H.R.R. does not publish Charter cases unless they directly involve human rights legislation (such as in Vriend). Charter rights are enforced by courts, not by human rights commissions. If you think your Charter rights have been violated, see a lawyer.

Human rights legislation does have a special place in Canadian law. The Supreme Court of Canada in Ontario (Human Rights Comm.) and O'Malley v. Simpsons-Sears Ltd. described the semi-constitutional nature of human rights legislation. It stated that normally "according to rules of construction no broader meaning can be given to the [Ontario Human Rights] Code than the narrowest interpretation of the words employed. [But in human rights legislation the Court recognizes] the special nature and purpose of the enactment and give[s] to it an interpretation which will advance its broad purposes". This means that in most cases human rights legislation will override other legislation.

The following list gives examples of illegal discrimination which would be covered by the federal and provincial human rights Acts (remember that the federal and each provincial jurisdiction has its own Act which may exclude any of the above grounds):

  • dismissing a person from a job due to pregnancy
  • refusing to rent an apartment to someone based on their race
  • refusing to hire someone because of a disability
  • sexual or racial harassment

It should be kept in mind that not all types of discrimination, nor all acts of discrimination are illegal. For example, refusing to hire a person who has an earring through their eyebrow is unlikely to be an illegal discriminatory act, no matter how unfair it may seem. In this case it would be difficult to fit the discriminatory act into one of the prohibited grounds. Sometimes, however, there can be a discriminatory act, but it is allowed because there is something which overrides the individual's rights. For example, in Canadian National Railway Co. v. Canada (Human Rights Comm.) and Bhinder the Supreme Court of Canada decided the requirement of wearing a hard hat is a bona fide occupational requirement and does not amount to discrimination of the basis of religion. This meant that the employment of a Sikh worker could be terminated if he refused to wear a hard hat.

If you feel you have been discriminated against contrary to human rights legislation, you should contact a human rights commission (either federal, provincial or territorial). Human rights commissions are listed in the phone book where government departments and agencies are listed.

Many human rights commissions have web sites and you can click here for links to these sites.

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CHRR decisions are only available from Canadian Human Rights Reporter Inc.

CHRR decisions are not included in LawSource (Westlaw), Quicklaw (LexisNexis) or CanLII.