An Open Letter to Members of Parliament

The Value of the Canadian Human Rights Commission to People with Disabilities

5 October 2009

The Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), a human rights organization of people with disabilities working in support of an inclusive and accessible Canada, believes that the time has come for organizations such as ours to present public testimonials regarding the benefits provided by Human Rights Commissions to our community; because there is a vocal, biased and high-profile attack against the Commission underway. For example, Mark Steyn, a Maclean’s columnist, has become a vitriolic critic of the CHRC’s disposition of cases under Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Indeed, Mr. Steyn, in his Thursday, September 17, 2009 blog, made the following statement,

In that long ago spring of 2008, the rules were very simple: under the Canadian “Human Rights” Tribunal, to be accused of a Section 13 thought crime was to be convicted. In the entire history of Section 13, every defendant brought before the CHRT had been found guilty. It would be unfair to compare this to the justice systems of Saddam Hussein or Pol Pot, since even those eminent jurists felt obliged to let someone off once in a while just for appearances’ sake. Only in Canada was a 100 per cent conviction rate merely reassuring proof of the Dominion’s progressive commitment to “human rights”.

As the critical reader will discern, Mr. Steyn purposefully employs terminology in an inaccurate manner to create in the reader’s mind the image of unfairness. The CHRC is being portrayed as a tribunal which breaches the very ideals and principles which it is mandated to uphold—fairness, equality and nondiscrimination. If this portrayal goes unchallenged it threatens to damage Canadians’ confidence in an extremely important national institution established to ensure that Canadians in vulnerable economic and social circumstances have access to justice.

There is no question that Mark Steyn and others have every right to challenge laws and practices that they believe offend rights guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. CCD’s concern is that in the media storm that has arisen around the Commission’s hate speech work, many Canadians may be losing sight of a larger issue—the important role that the Commission has played in ensuring that Canada is a place where people with disabilities, women, people of color, Aboriginals, gays and lesbians and other members of disadvantaged communities “have an opportunity equal with other individuals to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have,” as is promised in the Canadian Human Rights Act.

As some journalists are presenting a caricature of the CHRC to the general public, you, as a Member of Parliament, may be hearing from Canadians who are indignant about the CHRC’s mandate and how this role is being fulfilled by the Commission and its staff and adjudicators. CCD is sharing its perspective on the value of Canada’s human rights system with you, so that you are aware of how the CHRC has made Canada a more inclusive and accessible society for persons living with disabilities.

People with disabilities are disproportionately disadvantaged in Canada.

  • Many Canadians with disabilities are too likely to live in poverty.
  • Over two million Canadian adults with disabilities lack one or more of the educational, workplace, aids, home modification or other supports they need to participate fully in their communities.
  • Over 56% of working-age adults with disabilities are currently unemployed or out of the labour market. For women with disabilities the rate is almost 60%.
  • According to the International Labour Organization, the annual loss of global GDP due to the exclusion of persons with disabilities from the labour market is between US$1.37 trillion and US$1.94 trillion.
  • More than 10,000 persons with intellectual disabilities remain warehoused in institutions, including group homes and congregate care facilities, across this country.
  • Slightly more than half of Canadian children with disabilities who need aids and devices need more than what they receive.
  • Rates of violence and abuse against people with disabilities, in particular women with disabilities, are among the highest for any group in Canadian society. (End Exclusion)

This disadvantage exists because of the barriers that remain in Canadian society which prevent people with disabilities from using services, getting jobs and participating in community life. Forty percent of the complaints received by the CHRC are from people with disabilities seeking redress for discrimination on the ground of disability. While many obstacles to full and equal participation remain for people with disabilities, the Commission is playing a vital role in assisting Canada move toward the achievement of a barrier-free society.

Some examples drawn from the public record provide a real life demonstration of how Canada’s federal human rights system has assisted individuals with disabilities surmount obstacles which keep this group of Canadians disadvantaged, marginalized and on the sidelines of community life.

Like other Canadians, deaf people enjoy television but broadcasters have been reluctant to caption all their programming. Following a complaint by Henry Vlug, a Deaf Canadian, against CBC, the CHRC ordered 100% captioning of television programming. (Falardeau-Ramsay, Michelle. 2001. “Last Word.” The Canadian Association of Journalists.)

The CHRC also helps people with disabilities convince their employers to accommodate them in the workplace. For example, in the case Dawson v. Canada Post Corporation, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered Canada Post to “work with the Canadian Human Rights Commission to modify existing policies and to conduct workplace equity, accommodation and sensitivity training for managers and staff, notably in relation to autism and autistic individuals.” This decision was the result of a complaint filed by Canada Post employee Michelle Dawson, a woman with autism, who “had been discriminated against by Canada Post when coworkers spread rumours about her self-injury and about an alleged propensity to violence, and her employer ordered her to undergo a medical evaluation when she took a leave of absence because of the rumours.” (Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. 2008. Annual Report.)

In Audet v. Canadian National Railway 2006 CHRT 25, the CHRT found that CNR discriminated against Mr. Audet, who had been working as a brakeman, when he had a seizure. While CNR did not dismiss Mr. Audet, it stopped giving him shifts. The CHRT found that Mr. Audet had been discriminated against on the basis of disability and was ordered to return Mr. Audet to service as soon as possible. (Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. 2006. Annual Report.)

In Green v. Public Service Commission of Canada, Treasury Board and Human Resources Development Canada, the CHRT Tribunal found that Ms. Green, a person with a learning disability, had been discriminated against on the ground of disability because the respondents followed practices that deprived people with learning disabilities of employment opportunities. In summary, as a result of this decision, Ms Green got the job she had been seeking as well as some compensation for lost wages and hurt feelings, and the departments were ordered to ensure their staff follow federal policies aimed at preventing discrimination and that the departments train their staff in support of nondiscrimination in employment practices. (Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. 1998. Annual Report.)

As these examples demonstrate, with the assistance of Human Rights Commissions, individual Canadians with a disability are able to cause major Canadian corporations and Federal government departments to change their discriminatory practices in favor of equality. In some instances, the benefit extends beyond the individual complainant when a respondent is ordered to reform their policies and practices. Systemic solutions affect change that has a transformative affect on Canada, creating policies, practices and services that function in a manner respectful of the needs and varying abilities of a wide range of Canadians.

Canadians with disabilities believe there is an on-going need for Human Rights Commissions. For people with disabilities the barrier creation process is on-going as new technologies and products continue to be developed without consideration of how these services and products interface with various disabilities. As computer technology becomes more pervasive many people with disabilities are encountering new barriers, where previously none existed. For example, the entertainment units on airplanes which require the user to make selections from a screen presenting information in a visual format are a new barrier for travelers with a vision impairment. In coming months, the Commission will be addressing this issue and, we hope, removing another barrier.

CCD asks, that as Canadians discuss the work of the CHRC and other provincial commissions, they remember the long standing contribution Commissions have made to the creation of an accessible and inclusive Canada. Canadians with disabilities need Commissions to proactively remove barriers that prohibit our full and equal participation in Canadian society. CCD urges all governments to support and resource Commissions, for they are a key player in making Canada more inclusive and accessible.


Marie White
CCD Chairperson


Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. 1998. Annual Report.
Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. 2006. Annual Report.
Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. 2008. Annual Report.
Falardeau-Ramsay, Michelle. 2001 “Last Word”. The Canadian Association of Journalists.
End Exclusion Web Site.
Lynch, Jennifer. 2009. “The Federal Human Rights System: Modern Approaches, Modern Challenges.” Speaking notes for Jennifer Lynch, Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission for Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies (CASHRA) 2009 Annual Conference. Monday, June 15, 2009.
Steyn, Mark. 2009. “It took a while but Section 13 is dead.
Steyn, Mark. 2009. The fat cats vs. Blazing Cat Fur. Macleans. July 6, 2009.
Worthington, Peter. 2009. “Rein in the human rights bureaucracy” Toronto Sun