The battle over Toronto City Council is also a battle over human rights
Published on 26/09/2018
You don’t have to be from the Toronto region to understand why we’ve been distracted these days by the actions of Ontario’s new premier Doug Ford to cut city council by almost half. This is a decidedly local issue in some ways; after all, not that many people care how big Toronto Council is. And if they do care, many might agree with shrinking it.
But the invocation of the notwithstanding clause makes it more than just a local issue. It threatens the authority of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, enacted in 1982 to codify the human rights of all people living in Canada. To mess with the Charter is dangerous, including for those of us fighting poverty.
The international human rights movement had its signal moment in 1948 with the passing at the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was followed in 1976 with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights.
What are these rights? There are legal and political rights, like the right to a fair trial, fair elections and the vote, and freedom of expression; freedom from enslavement, torture and inhuman treatment; and freedom of movement. And there are social and economic rights like:
- Fair wages, a decent standard of living, safe work conditions, reasonable work hours and paid vacation;
- Education, including post-secondary education;
- Safe, secure and affordable housing;
- Freedom from hunger, and access to nutrition; and
- Access to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
My guess is that this is a catalogue of what many of us are working on in service to our communities. We’re working hard on at least one of these issues either at the programmatic or policy level. And like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill, some days we move it up, and some days it slips back, but we keep our shoulder to the rock. A helpful government can make the incline less steep, and then there are other types of governments that make the work a lot harder.
Governments make choices. Sometimes they think affordable housing is something they should invest in. Sometimes they will develop a plan to make lives easier for people living with a disability. Sometimes they’ll want to fix the broken bail and remand systems so vulnerable young people don’t have their life chances destroyed by a brush with the law.
And sometimes they don’t. They don’t act, because they choose not to act. Which leads to the conclusion that poverty and disadvantage are not inevitable, but rather constructed. They are constructed by the choices we make as a society: how much companies choose to pay employees; how welcoming communities choose to be for newcomers; and what kinds of policies governments adopt.
A strong commitment to human rights can change this state of affairs, because here is something to know about human rights: they are not something governments give us, or anyone else gives us. They belong to us, to each of us. They inhere in us because we are humans living on this earth. Governments can’t pretend we don’t have them.
And Canada has decided to support human rights. In signing the Universal Declaration and the International Covenants, among other international human rights treaties, Canada has committed the national government and all subnational governments to supporting these rights. That includes provinces, regional governments, and municipal governments.
Canada has also gone further. It passed a Bill of Rights in 1960, and the more elaborated Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. The Charter is our most powerful document. And while it focuses explicitly on political and legal rights, it implicitly supports social and economic rights through identifying rights to security of the person and the right to equal treatment.
What is powerful about this commitment to human rights is that it takes away the question of whether public policy will support a particular right or not, and makes it a question of how it will do it. Recognizing something as a right means that people have recourse when they don’t get it. There is a process of complaint and appeal, and ultimately their access to their rights can be tested in court.
Which brings us back to what is happening in Ontario. The premier has pulled out the notwithstanding clause with a clear understanding that he will deny a right to people. And he has said he won’t be shy in doing it again. That is, he won’t be shy about not supporting any right that he doesn’t want to support.
I’ve talked to a number of people who were in the room in 1982 when the Charter and notwithstanding clause were developed. Proponents of the notwithstanding clause argued that it was needed when a government decided to do something to support a minority group, like an Indigenous band or people living with a disability, so it wouldn’t be sued by others who wanted similar treatment on the basis of discrimination or unequal treatment, subsequently addressed in subsection 15(2) of the Charter. It was intended to be used in the positive, not to gratuitously deny rights on a widespread basis.
Our rights are important. They open a doorway for us in our fight against poverty. Along with our social justice, economic and moral approaches, all of which have been successful to some extent, the human rights approach is an important tool in our toolkit. Threatening to take away our rights on a whim, or as part of a grudge match, is a gross violation.
That is why we have been a bit preoccupied. Toronto Council may seem like a local story, but it isn’t just that. The premier may not have needed to use the notwithstanding clause to cut the size of council. But his threat to use it when he won’t get his way still stands. The threat to stifle our rights still stands. It would harm our work, and harm the people with whom we work, and on whose behalf we work. We are in a testing moment.
This piece was adapted from a speech delivered at the Tamarack Institute’s Cities Innovating to Reduce Poverty conference held in Mississauga from September 18-19, 2018. The conference was supported by the Region of Peel and the Peel Poverty Reduction Committee.
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