Madam Speaker, first I would like to congratulate the member for Sherbrooke, the most social democratic of the accountants I know, who was sensitive enough to look into the issue of social condition. Of course, when one looks into this issue, one looks into the fight against poverty, because, ultimately, it is a tool. This tool will not necessarily increase people's income. This is not what we are talking about.
To clarify, allow me to remind the House that the purpose of the motion introduced by the member for Sherbrooke is to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act, not the charter. Some people may confuse the charter and the act. We know that we cannot amend the charter without using the 7-50 amending formula. But the Canadian Human Rights Act was passed in 1977 and very few changes have been made to it since. This legislation affects all citizens who receive services from the federal government and all people who work in federal jurisdictions. This means postal workers, communication workers, the military, aboriginals. Thousands of people are affected by this legislation.
I must admit that I have one cause of disappointment. The legislation passed in 1977 by the Liberal government has barely been modernized since. The ground of sexual orientation was added in 1995, and employment equity provisions designed to eliminate discrimination in employment were also included. Naturally, the Canadian Alliance did not support that, and made it an issue. In 1998, the then Minister of Justice who is now the Minister of Health mandated a panel headed by former Supreme Court Justice La Forest, which presented its report in 2000.
The Canadian Human Rights Act is one real tool available to us, as parliamentarians, to combat poverty and discrimination. It provides for the convening of a tribunal and for conciliation. As it happens, this is the legislation Bell Canada operators used to win their case and also the one that was used to force the CN-CP in those days to take corrective action concerning their female workers. So, let us not think that this is not a major piece of legislation.
Several members of the Bloc Quebecois, including myself and the hon. members for Charlesbourg—Jacques-Cartier and Sherbrooke, asked repeatedly that the government refer it to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, to give us a chance to modernize a law that has become outdated, is behind the times and whose administrative structures are no longer relevant.
Naturally, its philosophy, fundamental objectives and grounds for discrimination remain as relevant today as they were 30 years ago. But we can no longer view the fight against discrimination the same way we did 30 years ago.
The hon. member for Sherbrooke is proposing that we include a 12th prohibited ground for discrimination: social condition. He does so knowing full well that eight provinces out of ten have included either social condition or similar grounds. Sometimes it is the financial situation, or the status as income security recipient.
In total, with respect to similar grounds and social condition, eight provinces out of ten offer their inhabitants this option under certain circumstances. In this case, we are talking about people who are receiving services from the federal government or being discriminated against by those managing federal institutions. The recourse is very specific and relevant.
We do not live in a society where equality has been achieved or poverty has been eliminated. That is not what we are talking about. In preparing my remarks for this evening, I reread a document which you have most likely read, Madam Speaker, because I know how much you hunger for information. It is a document sent to us by the Minister of Human Resources Development, who is not, you know, the most dynamic minister in the cabinet.
Nevertheless, her department has tested a new indicator of poverty, the market basket measure. That means how much people pay for the three basic needs, which are shelter, food and clothing. In a big city like Montreal, if an individual living alone does not have a little more than $21,000, there is a risk that these basic needs are not being met. And you can imagine that not everyone you meet is in this situation.
Social condition has been defined for a number of years. The first decision goes back to 1994, so there is some legal precedent. Nonetheless, I have often heard people say, “We cannot add social condition to the Canadian Human Rights Act, because that would prevent the government from having targeted policies, especially with respect to certain groups”.
But nothing could be farther from the truth. Let us look at the way it has been defined in precedent and how courts, particularly human rights tribunals, have defined social condition. The definition I am going to read has been used in judgments since 1994. It says:
A persons' standing in society is often determined by his or her occupation, income or education level, or family background. It also has a subjective component, associated with the perceptions—
The perception people have of an individual based on his education, origin, occupation and income.
—and representation which, in these communities, is connected with various objective data.
Social condition, legally speaking, was centred on a certain number of important characteristics in a community, namely income, origin, education and occupation. That is why the first protesters, those who challenged this before courts of law or human rights tribunals, were, naturally, single mothers who had difficulty finding housing. There are landlords who do not want to rent to women with children and who are not in the workforce.
By the way, Quebec was the first province in Canada—I say province knowing that one day it will be a country, as you know Madam Speaker—to include social condition in its Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. That was in 1977. Income security claimants benefited from this and could fight the discrimination that certain landlords were guilty of.
Students also filed claims. This was somewhat less successful.
What would it mean if this Parliament adopted the sensible and sensitive motion of the no less sensible and sensitive member for Sherbrooke? I can give examples of what this would mean to Canadians and Quebeckers.
In terms of the employment insurance policy, it is obvious that if social condition were included in the Canadian Human Rights Act, various provisions of the Employment Insurance Act could be challenged, as the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst demonstrated when he said that entire groups of workers were not eligible under the criteria. Just think of the 910 hours and individuals filing an initial application for benefits. This is an extremely ineffective policy.
The same is true of the Bank Act. It is quite clear that large segments of our communities are unable, not only to open a bank account, but to obtain micro-credit for the basic necessities. This is discrimination based on social condition.
The same is true of the poverty in which aboriginal people live. It is clear that they are not benefiting from the same level of development as the rest of the country. For 30 or 40 years, since the Laurendeau-Dunton commission at least, annual statistics remind us that the first nations, which founded Quebec and, of course, Canada, are deprived of the development they deserve. So, this is not an academic measure.
I hope that this House will vote in favour of the motion by the hon. member for Sherbrooke, whom I congratulate for his excellent work.