Adding social condition to human rights legislation may be one way to ensure greater protection for social and economic rights in Canada. However, the Quebec experience has shown that social condition as a prohibited ground of discrimination has its limits and is not a panacea for all aspects of socio-economic inequality in Canadian society. Other measures are needed as well. The Canadian Human Rights Act Review Panel has recommended the addition of social condition to the Canadian Human Rights Act. The federal Parliament and provincial legislatures may see fit to amend human rights laws accordingly. Whether or not this occurs, human rights commissions have had and can continue to have a role in the protection of social and economic rights.
Relying on the interpretive presumption in Slaight Communications and Baker, human rights legislation can be interpreted, and administrative discretion can be exercised, in a manner that is most consistent with international human rights norms. On the enforcement side of human rights commissions’ mandates, there is some room to adjudicate social and economic rights through grounds such as “receipt of public assistance”, by making links between other grounds and socio-economic status as in the Kearney case and by ensuring that socio-economic interests and benefits, such as social assistance, are provided equally to everyone.
With respect to the public policy and public education mandates given to commissions, various proactive measures can be taken in the area of social and economic rights. Such measures could include:
- conducting education campaigns to combat prejudice and discrimination against low-income persons within the public at large but also specific groups such as landlords;
- engaging in policy development in areas related to socio-economic interests such as housing with a particular emphasis on discrimination on grounds that are most closely related to socio-economic status (e.g. receipt of public assistance, family status, marital status, sex, race, place of origin, disability, ancestry);
- ensuring policy development in all areas is consistent with and recognizes Canada’s international human rights commitments and taking policy positions that, as much as possible, promote social and economic interests;
- reviewing both private programs and government action to ensure they are respectful of social and economic rights and raising concerns as appropriate;
- undertaking research and surveys in relation to social and economic rights.
These are just a few examples of ways in which human rights commissions, even under their current mandates, can have a greater role in promoting social and economic rights.
The goal of human rights legislation and s. 15 of the Charter is to protect vulnerable and disadvantaged groups from discrimination and to provide for equal rights and opportunities. These same vulnerable and disadvantaged groups – for example, women, persons with disabilities and racial minorities – are more likely to be poor. As such, the interdependence and indivisibility of the rights which are already recognized in human rights legislation and social and economic rights, which are gaining increasing attention and recognition, mandates an approach that treats the protection of both sets of rights as a common ideal. The addition of a prohibited ground of discrimination that deals directly with poverty, such as social condition, will no doubt give human rights commissions more latitude to protect and promote social and economic rights. However, even in the absence of legislative amendments to human rights legislation, commissions can play a role.