Madam Speaker, I am honoured to be able to participate in this very special debate to raise awareness of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
My portfolio as Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women deals specifically with human rights, the rights of women and minority groups to have an equal place in the economic, social and political life of this country.
The difficulties facing many Canadians, women and men, are rooted in inequality, in gender and in ethnic socialization and outmoded customs, attitudes and practices.
The activities related to the two components of my mandate, the status of women and multiculturalism, are closely linked and are also complementary. The purpose of both components is to ensure that all Canadians avail themselves of their right to equality and realize that human rights are sacred.
The Government of Canada is deeply committed to the realization of women's rights as human rights. Human rights relate to every aspect of people's lives, be they male or female. Human rights speak to the ability of people to live, to work, to play, to worship, to be safe from societal harm and to contribute fully to the social, economic and political life of their nation.
Respecting human rights means promoting choices, opportunities, equality and fairness. Women cannot assert themselves effectively nor can their human rights be respected when their economic base and their social status are not as secure as those of men or when the integrity of the person is still subjected to rape and to violence.
Our blueprint for action to the year 2000 is the 1995 federal plan for gender equality, a comprehensive plan of federal government initiatives to advance women's equality. As well, Canadians, whether they be disabled, aboriginal or gay and lesbian, who face the barriers to social and economic equality because of racism and
discrimination miss out on opportunities to contribute to society, a society in which we all have a share in building or destroying. The choice is ours. When we do not respect others because of their differences or respect their rights to make basic choices, we create a society that is bound for destruction.
To work for the full implementation of human rights is to strive for a democratic ideal. This in itself should be incentive enough for Canadians to promote the full realization of human rights. But if it is not, there is a second and more pragmatic argument to persuade Canadians to demand the full observance of human rights in our country. We must improve the lives of women, aboriginal peoples and Canadians of all ethnocultural origins and as we do so, the social and economic life of the nation will benefit as a whole. As we respect each other's equal rights, we create a social structure based on respect, on accommodation and therefore on finding peaceful resolutions to conflict.
These are not the worst of times, but neither are they the very best of times. We still live in a society here in Canada where there are those in this country and in this Parliament who would deny jobs to persons because of their race or their sexual orientation, who say that in order to foster equity we must treat everyone the same. On a very practical level Canada cannot afford to have or to deny even a few of its citizens an opportunity to contribute as fully as possible to the economic, political, cultural and social life of the nation.
We only have to look at nations of the world where there is ethnic cleansing, intolerance and denial of equal opportunity to see that people will not for long stand to be oppressed. They will rise in anger and with violence to assert their right to the basic human freedoms to achieve their individual potential.
Canada must ensure that human rights are given more than just lip service here in our territory because the world looks to us for leadership on the international stage, to show by example, to assist in encouraging and building democratic processes. By isolating those who do not conform to our ideals, we lose the very important opportunity to teach and to inform.
As a signatory to a number of instruments that have been developed to protect and promote human rights, Canada has an obligation to assist when and where we are able in carrying out an international mandate, but also to ensure that we practice here at home what we preach.
Behind all of our human rights activities at home and abroad is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948. In the aftermath of the horrors of the second world war, Canada worked for change to create a world where fascism and totalitarianism could not survive, a world where peace could become a reality, a world where individuals were free to live productive and fulfilling lives according to their own ability.
We have been working hard in the field of human rights, both domestically and internationally, and there is firm evidence of our progress. In Canada we have the charter of rights and freedoms which guarantees all Canadians equal protection and equal benefit of the law. Women's equality rights were enshrined in the charter in 1985. We have a Canadian Human Rights Commission where all can seek justice and ensure equality.
We have the court challenges program which allows access to disadvantaged groups and individuals so that they can put forward selected cases of national significance on language and equality rights. We have the world's first multiculturalism act and we are working to build a multifaceted strategy to address violence against women and children. Treasury Board recently agreed that a number of federal government spousal benefits should apply to same sex couples.
In October I was very pleased to honour our government's red book commitment to launch the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. This foundation will facilitate the development, sharing and application of knowledge and expertise to contribute to the elimination of racism and all forms of racial discrimination in Canada.
We are world leaders in advancing women's rights globally, particularly with respect to violence against women and children. At the 1995 United Nations world conference on women in Beijing, women's human rights formed the cornerstone of Canada's position. In Stockholm, Canada pledged to do all in its power to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child.
Through the Canadian International Development Agency, CIDA, Canada has long supported international women's rights organizations and developed gender sensitive programs to assist women in achieving their economic potential in developing countries. We have also supported organizations such as the Asia-Pacific Forum on Women and Women in Law and Development in Africa. We are the first country to create gender discrimination as a criteria for refugee status.
We are moving forward, but the job is not yet done. If we can envision our ideal, then we can believe in its reality, a reality that seeks to foster equality by treating people differently and by using different strategies to do so. With a strong enough belief and hard work to back it up, we can realistically hope to achieve our ideal which is to keep that belief strong and our incentives fresh.
We need occasions to remind us of the worth of what we do. Such an occasion is the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I urge everyone in this House to use this day and this time to recognize the importance of serving each other and
permitting each other to live with equal opportunity in this very great country.