Public Law

Section 1

Lesson 3:  The Evolving Nature of Human Rights

If you were to look at Alberta's Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act , you would find that it offers protection against discrimination in a wide range of areas based on "the race, religious beliefs, color, gender, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income or family status of that person or class of persons."

That covers a lot of territory, but human rights is an evolving concept; and since the statute was passed, a lot of public attention has been focused on discrimination based on sexual orientation-something not mentioned in the Act at all.

Things came to a head in Alberta in 1991 when a church-affiliated college in Edmonton fired an openly gay lab instructor. The position of the college was that the instructor's lifestyle ran counter to the core values on which the school was based. Meanwhile, the lab instructor, feeling that he had suffered a human rights violation, appealed to the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission. Because there is no mention of sexual orientation in the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act , the commission refused to investigate the complaint.

As a result, the instructor turned to the courts and won his case. Recommendations were made that the Alberta government add sexual orientation to its human rights legislation, but the government chose not to and, instead, appealed the court's decision to a higher court. In other words, the government asked a higher court to review the decision, hoping that this time the decision would be different.

Eventually, this case ended up in the Supreme Court of Canada-the highest court in the country.

In April of 1998, the Supreme Court sided with the fired instructor, saying that in not providing human rights protection for discrimination based on sexual orientation, the Alberta legislation violated Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court insisted that from now on protection of this sort must be "read into" Alberta's Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, even if it is not explicitly stated in the Act itself.

This case clearly illustrates the evolving nature of human rights protection. It also shows some of the problems involved. Perhaps you agree with the decision of the Supreme Court; after all, the instructor's private life had no bearing whatsoever on the performance of his duties. Or perhaps you feel that the college should have the right to fire employees whose lifestyles fly in the face of its values.

What are your views on this issue?

There are always people wanting changes made to human rights legislation. The important thing is to be aware that protection for most human rights violations does exist. If you ever think you have been the victim of discrimination, contact the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission and find out just what your rights are.