Mr. Speaker, my colleague, the hon. member for Shefford who sponsored Bill S-11, asked me to convey to the House her deep regret at not being able to take part in today's debate. The member for Shefford who has become a leader in our caucus, a leader in the House and a leader in the country on all issues relating to poverty, was called away at the last moment.
I am therefore speaking for her when I thank all hon. members who have spoken to this private member's bill. Honoured as I am to speak on my colleague's behalf, I am equally proud to speak for myself about Bill S-11, an act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act in order to add social condition as a prohibited ground of discrimination.
As its title indicates, the purpose of the bill is to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act so that no one can be discriminated against simply because they are poor and to offer genuine recourse when such discrimination occurs, for example, when a landlord refuses to rent to someone on social assistance or a bank refuses to open an account for them.
In light of all the contributions to the debate on the bill, it seems that reservations about it are centred mainly on the following two points. One is the wording which has been criticized as too vague to achieve the desired results. The other is the need for wider consultation or an indepth review of the whole issue leading to a complete revision of the Canadian Human Rights Act. I would like to take a few moments to respond to these two objections before wrapping up the debate.
Many speakers have voiced concern about the wording. The term social condition is considered too general. Questions have been raised about the possible impact of too broad an interpretation of the term and the legal implications that could result.
While social condition may seem a vague expression to some, I want to point out that specialists in the area of human rights and the Canadian anti-poverty movement prefer it to all others. It allows for an individual situation to be interpreted on the basis of a whole range of social economic factors, unlike the word poverty which is deemed to be too narrow because it focuses exclusively on economic factors.
Professor Jackman of the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa said when she appeared before the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs:
To entrench a prohibition against discrimination based on poverty does not really encapsulate all dimensions of the type of discrimination which people experience. That discrimination relates not only to their economic circumstances, but to all the social and political sterotypes that emanate from being poor. Again, the advantage of talking about social condition rather than poverty is that, within social conditions, we encapsulate notions like source of income, receipt of social assistance, perhaps even the status of being unemployed. These are all conditions that tend to go together, but are not necessarily always together.
Even Canada's chief commissioner of human rights, Ms. Falardeau-Ramsay, the very person who would have to manage the legal repercussions of this addition to the Canadian Human Rights Act, has come out firmly in favour of the term social condition.
Incidentally in March 1998 Ms. Falardeau-Ramsay stressed with respect to this whole issue that human rights were indivisible, affirming that economic and social rights could not be separated from political and legal rights or equality rights.
Finally, those who have expressed concern about this choice of terminology should bear in mind that social condition has been used in Quebec's charter of human rights and freedoms for almost three years and was approved for more than a year by the British Columbia Human Rights Commission.
Moving on to the second point of objection to Bill S-11, we find it is primarily based on a perceived need to carry out an expanded consultation with more stakeholders before this addition is made to the act. We are told that it would be better to wait for the next comprehensive review of the act announced by the Minister of Justice several months ago.
I remind the House that the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs held wide-ranging consultations before the bill was passed by the Senate. It is possible that some points of view were not heard during the process, but there is no reason whatsoever to delay or prevent the passage of Bill S-11.
Interested parties who did not participate in the Senate's consultations will still have the opportunity to propose any amendments they consider helpful during the comprehensive review of the act.
By supporting this bill we can both correct a legislative omission that for many years has been the target of criticism from national anti-poverty organizations and at the same time bring Canada into compliance with the recommendations made in December 1998 and in 1993 by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
In so doing we will, among other things, be sending a strong message across Canada that in this country discrimination against poor people will not be tolerated. It is high time in my opinion that fundamental human rights should be respected in a country like Canada, especially the right to equal opportunity in life.
I would like to remind the House however, in the words of my colleague, the hon. member for Laval Centre:
Entrenching Bill S-11 in the charter should amount to more than wishful thinking. The best way to fight discrimination against social condition is to improve the living conditions of our fellow citizens who find themselves in difficult economic straits incompatible with human dignity.
This government thus has an urgent responsibility to take concrete action to ensure that justice is done to the most disadvantaged members of our society.
Regrettably, as my colleague, the hon. member for Shefford said in her original remarks to the House on Bill S-11, the general obsession with deficit reduction often impels our political leaders to take measures that add to the proliferation of laws and regulations, making it more difficult for the poor and blocking any possibility of their improving their situation.
This state of affairs confirms the popular belief that the people with the power to change things, i.e., the people who make the laws, often just do not realize the scale of the oppression and discrimination suffered by their fellow low income Canadians.
As my colleague the hon. member for Vancouver East so justly remarked, “The greatest challenge for us is to get governments, not just the Liberal government but all governments, to examine their record and acknowledge their policies which have quite deliberately and consciously created increased poverty within Canada”.
We have an opportunity today as parliamentarians to do what needs to be done by uniting our efforts as we did in 1989 with the resolution on eliminating poverty. We can recognize social condition as a prohibited ground of discrimination and include it as such in the Canadian Human Rights Act.
At the present time the act is neither clear nor consistent. While it aims at promoting equity for all Canadians, in effect it perpetuates the discrimination it seeks to eliminate by protecting only certain vulnerable groups.
The fact that the Canadian Human Rights Act does not include social condition among prohibited grounds of discrimination is an indication of the social and economic alienation of the poor and of their lack of influence in the Canadian political system. To correct this unacceptable situation, we must change our approach and look at poverty from the human rights perspective.
It cannot be said often enough. The prejudices the poor have to face in Canada are similar to those faced by the marginalized groups who are listed in the Canadian Human Rights Act. Yet poverty is still not recognized in law as a direct and dominant cause of inequality and disadvantage in Canadian society.
In conclusion, I call on all my hon. colleagues in this House to join me in rectifying this deplorable legislative omission by voting for this bill.
Also I, like others, would like to wish all members, our pages and our support staff an excellent and safe Easter break.