The Sheldon Chumir Foundation’s Janet Keeping says Alberta needs a human rights commission that’s ‘out there leading the way’
Amidst renewed pressure on the Alberta government to add the words “sexual orientation” to its human rights law, Culture and Community Spirit Minister Lindsay Blackett isn’t committing to making the long-awaited change, but says he wants to restore Albertans’ faith in the province’s human rights commission and make it more accessible.
“It’s not just a problem endemic to Alberta,” says Blackett, whose ministry includes the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission. “It’s one that’s right around the country. People have lost faith in [human rights commissions].” Blackett’s department has been reviewing the commission for about nine months and is looking at improvements. “In 1972, when Alberta established its first human rights commission, we were leaders in the country,” says Blackett. “We can be that again.”
A new report from the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership says Alberta’s human rights commission is suffering from “low profile and poor reputation” because of weak support from the provincial government. The report recommends a slate of changes to reinvigorate the commission, including spelling out “sexual orientation” as a prohibited ground of discrimination in Alberta’s Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act. The change “is long overdue and will put an end to one of the more shameful phases of Alberta’s human rights history,” says the report.
That part of history changed in the ’90s when Delwyn Vriend was fired from an Edmonton Christian university college after the school found out he was gay. The province’s human rights commission refused to investigate because sexual orientation wasn’t protected by Alberta law, and Vriend took the province to court. In 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with him, ruling that sexual orientation should be “read into” the list of protected grounds of discrimination in Alberta law.
More than a decade later, the government still hasn’t changed the wording in its human rights law to reflect the Vriend ruling. “That’s something that will have to go to my caucus for a decision,” says Blackett. “It’s probably not prudent for me to comment on what I would do personally, because it’s not up to me.”
Opposition MLAs grilled Blackett in the legislature several times last year over the omission. Because the Vriend ruling is read into the law, when someone searches Alberta’s human rights law to see if sexual orientation is included, they don’t find anything. Janet Keeping, president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation, says the end result is that some Albertans wrongly conclude that they’re not protected when, in fact, they are. “That’s sick,” she says. “…You shouldn’t have to have a law degree to find out what your rights are.”
Melissa Luhtanen, a lawyer and president of Calgary Outlink (a sexual and gender diversity community centre), applauds the human rights commission for clearly communicating on its website that sexual orientation is covered in the law. However, she says the change is still necessary. “In law it’s a technicality, but in terms of the social fabric of Alberta, it’s really required,” she says, adding that people in the GLBT community would be “really happy and relieved” to finally see the change. “I think that the GLBT community has felt like it’s been a slap in the face to change the Act and not have sexual orientation put in there when it clearly is included.”
NDP MLA Rachel Notley says changing the law should be a “no-brainer” for the government. “Some people try and say, ‘It’s just symbolic, the rights are there,’” she says. “But you know what? If the rights are there, why not say it?” Notley says the government’s reluctance to make the change reflects the “homophobia that still exists in the province, and obviously, in some quarters of the government.”
The government is reviewing “all different parts of the human rights commission” including the law, says Blackett. However, he says the sexual orientation issue gets a disproportionate amount of attention. “Our opposition members have seized on that as the issue,” says Blackett. “I find it interesting. As a minister, you have to be responsible for 3 1/2 million Albertans, not just one group.” Only one per cent of the commission’s complaints have to do with sexual orientation, Blackett says.
The Sheldon Chumir Foundation report also recommends striking out parts of the law that present an “unacceptable limitation on free expression” — namely, allowing people to file complaints about material that is “likely to expose” people to “hatred or contempt.” Keeping says that while the change is important, free speech complaints only represent a fraction of the commission’s work. “One of the things we’ve seen in the press is that some people have completely misunderstood the scale of the problem,” she says, adding that most complaints are about employment and housing.
Keeping wants the commission to actively educate the public on human rights instead of simply reacting to violations. “A commission that’s out there leading the way, speaking out on issues,” she says. The report also recommends that the commission be independent from the government so it’s not “politically dependent.” “It’s been quite clear over quite a few years now that they are intimidated by their political masters,” says Keeping.
Blackett says the government is considering the Sheldon Chumir Foundation’s recommendations as part of its review, but doesn’t know when the review will be completed. “We’re taking our time, because if we make changes, we don’t want to make them [so] that we have to go revisit them in five years,” he says. The commission, meanwhile, has been without a chief commissioner for almost a year. An acting chief commissioner is filling the vacancy.
Blackett will be in Calgary Thursday, January 29, to participate in a public panel discussion on the report. (It’s at the Epcor Centre’s Engineered Air Theatre, 7 p.m.)