House of Commons Hansard #177 of the 36th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was water.

Topics

Division No. 315
Private Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

The Speaker

The Speaker in the chair at the time did not hear the words “on division”. The Speaker did not hear them. Therefore I would rule that no one having heard it, unless you give me time to review Hansard , perhaps it was heard there or on television, then I would come back. We would then put it before the House and see what was happening at that point.

If the House is in agreement, that is what I propose to do. Is that agreed?

Division No. 315
Private Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Division No. 315
Private Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

Order, please. It being 6.20 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of Private Members' Business as listed on today's order paper.

The House resumed from November 17, 1998, consideration of the motion that Bill S-11, an act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act in order to add social condition as a prohibited ground of discrimination, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Canadian Human Rights Act
Private Members' Business

February 9th, 1999 / 6:20 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

John Herron Fundy Royal, NB

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak to the merits of supporting Bill S-11, an act to amend the Canadian Human Rights act.

This bill, sponsored by my colleague the hon. member for Shefford, was originally proposed in the Senate by my friend and Progressive Conservative colleague Senator Erminie Cohen.

I have been fortunate enough to speak to a number of very important bills since being elected in June 1997. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this particular bill because it addresses probably the most important right of all, that of human rights.

Senator Cohen comes from a province with an outstanding tradition of championing human rights issues. Gordon Fairweather, the former member of parliament for Fundy—Royal, the riding I represent, was also Canada's first human rights commissioner.

John Humphreys, the world renowned principal author of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was born and buried in the town of Hampton which is in my riding.

Senator Cohen, like our fellow New Brunswickers, understands how difficult times affect Canadian families and the community as a whole when the local plants shut down. Families have to make sacrifices that they never dreamed would happen to them. She knows about the closures at the Potocan mine and the impending job losses at Lantic Sugar. These are hardworking Canadians with an uncertain future.

I do not think that anyone should be surprised that Senator Cohen has tabled this bill. Bill S-11 shows her ability to care for individuals. I have known Senator Cohen for a number of years. I also know the member for Shefford. They are caring individuals who want to ensure that we do the best for those persons at the margins of our society.

This bill is about ensuring access to the basic tools people need to get back on their feet. It is about maintaining pride and dignity despite the tough times life sometimes has to offer.

Currently the Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, nationality or ethnic origin, colour, sex, marital status, family status, disability, conviction of an offence for which a pardon has been given, and sexual orientation. By explicitly listing Canada's vulnerable groups, the poignantly absent qualification in the 22-year old act is a reference to social condition. Seven out of ten provinces in Canada prohibit discrimination on the basis of social condition, social origin or sources of income in their respective human rights legislation.

According to the United Nations in its review of Canada's compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights signed in 1976, this great nation of ours received a failing grade on our ability to protect the rights of the poor. We parliamentarians have an opportunity to take a tremendous leap forward and rectify this tragic situation by supporting Bill S-11. The time for Canada to bring forward federal legislation is long overdue.

On December 10 we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As I already mentioned, this document was drafted by native New Brunswicker and former resident of my riding of Fundy—Royal, John Humphreys.

The declaration states essentially that all human beings regardless of their circumstances are born free and equal in dignity and rights. This bears repeating. All human beings regardless of their circumstances are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

It is a shame that Canada's own human rights act does not fully respect the goals and the intent of this important document, a document drafted by a Canadian.

The 50th anniversary of this world renowned declaration also marked the end of the first year of the United Nations international decade for the eradication of poverty. However, being poor in Canada continues to be one of our greatest hurdles for achieving equality. There is no better time for us to act than now.

One in five Canadian children live in poverty. We recognize that when children are poor, it is because their families are poor. As Canadians we are fortunate enough to live in a wealthy country but the marginalized are in need both physically and psychologically.

In my riding we try to address the physical needs of the poor through food basket programs run by great charitable organizations like the Sussex Sharing Club, the Lakewood Headstart Association, Kennebecasis Valley Food Basket, Chipman Community Care, the Minto Community Resource Centre and the Hampton Food Basket. I am very proud of the sense of community that exists in my riding of Fundy—Royal.

Bill S-11 addresses this inadequacy in our Constitution and offers the poor relief from negative stereotypes that affect their psychological well-being. It promotes human dignity, the very essence of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While provincial legislation addresses the rights of the poor for issues under that jurisdiction, the federal human rights act covers issues under federal jurisdiction such as banking, housing and telecommunications. As it stands today, the poor are too often denied housing or barred from opening bank accounts.

Bill S-11 does not provide any special status for the poor. There is nothing contained in the bill that is not already afforded to other Canadians. There is nothing to fear from endorsing this plan, yet I understand the government has no intention of supporting the legislation. It instead promises to review the human rights act in its entirety for several possible changes.

This promise has been on the table since the Liberals took office and still no new legislation is planned. Senator Cohen and the member for Shefford chose to take action now.

It is our duty as parliamentarians to serve on behalf of all constituents. That is why it is incumbent on us to support this bill. If we choose not to, then we are nowhere near the great moral authority our Prime Minister likes to call Canada.

In 1989 the Progressive Conservative government took bold and persuasive action and succeeded in unanimously passing a resolution to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. Since that time, Canadians are unfortunately no closer to their goal due to the massive cuts in transfer payments to the provinces by this current government.

Today we have the possibility to announce to Canadians that discrimination on the basis of social condition will no longer be tolerated. Let us not waste that opportunity.

Canadian Human Rights Act
Private Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

Ahuntsic
Québec

Liberal

Eleni Bakopanos Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada

Madam Speaker, I want to begin by stating that contrary to what was said, the Minister of Justice strongly endorses the premise of Bill S-11 and the hon. member's desire to take a concrete step forward to assist the poor in Canada.

To be denied services, accommodation or employment because one is poor is totally unacceptable in Canada and totally unacceptable by this government.

All Canadians are justifiably proud of their human rights protection. We believe strongly in the inherent worth and dignity of each member of society. If we are serious about protecting the poor, I believe we should do it right.

This government will soon be announcing a comprehensive review of the Canadian Human Rights Act. This review will give us the opportunity to look very seriously at how we can best enhance human rights protection for the poor in this country.

If we really wish to ensure adequate human rights protection for all Canadians, then we must proceed in a thoughtful and principled manner. We need to look at what human rights need to be protected and how they can be protected in the federal sector. In our opinion, this can best be done in the context of examining the Canadian Human Rights Act as a whole.

The present government is proud of its human rights achievements. We amended the Canadian Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and we brought in legislation requiring that all victims of discrimination be accommodated.

Recently, we passed a bill to facilitate the integration of the disabled into the criminal justice system. We also increased compensation to victims of human rights discrimination and improved the structure of the human rights tribunal. We have brought about advances in the protection of human rights in Canada.

Our government's efforts to improve the rights of the disabled recently won recognition. During a visit to the United States, our Prime Minister was presented with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt award, an award given to the country that has most advanced the rights of the disabled.

The government has improved the CHRA in a time when some would limit or dismantle the protection given to the most vulnerable in our society. The Minister of Justice is not content to rest on these improvements. She is committed to an examination of the act in its entirety.

In September the auditor general indicated, first, that the current act needed to be modified to better serve Canadians and, second, that the Canadian Human Rights Commission needed updating in order to process complaints more efficiently.

These are some recommendations that merit a careful review. We understand that there are other concerns that also need to be addressed. This is why the Minister of Justice will soon be announcing the process for the comprehensive review. It is because we are launching the review that I am saying let us wait for the review to examine how we can best prevent discrimination against the poor.

It seems curious that we would begin to launch into examination of the prohibited grounds of discrimination under the CHRA on the eve of a more fulsome review of all aspects of the legislation. To simply add a new ground that is not well understood and may not produce the results that we all desire will not help the poor.

An overly simplistic response in the absence of a detailed analysis on this very important issue could result in endless litigation. That is not what we all want. We want changes to policies and programs to ensure that the already disadvantaged in our society are not further disadvantaged by attitudes and treatments that do not respect the dignity of all members of the human family.

While we believe it would be responsible at this time for the government to expand the prescribed ground of discrimination to take into account the real needs of the poor, I would like to make it clear we are not suggesting for a moment that we do not need to ensure that the act provides protection for the poor. For example, I am well aware of the recent provincial report on homelessness released in Toronto known as the Golden report which clearly demonstrates the need to address many of the problems facing the poor.

At the top of the list the problems confronting the poor in Canada is the issue of affordable housing. I would like to discuss this problem in some detail as it is a problem raised by some of the senators in supporting the bill and by many of the witnesses that appeared before the Senate committee.

Without question discrimination and accommodation is a serious problem that must be addressed. Individuals on social assistance, particularly single, separated or divorced mothers, face many burdens in obtaining any form of accommodation. The Golden report documents that the face of homelessness has changed and indeed there are now entire families that are homeless.

An Ontario Board of Inquiry, the Human Rights Code, December 22, 1998 decision in Kearney v Bramale Ltd., questioned the rules pertaining to the portion of an individual's income that can be allotted for accommodation. This income testing rule was held to be unfair as it unduly limited the small pool of housing available to the poor. There is a wide divergence across Canada in human rights codes and the use of terminology covering discrimination against the poor.

In Ontario, for example, the Ontario Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination on the basis of receipt of public assistance. It is this ground, along with the grounds of sex, marital status, citizenship, place of origin and family status, which is used in the Kearney case to challenge the income testing rules used by some landlords to determine eligibility to rent an apartment and which has as its impact the effect of denying housing to many individuals with a low income. It should be noted that the existence of a social condition type ground in Ontario is limited to occupancy and accommodation situations.

By comparison, in British Columbia the residential tenancy act prohibits discrimination on the basis of lawful source of income. Yet it is interesting to note that these two provinces only use this ground to prohibit discrimination in the field of accommodation.

Let me continue to review the provincial human rights legislation on this issue. In addition to Ontario and British Columbia, which I have already mentioned, in Alberta the human rights and multiculturalism act includes source of income as a prohibited ground of discrimination. Manitoba and Nova Scotia have a ground called source of income. Newfoundland protects social origin. Saskatchewan protects receipt of public assistance. Yukon, Northwest Territories and P.E.I. do not protect any poverty related ground directly. New Brunswick on December 9, 1998, introduced an amendment to the human rights act to add social condition.

Overall we can see there is diversity in the use and application of the term social condition. For the most part the term is used to apply to situations involving accommodation. In the federal sector there is very little residential accommodation outside housing for military, RCMP or foreign service officers.

Adding the ground of social condition to prohibit discrimination in housing is not necessarily a practical solution as housing is primarily a provincial matter. In this it may be that in the provincial context that the ground of social condition may have a greater impact.

At the present time, Quebec is the only province to ban discrimination on the basis of social condition. It added this to its legislation texts in 1976. It would be worthwhile to examine the repercussions arising in Quebec from its inclusion.

The term “social condition” refers to an individual's place in society. This is determined by a number of factors, particularly family background, employment, level of education, and physical capacities. The connection between social condition and the discrimination must be proven. A cause and effect relationship must be demonstrated in each case.

Even in Quebec, where the definition of “social condition” is a broader one, the majority of complaints relate to cases where an individual has been refused accommodation.

In this province there has been a few limited cases involving employment situations. In the case of Lambert v. Quebec, ministère du Tourisme, the complainant was in receipt of social security benefits. He participated in a government work program that provided him with less than the minimum wage. To permit someone on social assistance to receive less than the minimum wage was held to be discriminatory.

Now let us turn to the federal context. As I have stated, there is less scope for discrimination against the poor in the context of residential housing as this field is primarily a provincial jurisdiction. However there are other issues that do need to be examined in the federal sector.

We have all heard from Canadians about concerns raised with regard to situations that may arise in the banking and the telecommunications sectors, although the banks have made more recent changes to ensure that low income individuals have better access to banking services. Groups such as the National Anti-Poverty Organization have alleged that the banks may in certain situations discriminate against the poor. I am not in a position to judge or even comment on these allegations.

However, before we can amend the law we need to know the exact nature of the problem and how and whether we can resolve it with the human rights legislation. In other words the government is proposing a comprehensive review of the Canadian Human Rights Act in order to make sure that we do it properly.

Canadian Human Rights Act
Private Members' Business

6:35 p.m.

Reform

Jason Kenney Calgary Southeast, AB

Madam Speaker, when I saw the bill come before the House I specifically asked to speak to it. I immediately thought that the bill encompassed both some of the best intentions and worst ideas that I have ever seen in a piece of legislation to come before us.

It is not uncommon for good intentions and poor execution to be commingled in the same political project as we have before us today, which of course is to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to essentially prohibit discrimination on the basis of social condition, whatever that means.

I am disturbed that this is a Senate bill originating in that other place which would happen to be the one that does not have any democratic legitimacy. That would be the chamber filled with unaccountable, unelected, patronage hacks. Dozens of thoughtful private members' bills have come forward from members of this place who happen to be elected and accountable, whose ideas happen to come from the voters and not from their ivory tower. Private members' bills that originate from this place ought to be deemed votable by the private members' bill committee but rather it gave one of the very few votable spots available to empower individual MPs to a senator in the case of Bill S-11.

That in my humble opinion is sufficient grounds to vote against this or any other bill that originates from a completely absurd anachronism of an institution which should have died with the 19th century from whence it came.

I do not think there is a member of this place or citizen of the country who does not oppose poverty and unjust discrimination. I certainly do not. I prefer to demonstrate my compassion for those who have economic circumstances less fortunate than my own through private charitable activities and contributions. I happen to believe that compassion as Mother Teresa reminded us literally means to suffer with. It does not mean to legislate good intentions.

When I hear the intentions of the movers of the bill, when I hear the member for Shefford say, as I believe she did in this place, that Canada's obsession with the debt and the deficit demonstrate that we really despise the poor, I frankly find that bizarre in a country that has spent untold billions of scarce resources by taxing money away from struggling families, many of whom are below the so-called poverty line. In this enormous project of wealth redistribution to say that Canadians somehow despise the poor because they want to pay their bills is a gross statement of hyperbole which does not belong in this place or this debate.

What would the bill seek to do? I do not think anybody really knows. I read the transcripts of the Senate committee where Bill S-11 was examined. Witness after witness was asked how social condition is defined. There appeared to be no clear consensus or no clear definition.

One thing is clear. To prevent the public sector, parliament, from discriminating against people on the basis of their social condition, it would have some very interesting but unintended consequences. For one thing it would take what is right now a steeply progressive tax system and turn it into a completely flat tax system. Right now the top 1% of income earners, those who report income of over about $150,000 a year, represent about 9% of the income reported in Canada but pay over 20% of the taxes.

The current tax laws very clearly discriminate against people on the basis of income. The lowest income people, I would argue quite appropriately, pay no taxes. We have this enormous case of discrimination on the basis of social condition.

Do the movers of the bill intend that it ought to be interpreted in such a way that the tax laws of the country would no longer be able or that social benefits should no longer be able to be targeted on the basis of income?

Do they suggest the clawback that exists for various social payments ought to be eliminated and that billionaires ought to have the same entitlement to social payments as do the indigent poor? Probably not but they have not addressed that question.

What is it that they are attempting to do? I would suggest they are trying to impose a radical egalitarian, frankly socialist idea which is Marxist in its origins on the private sector to restrict liberty and freedom.

We just heard the parliamentary secretary suggest that if this law were passed it would change the way that banks deal with the poor, with people who are in poverty. What do these people mean by that? Do they mean that if such a statute or amendment were passed a bank or a financial institution would be compelled by force of law, as interpreted and implied by an unelected and unaccountable human rights tribunal, to supply a loan to somebody with no income, no assets and no reasonable prospect of assets or income?

Is that what is implied? If it is not, then why have we not defined that kind of interpretation in the bill?

The lack of definition surrounding social condition is wide open. Is it merely an oversight? No, it is clearly not. Clearly the advocates of this radical egalitarian socialist idea have in mind allowing a wide open interpretation so that our friends, the robed Solons on the bench, may interpret and apply this law in whatever manner they deem appropriate.

In other words, the advocates of potentially radical legislation such as this do not want to paint a picture for democratic discussion as to what the consequences of such legislation would be, they want the courts to do it.

I refer to Professor Martha Jackman of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa who appeared at some length before the Senate committee on this issue both in November 1997 and May 1998. She made some very interesting statements defending the lack of definition.

She says “I would strongly discourage you from including the notion of a definition within this bill because this would be anomalous. There is a significant amount of literature about the idea of race being essentially an artificial concept”. We have race, religion and other grounds within the bills that courts and commissions have wrestled with successfully from the perspective of radical leftists such as Professor Jackman.

She goes on to say “I would discourage the committee from the idea of defining social condition within the bill because that freezes the definition at a particular time that is antithetical to the approach that has been taken in human rights statutes”.

She goes on to talk about the case of Vriend in Alberta where the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the sovereign democratic legislature of the people of Alberta was contravening the charter of rights by not having included in a particular statute a term which now exists in the charter of rights. In other words, the courts decided to legislate from the bench in the Vriend decision. She says that if we pass this well-intentioned amendment of social condition we will be empowering the courts to do the same thing in respect of social condition as they did with respect to social orientation in Vriend.

She said “Based on precedence, recognition under provincial and federal human rights statutes is in itself a criteria for finding an analogous, non-enumerated ground under the charter”.

What she is saying is “Please, parliament, pass this bill so we can then empower the courts to use this bill as the basis of reading in a new constitutionally protected ground of non-discrimination”.

I submit that if the proponents of this remedy wish it to be entrenched in the Constitution they ought to do it directly, honestly and transparently by introducing an amendment to the charter of rights and freedoms and not through the nefarious back door of this statute.

Canadian Human Rights Act
Private Members' Business

6:45 p.m.

Bloc

Christiane Gagnon Québec, QC

Madam Speaker, I rise today, with a great deal of personal conviction and interest, in support of the initiative by my hon. colleague from Shefford, whose bill is aimed at amending the Canadian Human Rights Act by adding social condition to the prohibited grounds of discrimination.

It must be admitted that poverty is the worst enemy, not only of human development, but also of social and economic development, and represents our civilization's greatest failure. We are forced to admit that the increase in poverty is a source of great shame as the third millennium approaches.

The motion by the hon. member for Shefford reads as follows:

That Bill S-11, an act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act in order to add social condition as a prohibited ground of discrimination, be now read a second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.

We know that the Canadian Human Rights Act is a masterpiece. It protects against discrimination and guarantees opportunity, but one of its weaknesses is that it does not directly recognize poverty as a source of inequality. As we know, the figures on the increase in poverty, and on everything being poor in Canada represents, are shocking.

Daily, newspaper headlines remind us, and I will quote a few “Poverty gaining ground in Montreal”, “Greater Montreal, of all metropolitan areas in the country, has the most low income families”. In Saint-Georges, “Moisson Québec distributes over 1,300 Christmas hampers”. And here is another headline “Street kids, 14 and 15 year olds living one day at a time”.

Around Quebec City “Moisson Québec, two million kilos of food”; “The agri-food industry manages its stocks much better than in the past, but now we need to go further to find the items we need”. Here is another , “The poor children of the universal declaration of human rights”. Every day, newspaper headlines recall this sad state of affairs.

It is surprising, to say the least, that the Canadian Human Rights Act does not recognize social condition as an illicit grounds, because, as a signatory to many international and regional instruments on human rights, Canada has made a commitment to guarantee the rights contained therein for Canadians, without distinction.

In a number of provinces, much progress has been made in including social origin as discriminatory in certain codes. Newfoundland, for example, prohibits discrimination on the basis of social origin. The Ontario human rights code prohibits discrimination in the area of housing, discrimination based on the fact that a person receives welfare. The Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia codes of human rights prohibit discrimination based on sources of income and Saskatchewan's on the receipt of social assistance.

While these initiatives are praiseworthy in their attempt to eliminate discrimination based on poverty, the provisions are limited to the fact of being on welfare.

However, we all know that it is possible to work and remain poor. That is why we may rightly be proud of the Quebec legislation, which is the only one to include the expression “social condition” without limiting its scope to apply only to those on welfare. That is why the Quebec charter of rights and freedoms is considered, and rightly so, as the most progressive and modern.

Closer scrutiny reveals that the changes proposed in Bill S-11 are in line with provincial legislation and Quebec legislation in particular.

Before going any further, we must ask ourselves whether the issue of poverty warrants such an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act. In the face of this ever-increasing poverty and given the ineffective policies developed by the Liberals to remedy the situation, the answer is clear: yes, and the sooner the better.

Looking back about 10 years, we can see why. On November 24, 1989, the House of Commons unanimously passed the following motion:

That this House express its concern for the more than one million Canadian children currently living in poverty and seek to achieve the goal of eliminating poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000.

Strangely enough, nearly 10 years later, the number of children living in poverty has increased by 60% to a record level of 1.5 million.

Several organizations involved in denouncing poverty and assessing the various policies implemented by the Liberal government point at decisions that defeat the stated purpose of eliminating poverty in Canada, and they criticize and condemn the government's social policies. These organizations include the National Council of Welfare, the Canadian Council on Social Development and Campaign 2000.

The National Council of Welfare made the following statement:

The child tax benefit should be fully indexed to the cost of living effective July 1, 1999.

We are therefore still waiting for this government to take action. In a report released December 7 entitled “The Progress of Canada's Children”, the Canadian Council on Social Development was critical of the fact that, and I quote:

—improvements in the lives of Canadian children and youth have been offset by negative social and economic trends.

The Council blames the low benefits received by unemployed workers and also calls for the federal government's contribution to the national child tax benefit to be increased to a total of $2.5 billion annually for the year 2000.

This government has its work cut out for it in the fight against poverty in Canada. As well, on November 28, Canada was accused of obstruction by representatives of a UN committee looking at Canada's efforts to reduce poverty and social inequality. Committee members expressed dissatisfaction because of the imprecise nature of responses to specific questions on homelessness, welfare cuts through the Canada social transfer, and the other social problems.

In its report, which was released last December 4, the UN committee severely faults Canada for the rapid deterioration of Canadians' living conditions. Canada is not ranked first, but tenth, according to the United Nations human development index.

Campaign 2000, a poverty fighting organization, recently released its 1998 report on child poverty, and its findings are shocking. The number of children in families with an income under $20,000 has risen by 65%. The number of children in families where unemployment is chronic has risen by 33%. The number of children whose families are on welfare has risen by 51%. The number of children living in housing their families cannot afford has risen by 91%.

Despite the fact that all these figures point to the very opposite conclusion, the federal government continues to claim that the measures presently in place are appropriate and respond to the needs of children and families suffering from poverty.

I would like to offer an illustration of why I believe the government continues to claim that the measures presently in place respond to the needs of children. In response to one of my questions in the House, the Minister of Human Resources Development said “I want to reassure the members of this House by telling them that eliminating child poverty is a priority and that all our programs reflect that priority”, but beyond all these figures and all these observations, there are men and women and children suffering and they must remain foremost in our concerns.

Poverty means being hungry and not knowing after the second week in the month how to find enough food. It means going to school hungry. It means being cold and having to choose between a coat for one or boots for the other. It means having one's dreams dashed and seeing Christmas arrive for others and a hamper for oneself.

The fight against poverty and social injustice has always been at the core of my political involvement. In the light of the devastating effects of poverty and the Liberals' lack of will to resolve it, we must work even harder to get this House to do everything to remedy the injustices that have been continuing for too long.

The proposed amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act represent a significant milestone. As the Canadian Human Rights Commission noted in its 1997 annual report:

It is now time to recognize poverty as a human rights issue here at home as well.

Canadian Human Rights Act
Private Members' Business

6:55 p.m.

NDP

Louise Hardy Yukon, YT

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to support Bill S-11. Although I may not agree with the ideology of having a Senate or with the Progressive Conservative Party, I am proud to stand to support this bill.

This bill is about our Canadian Human Rights Act. Human rights are our finest instincts, our best wishes, our dreams and our visions for now and the future. This is about how we will change this country to make it better; take what is good and make it solid; take the weak parts, look at them and change them to make them better and to bring some life to this act.

Canada has always been a place where we could succeed on our merit, work and determination. Everything is here. It does not matter if we are born poor. We have public schools. We have health care. We have homes. We can do whatever we want in this country. For us to have to step back and look at the fact of social conditions which generally refers to the poor as being an obstacle to anyone accomplishing their dreams is really shocking.

I will give an example. My mother had eleven children. Three died. My father died when I was young. We were poor. That meant there were days when there was no food. That meant there were nights when there was no heat. In the north when it is minus 30 or minus 40, living without heat is no joke. That means living in a room with all your brothers and sisters, every coat in the house piled on top of you and you are praying that somehow you can get some money for food or to get some oil or wood for your house. Poverty is not a lifestyle. It is not anything anyone chooses.

My mother was of a generation that went through the war and they wanted change. They wanted this country to be here for every child, whether born poor or rich. They had an opportunity. They fought for it and made changes.

If there was no public school, I would not have had an education. If there was no subsidized secondary school, I would not have been able to accomplish that. I certainly would not have been able to make it to this House.

As our country recedes in the support we are willing to give to the poor, it means more and more people will be born poor and they will stay poor.

In the last 10 years we have seen family income go down by 5%. Twenty-one percent of our families are low income. Sixty percent of single mothers are poor. There has been a 47% growth in the number of children living in poverty. For me these are not just words, they are not statistics. I know what it feels like and I know what children are going through when they live in poverty.

If my mother were alive I would never bring up the fact that we were poor because it was a matter of shame. For this woman it meant absolute shame that she would have to beg for food for her children, which is what she had to do. She had to go to a food bank. It was not called a food bank at that time but that is what it was.

Adding this social condition to our human rights act is important. It is important because it says of the country that we care enough to think about poverty. We care enough to want to say it, to entrench it and to make change that will make a difference for the people in this country.

We can do it. I think all Canadians want that. We want to make sure we have health care, education and housing. We want to help those who are in between jobs, those who lose jobs, to make sure employment insurance is there for them when they need it so they do not have to go on social assistance, they do not have to be degraded every day they are without a job because we place a lot of value and worth in being able to work and support our families.

Poverty increases depression, malnutrition, sickness and early death. I was poor but I was never without a roof over my head. I cannot imagine living without a home, yet more and more we are seeing people without a blanket or roof of any sort over their heads.

The changes that have gone on in our country in the last 10 years have meant that education is farther and farther out of the reach of ordinary people, certainly out of the reach of the poor.

We have public schools to send children to. If someone cannot afford a school book or running shoes for their children, they certainly cannot afford a musical instrument or sporting equipment for their children to participate in the social life of their community.

It is a human rights issue. It is an issue on dignity. Even though there may be reasons not to include this social condition in the human rights act because it would take a bit of time, it might affect other laws or institutions that we are not sure of, it does not mean we should not do it.

I know my Reform colleague said we could force banks to give a loan to someone who cannot pay it back. That is not the case at all. That would not happen. But we could expect a bank to cash the cheque of a poor working person. I know of quite a few instances where banks refused to cash their cheques.

A woodcutter in Yukon received his payment from the government because he delivered wood to people on social assistance. This man would receive his cheque from the government. His working clothes were torn and dirty because that was the nature of his work. He did not have a bank account and the bank refused to cash his cheque. Why? Because he was poor. Fortunately in this country we are lucky enough to have more rich people than poor people, but more and more people are becoming poor. We need to make changes in public policy to make sure the elements that cause poverty are not there and we also have to recognize the indignity of living in poverty.

We need not multiply the suffering of people in this country in word or in deed. If we exclude poor people from our human rights act then we are indeed heaping more indignity on those who are poor. We also have to realize the aboriginal people of our country are the poorest of the poor. By taking this step forward we would be recognizing their suffering which is far greater than most of ours.

I support this motion and I sincerely hope we will move for change.

Canadian Human Rights Act
Private Members' Business

7:05 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Mark Muise West Nova, NS

Madam Speaker, it is with great sorrow that I rise in the House to debate Bill S-11, an act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to add social condition as a prohibited ground of discrimination.

I say with great sorrow because as we continue to debate the merits of this very important piece of legislation millions of Canadians are still struggling to survive while living in poverty.

Based on figures for 1996, the UN report shows that 17.6% of Canadians, including 20.9% of our children, live in poverty; Canada ranks 10th out of 17 industrialized countries.

Putting all political differences aside, the fact is there are over 1.5 million children living in poverty in Canada. For such an affluent country to have such a horrendous record when it comes to poverty is truly unacceptable.

The Prime Minister himself said this was unacceptable, yet he is not doing anything to change the situation. I am not sure that the government grasps how dangerous it is for a society to have so many young people living in poverty. These children are part of our future and, unless we find a way to deal with this threat, a whole generation of Canadians may end up alone, rejected and poor.

It is well understood that children who are the products of families living in extreme poverty have significantly less opportunity to succeed than those who were fortunate enough to grow up in a more prosperous environment.

For those living in daily poverty, the possibility of a prosperous future is almost unimaginable. Every day, I receive calls from people facing the misery of poverty, and it seems the problem is not getting better but worse.

The prevalence of poverty within this country has grown in leaps and bounds in the past few decades. Food banks, which were nowhere to be found in the 1970s, now number in the thousands and can be found in 450 communities. Compounding the problem is the fact that affordable and adequate housing has now become a full blown crisis. Almost 400,000 Canadians live in substandard housing.

All Canadians deserve an equal opportunity to succeed in our society. However, this is unfortunately not the case.

Despite the often recognizable characteristics of poverty, there is another obstacle that is often less recognisable or understood by members of the general public but which is an unfortunate part of their everyday life.

I am referring to the prevalent discrimination these individuals are forced to live with on a daily basis. In addition to having to endure the material hardships that accompany poverty, poor Canadians are always having to face ostracism and negative stereotyping, particularly in dealing with financial institutions, as my hon. colleague from the NDP just mentioned, businesses and their staff, officials, the legal system, neighbours, strangers and the media.

Let us face it, as a society we are often very intolerant of the poor. This is why Bill S-11 is important. The Canadian Human Rights Act recognizes that some people within our society are vulnerable and must be protected against discrimination.

The Canadian Human Rights Act distinctly prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, marital status, family status, disability and sexual orientation.

Bill S-11 is simply asking that we ensure explicit recognition of poverty and its related attributes, such as being a welfare recipient, and to prohibit discrimination against the poor in areas under federal jurisdiction.

Adding social condition to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in sections 2 and 3.1 of the act will finally recognize a huge segment of our society that has been marginalized. It will provide it with the same protection presently offered to other groups within Canadian society.

The poor have nobody to protect them from the injustice of society, which too often wants to close its eyes to the reality of poverty. It is vital that these individuals be given protection under the Charter.

It seems that each day I hear horror stories of welfare recipients being unfairly treated when seeking essential services. I have been told of chartered banks that refuse to cash welfare recipient cheques because of insufficient pieces of ID. Others have been denied the right to open their own bank account.

Landlords, utility companies, the legal system and even the media routinely discriminate against the poor either by refusing them services or by providing them with inadequate service.

Our justice minister's response to Bill S-11 is to wait and to explore other problems that might exist in the human rights act before considering implementation or implementing social condition in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Those living in poverty have been waiting for this government to implement these changes for years. They can no longer afford to wait for this government to take poverty seriously. Something has to be done immediately to try to address some of their immediate problems.

This government's answer to many of the problems facing Canadians is to wait and study the situation further, hoping the problems will eventually go away on their own.

Most recently, this Liberal strategy has come to light with the justice minister's decision to ignore calls to have the child pornography decision referred to the Canadian supreme court. The justice minister would rather let this case proceed through a lengthy appeal process than come to the defence of defenceless children.

The federal agriculture minister as well was aware of a farm income crisis when he was first appointed as minister over 18 months ago, yet he chose to do nothing about it until this country was faced with the distinct possibility of losing thousands of our farmers to bankruptcy.

Those living in poverty cannot afford any further delays from this insensitive government. Action must be taken immediately so that we can offer renewed hope to those less fortunate.

Bill S-11 was initially introduced and passed in the other place by Senator Cohen. Since then, both she and my caucus colleague, the member for Shefford, have worked diligently with concerned citizens and fellow MPs representing all political stripes to try to remedy this huge injustice that weighs so heavily against those who are most vulnerable in our society.

I ask all hon. members to please not turn their backs on those who need us the most. Help protect the millions of Canadians living in poverty. Help eliminate discrimination that is presently based on their social condition by supporting Bill S-11.

Canadian Human Rights Act
Private Members' Business

7:15 p.m.

Malpeque
P.E.I.

Liberal

Wayne Easter Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Fisheries and Oceans

Madam Speaker, I support the essence and spirit behind Bill S-11, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act to add social condition as a protected ground under the act.

I believe that the drafters of Bill S-11 intended it to provide protection to the poor, to prohibit discrimination based on economic discrimination. That is laudable and should be supported by members. How could we do otherwise?

My concern is not with the object and aim of Bill S-11, but rather with an overly broad and confusing nature of the exact wording. Simply using an open-ended term such as “social condition” I believe will add confusion to the act that will result in an endless sea of litigation.

Imagine the hay day the lawyers would have with this kind of wording. Maybe there are too many lawyers in the Senate. I will give an example in terms of the remarks made by the hon. member of the Conservative party. He talked about this government waiting and studying. That is not the case at all. Where has he been since 1993? Look at the budgets and look at what we have done in those budgets for training, education and other things in trying to grapple with these problems.

The hon. member mentioned the Minister of Justice and the child pornography issue. We believe in due process on this side. We do not believe in using the notwithstanding clause every time a judge makes a ridiculous decision.

Then the member talked about the minister of agriculture and the farm crisis. It is a little off topic, but I think I should correct him. The point I am trying to make is that the broad term of social condition could be given all kinds of different interpretations.

I think the House can see from my explanation how wrong the member opposite is in terms of how he views some of the things this government is doing.

The minister of agriculture acted very quickly prior to Christmas. In fact, one of the problems that the minister of agriculture has is getting the Progressive Conservative government on side in Manitoba to pick up its share of the funding so that those cheques can get to the farm community.

Canadian Human Rights Act
Private Members' Business

7:15 p.m.

Reform

Roy H. Bailey Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

What about Saskatchewan?

Canadian Human Rights Act
Private Members' Business

7:15 p.m.

Liberal

Wayne Easter Malpeque, PE

The member opposite asks about Saskatchewan. I understand that finally the premier of Saskatchewan has come through this afternoon and is going to pay its 40% share. That of course is due to the good persuasive powers of our minister of agriculture and our Prime Minister in having them come to the table to do what needs to be done to support the farm community.

I want to get back to the issue at hand, Bill S-11. As I said, simply using an open-ended term such as social condition will add confusion to the act that will result in an endless sea of litigation. I want to re-emphasize that point.

If we are serious about assisting the poor and the disadvantaged in our society, then we must create opportunities for jobs. That is what this government has been doing. We must lower unemployment. That is what this government has been doing. We must provide education. Look at the last two budgets. Look at the millennium scholarship fund about which hon. members opposite are so critical.

We must provide training and we must provide the necessities of life so people will be able to participate as full and equal partners in our society. We must provide a remedy through our human rights legislation for prejudicial treatment of the poor in a manner that makes that protection meaningful.

This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the UN declaration on human rights. It is a fitting time to review our current human rights legislation to ensure that it protects the most vulnerable in our society. In Canada we have honoured our commitment to the declaration for 50 years.

What does the declaration say on economic rights? Article 25 states:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself (herself) and of her/his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widow, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond her/his control.

Recently the United Nations in its Human Rights Development Index Report gave Canada top marks as being the best place to live based on 1995 data. I believe that Canada received a high rating because Canadians take our commitment to human rights very seriously.

I believe, Madam Speaker, that you are indicating I am out of time. Maybe I can conclude my remarks at a later date.

Canadian Human Rights Act
Private Members' Business

7:20 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

The hon. member will have approximately four minutes remaining the next time this bill is before the House.

The time provided for the consideration of Private Members' Business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

Canadian Human Rights Act
Adjournment Proceedings

7:20 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Bill Casey Cumberland—Colchester, NS

Madam Speaker, my question is for the Parliament Secretary to the Minister of Transport. It is further to a question that I asked in the House to which the minister responded that the province of Nova of Scotia and the province of New Brunswick, in particular, did not violate an agreement.

Since that time, through the access to information program, we have become aware of another letter in which the minister said to the province of New Brunswick that it could charge tolls on this federally funded highway under two conditions. The first condition was that the amount of the federal contribution would still have to be cost shared with the province on a 50:50 basis. The second condition was that any revenue from the tolls would be an additional source of funds to be dedicated solely to the project in question.

I sent to the parliamentary secretary a quote from Hansard wherein the minister of finance for New Brunswick said “We had always made it clear that the provincial money we invested in these sections of road would be recovered”. That totally contradicts the minister's letter which says that the province must maintain its cost share ratio of 50:50 on this highway. There is a contradiction. The province has totally contradicted the words of the federal minister.

With respect to the second condition, the minister said that any revenue from the tolls must be totally dedicated to the project in question. Again I sent to the parliamentary secretary a newspaper article which quoted the premier of the province of New Brunswick as saying “Yes, there is some money coming back and it will be applied to health care”. They used the figure of $321 million. Again the federal minister said that all the revenue from the highway must go to the project. The province now says it is going to health care or general revenues or whatever.

I ask the parliamentary secretary to address this letter and the absolutely unambiguous statements and conditions that the minister applied to the province of New Brunswick if it was going to charge tolls on a federally funded highway: that is, that the province must maintain its share, which it has not, and that the province must dedicate all the revenue to that specific project, which it has not.