About human rights

Human rights have been described as rights to which a person is inherently entitled to simply because he or she is a human being. Human rights describe how we instinctively expect to be treated as persons. They define what we are all entitled to – a life of equality, dignity and respect, to live free from discrimination and harassment.

In Canada, your human rights are protected by Canada’s Constitution and by federal, provincial and territorial legislation. These rights are consistent with those under international treaties to which Canada is a party.

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The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out those rights and freedoms that Canadians believe are necessary in a free and democratic society. The Charter is one part of the Canadian Constitution, which is a set of laws containing the basic rules about how our country operates. The Constitution is Canada’s most important law because it can render invalid any laws that are inconsistent with it.

Since the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect in 1982, it has confirmed and strengthened our nation’s values. Canadian courts have turned to the Charter many times to make decisions that reflect our society’s values.

For more information on the Charter, see Rights and Freedoms in Canada and Your Guide to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The guide is an educational publication that explains the purpose and meaning of each of the Charter’s sections.

If you would like to order a printed copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, please complete and submit the online order form.

Discrimination and harassment

Discrimination is an action or a decision that treats a person or a group negatively for reasons such as their race, age or disability. These reasons are known as grounds of discrimination.

In Canada, you can file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission if:

  • you work for or receive services from the federal government or a business or organization that is regulated by the federal government; and
  • you believe you have been discriminated against based on one of the 11 grounds of discrimination protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Harassment is a form of discrimination if based on one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination. It involves any unwanted physical or verbal behaviour that offends or humiliates you. Generally, harassment is a behaviour that persists over time, however, serious one-time incidents may also be considered harassment. Harassment occurs when someone:

  • makes unwelcome remarks or jokes about your race, religion, sex, age, disability or any other of the 11 grounds of discrimination;
  • threatens or intimidates you;
  • makes unwelcome physical contact with you – such as touching, patting, pinching or punching – which can also be considered assault.

Do not ignore harassment. Report it. If you fear for your safety or the safety of others, contact the police.

If harassment occurs at work, you should first contact the person listed in your workplace anti-harassment policy. If no policy is available:

  • find out if there is a company grievance procedure; or
  • contact your union representative.

If harassment occurs while receiving service from a business, contact the customer service department.

Keep a written record of the incidents, including times, places and witnesses.

You may also be able to file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Principal United Nations human rights conventions and covenants

Canada is a party to the seven principal United Nations human rights conventions and covenants. By ratifying each of these conventions and covenants, Canada agreed to implement them and is required to report back to the UN.

Learn more about how Canada works with the United Nations.

International human rights treaty adherence process in Canada

Under international law, a state may agree to be legally bound to – or adhere to – an international human rights treaty through signature and ratification, or through accession.

When a state signs a treaty, it agrees to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty, even though the state is not yet legally bound by the specific terms of the treaty. Signature of an international human rights treaty also creates an expectation that the state will eventually ratify the treaty.

After signing, the next step is for a state to ratify a treaty. When it does this, it formally commits itself to implement the provisions of the treaty. Accession has the same effect as ratification; the only difference is that accession does not require signature or any other prior step.

Read more about the International Human Rights Treaty Adherence Process in Canada.

The Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights

The Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights (CCOHR) was established in 1975 to serve as the principal intergovernmental body responsible for consultation and collaboration among governments in Canada with respect to the adherence to and domestic implementation of international human rights treaties.

The CCOHR’s activities focus on, but are not be limited to, the following:

  • facilitate consultation between federal, provincial and territorial governments with respect to Canada’s adherence to international human rights treaties
  • encourage information exchange among governments in Canada with respect to the interpretation and implementation of international human rights instruments
  • provide views with respect to the development of Canada’s positions on the elaboration of new international human rights instruments and, where appropriate, on other international human rights issues or related events
  • facilitate Canada’s international human rights reporting, including:
    • preparing Canada’s reports on the domestic implementation of international human rights instruments, as well as other information requested by United Nations human rights bodies
    • supporting and participating in Canada’s appearances before United Nations human rights bodies
    • facilitating discussion within and between governments with respect to recommendations Canada receives from United Nations human rights bodies
  • engage with civil society and Indigenous organizations on matters related to international human rights reporting and instruments
  • provide general information to the public about its work in relation to international human rights reporting and instruments
  • support and ensure follow-up to decisions of federal, provincial and territorial senior officials and ministers responsible for human rights
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