Human Rights

Students from the Montreal Consortium for Human Rights Advocacy Training (courtesy McGill University).

Human rights are so fundamental that they receive special protection by law and by constitution. They are different than civil liberties, which refer to a narrower class of fundamental freedoms based on traditional Western values, such as freedom of religion and expression. Human rights include the right to education, to housing and to a clean environment. They are frequently referred to as social or cultural rights.

Canadians value human rights and Canada plays a leading role in protecting them on a global scale. In fact, it was a Canadian, John Humphreys, who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, the history of Canada’s human rights activity is not squeaky clean. In the 19th century, several laws and practises that were prevalent in Canada violated human rights. Before the British Emancipation Act of 1833 (effective a year later), slavery was practised in the colonies, and after Confederation, discriminatory laws were enacted to discourage the immigration of non-whites. Those who had already entered or continued to do so despite the restrictions, as well as Indigenous peoples, were subject to laws placing them in segregated schools, denying them the right to vote, restricting their entry into professions and certain types of employment, restricting their areas of residence, prohibiting their consumption of alcohol and even denying them access to public facilities. Women and children were treated as chattels, property rights were restricted, and the male head of the family could disinherit his wife and children in his will. Women did not gain the federal vote until the First World War and did not gain the provincial vote in all provinces until 1940. Women were not considered "persons" eligible for appointment to Senate until 1929.

By the Second World War, most laws restricting rights to women and children were changed, but some racist laws continued for a few years thereafter, while those denying the franchise to the First Nations were not altered until after the enactment of the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960.

Immigration to Canada

Throughout the 19th century, the movement of individuals and groups to Canada was largely unrestricted, although in 1885, under pressure from British Columbia, an Act was passed restricting Chinese immigration through the imposition of a head tax, the first of a series of such measures directed at the Chinese that continued until the late 1940s. Otherwise immigration policy was concerned mainly with quarantine stations, the responsibilities of transportation companies, and the exclusion of criminals, paupers, the diseased and the destitute.

But after the massive immigration between 1903 and 1913, the First World War and subsequent political upheavals and economic problems, a much more restrictive immigration policy was implemented and remained unchanged until 1962, when Canada's present universal and non-discriminatory policy was introduced in stages.

Most of the people who migrate to Canada come here for the opportunity to start a new life in a country that offers freedom, security and social benefits. Many come to escape repressive laws and practices in countries whose record of human rights is unsatisfactory.

Human Rights Abuses

Human rights abuses are monitored around the world by governments and rights organizations. Several Asian countries have consistently been reported as violating human rights by denying citizens the right to change their government; allowing arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life; disappearance of citizens; and torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. Among the countries are China, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

In terms of immigration, Canada is today a haven for people escaping human rights abuses. However, in terms of economics, trade with any country with poor human rights records is accompanied by uncomfortable feelings relating to core values, moral hazards, ethics and raises pragmatic concerns about our economy and that of other countries. Should Canada conduct trade with countries that violate their citizens’ human rights?

Learn more:
Human Rights
Canada's International Human Rights Policy
From C to C: Chinese Canadian Stories of Migration