Discrimination is a Broken Promise
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 22 Nov 1979, p. 116-126
Fairweather, R. Gordon L., Speaker
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A discussion of discrimination in Canada under the nine prohibited grounds of discrimination listed in the Canadian Human Rights Act: national or ethnic origin; colour; race; marital status; sex; religion; physical handicap; and criminal conviction for which a pardon has been granted. Some background and review of each topic. Some suggestions, programs and activities for change.
Date of Original
22 Nov 1979
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Full Text
NOVEMBER 22, 1979
Discrimination is a Broken Promise
CHAIRMAN The President, John A. MacNaughton


Ladies and gentlemen of The Empire Club of Canada: Our guest of honour this afternoon is R. Gordon L. Fairweather, Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, a man who has distinguished himself in a succession of public service careers.

The first was as a private member and as Attorney General in the Progressive Conservative Government of New Brunswick during the 1950s.

In 1962 he began his second public service career when the lure of federal politics caught him and he stood for election to the House of Commons in the constituency of Fundy Royal. He was successful in that campaign and was re-elected to Parliament in the next five consecutive general elections by a constituency whose esteem for him is demonstrated by the fact that he continues to receive requests for assistance from his former constituents on a regular basis.

During his fifteen years in Parliament, Gordon Fairweather earned a reputation as a strong and well-informed opposition member, but also as a reasonable critic who took a special interest in humanitarian issues. An early and ardent supporter of official bilingualism and of women's rights and a strong opponent of capital punishment, he was a Member of Parliament who placed the accent on the progressive half of his party's label.

Another progressive on another continent, Mahatma Gandhi, once said, "In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place." In 1977 former Prime Minister Trudeau must have paraphrased those sentiments to read that "In matters of conscience, the law of partisanship has no place," because in selecting a first Chief Commissioner for the Canadian Human Rights Commission he crossed the floor of the House of Commons to extend the invitation to Gordon Fairweather who, on accepting the post, began the third phase of his life's work of serving his community, a community that includes all of Canada.

The choice of Mr. Fairweather won wide acclaim--from all sides of the House, from newspapers across the country and, most importantly, from the minority groups in Canada who were looking for someone in whom they could have confidence as a committed champion of their concerns.

The Canadian Human Rights Act begins with a statement of the following principal:

Every individual should have an equal opportunity with other individuals to make for himself or herself the life that he or she is able and wishes to have, consistent with his or her duties and obligations as a member of society, without being hindered in or prevented from doing so by discriminatory practices based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex or marital status, or conviction for an offense for which a pardon has been granted or by discriminatory employment practices based on physical handicaps.

The fact that the Act received the unanimous support of Parliament is a fine commentary on the ideals of Canadians as expressed through their elected representatives, but it would be naive to suggest that discrimination in Canada ended with a legislative statement of principle. Rather, the Act was a recognition of the problems of prejudice that exist in our country and was a starting point for Gordon Fairweather to begin building a Commission to respond to them.

It is our hope that in providing a forum for Mr. Fairweather to speak to our members gathered here today and to the thousands of people who will see his address on television or hear it on radio we will have assisted in a small way with the important work undertaken by him and the Commission that he leads and inspires.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to call on Gordon Fairweather, Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission to address us on the topic, "Discrimination is a Broken Promise."


Ladies and gentlemen: One of the most difficult parts about making a speech is thinking up the title. Finding something to say is no problem. I think we are breaking new ground in important areas, and I want to tell you about it. But putting a title on it is a difficult matter. I was a bit apologetic about "Discrimination is a Broken Promise" when it occurred to me. In fact I told a member of my staff that it sounded more like a message for a bumper sticker. But even if it does sound like a bromide, it states my basic theme. So long as there is discrimination in our society, we are breaking promises, explicit or implicit, that we have made to our children, to our fellow citizens, and to the world at large.

By signing the United Nations charter and its covenants, we have made some promises about equality and fairness. In a thousand speeches on multiculturalism, in a thousand high school social studies classes, in a thousand newspaper editorials, we have promised that ours is a society where everyone has an equal chance to make the kind of life that they want for themselves and their children. And we try to make it so. In fact, many people believe that we have succeeded in making it so. Thirty-seven per cent of those polled in Toronto by a survey this year said that they did not think that some people were denied opportunities by discrimination. Well, I'm not as sanguine as that. To paraphrase Robert Frost, I think we have some promises to keep--and miles to go before we sleep.

There are a number of topics that I want to raise with you, too many, in fact, for a neat orderly address. But these ideas are important enough that I am going to try to touch on as many as I can, arranging them under the headings of the nine prohibited grounds of , discrimination listed in the Canadian Human Rights Act: national or ethnic origin; colour; race; marital status; sex; religion; physical handicap; and criminal conviction for which a pardon has been granted.

I want to start with discrimination based on national or ethnic origin because it opens up the topic of immigration and immigrants, something of prime importance to the city of Toronto. About one third of the immigrants who arrive in this country settle in Toronto. And of those who resettle later, about half ultimately resettle in Toronto.

What are the national origins of these immigrants? In 1956, 94.2 per cent of newcomers to Canada came from the United Kingdom, the United States, and Europe, and only 5.4 per cent from "the rest of the world"--from the subcontinent, from the Third World, from the countries where people do not have white skin.

By 1977, however, the figures had changed remarkably: 46.7 per cent now come from the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe, and 53.3 per cent come from what I call "the rest of the world." A shift in proportions over twenty years from 5.4 per cent to 53.3 per cent is a tribute to the new immigration policies that Canada adopted in the sixties.

What sort of numbers are we talking about? Over 1,800,000 people immigrated to Canada between 1967 and 1977, almost a million of them to Ontario. So it is obvious that the potential for discrimination based on national origin is there and, as you know, we have not escaped its consequences. It is just too easy to fall into the habit of generalizing about whole groups of people as if they were all alike; it is just too easy to make assumptions about people, and then to base discriminatory decisions on those assumptions. We have been exposed to a very blatant example of this process in recent months. I am referring to the full-page newspaper ad of the National Citizens Coalition, exhorting Canadians to reject the government's decision to accept Indochinese refugees, the so-called boat people, on the absurd grounds that their origins as ethnic Chinese somehow make them unfit to adapt to the Canadian democratic way of life. Now that is a; discriminatory slander that insults not only the Asian' refugees but also the thousands of Canadians of Chinese origin who have lived here, some for many generations, and contributed to the democratic life of this country in innumerable ways.

I have received letters that tell me that I have no right to take exception publicly to that advertisement. Well, I do take exception to it, and I am repeating my opposition to it here and now. People can state their opinions, honestly held or otherwise, in a number of free forums in this country. But when those opinions are malicious insinuations, then I consider that the rest of us have not only the right, but the duty to speak out to the contrary.

Closely related to discrimination based on national or ethnic origin is, of course, discrimination based on colour, or on race. We use the term "visible minorities," which is a euphemism for the more blunt terms that are still in use in South Africa. The same visible minority that apparently just cannot fit into our way of life according to the National Citizens Coalition, fits in only too well according to a recent W5 program on the so-called giveaway of our universities. That program used film of a meeting of the Chinese Students Association at the University of Toronto to imply that the universities were being taken over by foreigners, mainly Chinese. It made no distinction between Chinese students who were landed immigrants or citizens, and "foreign students" who are here only for the period of their studies. In other words, it implied that Canadians are not Canadians with a right to go to Canadian schools in their own country if they are Chinese Canadians. And one of the ways it did so was by focusing on the visible racial characteristics of certain students. I saw the program myself, and I was appalled at its sensationalism, and at its injustice.

Unfortunately, it would not be hard to go on listing examples of discrimination founded on race, but I will only elaborate on one--the disproportionate representation of Native people in our prisons. Our criminal justice system has an adverse impact upon Native Indian people; Natives make up a much larger percentage of the prison population than they do the total population. Why? Not because they have more criminals. We set Native people up by confronting them with a variety of circumstances -joblessness, low education, different standards of behaviour than those imposed on white people, dependence on alcohol--and then we put them away.

This is the real issue facing our criminal justice system today. And yet Parliament is about to launch its fifth debate on capital punishment in the past fifteen years. More energy and rhetoric and passion is going to be squandered, while more Native people are given prison sentences or denied parole after committing offences that might not have led to a sentence but for their race.

This is not, of course, the only form of discrimination affecting Native people. And status Indian women have the doubtful honour of being discriminated against on the basis of their sex and marital status as well as their race and colour. I am referring, of course, to the section of the Indian Act, Section 12(1)(B), which takes away the status of a woman and her children if she marries a non-status man, but which not only allows a status man who marries a non-status woman to keep his status but confers status on his wife as well.

This is going to change--it has to change. And it should be changed retroactively as well, to restore justice to all those women and their children who were unfairly deprived of their birthright solely on the basis of sex.

The customs and policies and programs that have evolved in this society of ours often, like Section 12(1)(B) of the Indian Act, affect families. We regard the family as the basic social unit, and we formulate much of our social policy on the existence of the family. Therefore, always assuming that people live in families, we have set up such basic social programs as income tax, old age assistance and so on with criteria that are based on marital status. Yet society is changing fast. According to a recent Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce newsletter in 1976, fully twenty-one per cent of households in this country were "non-family" households versus eleven per cent in 1951. No one wants to "break up families." No one wants to put an end to the special recognition of an important social and economic unit that protects and nurtures our children. But we have reached the stage where it behoves us to be very careful about using marital status as the way we define a family. And we are going to have to recognize the importance of that twenty-one per cent of non-family households too. So, from the point of view of social policy, it is time that more attention was paid to discrimination on the basis of marital status. We have asked the Minister of Health and Welfare to study this problem.

The large percentage of the complaints that we receive at the Human Rights Commission involve discrimination in employment. And in employment two grounds of discrimination, religious belief and physical handicap, raise the same type of problem, the problem of reasonable accommodation.

Should employers be allowed to insist that everybody who works for them conveniently fit into certain narrow specifications? Or should they try to make reasonable accommodation for religious holidays (other than Christmas and Easter) and/or for religious dress such as turbans? Or for wheelchairs, or seeing-eye dogs? It is a nuisance to rearrange shifts so that people can observe their Sabbath or go to prayers, or to fix up a washroom for someone in a wheelchair. You can look on such efforts as extraordinary measures. Or you can look on not making such efforts as discrimination against those who are denied the opportunity to work. It's all in your point of view, isn't it? From the point of view of human rights legislation, it is pretty clear: if it does not put undue hardship on the employer, not doing it is discrimination.

There are other ways of fighting discrimination that some people persist in thinking of as extraordinary measures, ways that are very important to the physically handicapped and also to Native people, blacks, and women. I am talking about special programs, or affirmative action. Now I'm not going to expound on affirmative action at great length here. But let's get one thing straight. In some situations, we have treated certain groups so shabbily in the past, have stacked the deck against them so outrageously that it will take them generations to start to catch up with the rest of the population unless we accelerate the process a little. No one is suggesting that unprepared and untrained people be given preference for jobs. But we are never going to wipe out the impact of our past discrimination if we do not take some conscious steps to improve the representation of certain groups in the work force. And take it from me, it is going to happen. There are a lot of determined people out there who are going to see that it does.

To those of you in this audience who are in a position to put affirmative action programs in place, I offer the consulting services of the Canadian Human Rights Commission--at about the best price you are going to get from consultants anywhere. Or Canada Employment and Immigration will help you; just ask.

Special programs are needed. They are being demanded, and they are on the way. So it would be wise to anticipate what is inevitably coming, and you will be making an important contribution to the kind of society that Canada, through Parliament, has stated that it wants to build.

To get back to the broken promises, one group that society makes implicit promises to is those people who are officially pardoned for offences for which they have paid their debt to society. Their trustworthiness has been declared by the police, after investigation, to be the same as the rest of us. But often employers think that they can second-guess the police, disregard the pardon, and refuse employment opportunities to ex-offenders. This is discriminatory, as much as refusing an opportunity to someone on the basis of their skin colour would be.

I hope that my remarks so far have strengthened some ideas that you likely already had--namely that the struggle against discrimination is by no means over, that our ideas about what constitutes discrimination are becoming more subtle, that people are identifying themselves as victims of discrimination (and speaking out about it) who formerly remained quiet and passive, and that human rights can no longer be regarded as a luxury or a frill. Human rights are an inevitability.

I have no illusions about the difficulties that are involved in creating a more egalitarian society. We, and I am sure that I can speak for other Human Rights Commissioners on this, are quite aware that protecting people's rights can sometimes lead to situations where different sets of rights are in conflict, or to situations where people who are discriminating honestly believe that they are acting in the best interests of society or some sector of society, or to situations where people are honestly unable to appreciate that discrimination is taking place at all. In some cases we are talking about major dislocations in systems. Take equal pay for work of equal value, for instance. When every woman in this country is paid according to the value of the work she does, our present system of compensation will have become totally unrecognizable. And none too soon, either.

But these problems are just that--only problems. And problems have solutions. When no parent has to explain to a child why a T V program makes that child feel like a second class citizen; when no parent has to explain to a child that all that stuff about equality is fine in the social studies books, but that you'll just get hurt unless you learn to limit your expectations--then we will be keeping our promises.

We can be proud of our promises. We made them in good faith, and we are serious about them. We can be even prouder of our promises when we stop breaking them.

The thanks of the club were expressed to Mr. Fairweather by John G. B. Strathy, Second Vice-President of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Discrimination is a Broken Promise

A discussion of discrimination in Canada under the nine prohibited grounds of discrimination listed in the Canadian Human Rights Act: national or ethnic origin; colour; race; marital status; sex; religion; physical handicap; and criminal conviction for which a pardon has been granted. Some background and review of each topic. Some suggestions, programs and activities for change.