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.