How your rights are protected

In Canada, an individual’s human rights are protected by the Constitution, as well as federal, provincial and territorial laws.

Canada’s human rights laws often reflect international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1948, the international community came together to make sure that human rights laws were written and understood. When it was complete, the Declaration provided a list of 30 articles outlining everyone's universal human rights.

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Human rights laws in Canada

The Canadian Bill of Rights

The Canadian Bill of Rights, passed in 1960, was the first federal law that specifically set out fundamental human rights for Canadians. It applies to laws and policies of the federal government and guarantees rights and freedoms similar to those found in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (e.g. equality rights, legal rights, and freedom of religion, speech and association). However, the Bill is not part of the Constitution of Canada.

Download or order the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Bill of Rights.

The Canadian Human Rights Act

The Canadian Human Rights Act of 1977 protects Canadians from discrimination when they are employed by or receive services from:

  • the federal government;
  • First Nations governments; or
  • private companies that are regulated by the federal government like banks, trucking companies, broadcasters and telecommunications companies.

People can turn to the Canadian Human Rights Act to protect themselves against harassment or discrimination when based on one or more of the 11 grounds of discrimination like race, age and sexual orientation. For example, if a workplace policy offers benefits to some married couples but not others; this may be considered discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act.

The Constitution of Canada

The Constitution of Canada includes the Constitution Act, 1867, and the Constitution Act, 1982. It is the supreme law of Canada and reaffirms Canada’s dual legal system. The Constitution sets out the basic principles of democratic government in Canada when it defines the powers of the three branches of government: the executive, the legislative and the judiciary.

Read more about the Canadian Constitution.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted in 1982 as part of Canada’s Constitution. Section 15 of the Charter (equality rights) came into effect three years after the rest of the Charter, on April 17, 1985, to give governments time to bring their laws in line with the section.

The Charter guarantees broad equality rights as well as fundamental freedoms, democratic rights, mobility rights, legal rights and language rights. It applies to all government action, meaning to the provincial legislatures and Parliament, and to everything done under their authority. This means that governments must take the Charter into account in developing all laws and policies.

However, the Charter also recognizes that even in a democracy, rights and freedoms are not absolute. For instance, freedom of expression is guaranteed, but no one is free to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre or to spread hate propaganda. Therefore, federal or a provincial legislature can limit fundamental rights, but only if that government can show that the limit is reasonable, is prescribed by law, and can be justified in a free and democratic society. The interests of society must be balanced against the interests of individuals to see if limits on individual rights can be justified.

You can gain a better understanding of the Charter by exploring Your Guide to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Download or order the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Bill of Rights.

Provincial and territorial human rights laws

All provinces and territories have human rights laws to protect people from discrimination in employment, housing and in providing goods, services and facilities to the public, such as when dealing with restaurants, stores, schools, housing and most workplaces. These laws apply to discrimination both by individuals in the private sector and by provincial or territorial governments. Some provincial and territorial laws protect a broader range of rights and freedoms. The Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, passed in 1975, protects all fundamental human rights as well as some political, social and economic rights. In addition, Saskatchewan and Alberta enacted bills of rights in 1947 and 1972, respectively.

The protection provided by these laws is limited. Like any legislation, the Canadian Bill of Rights, the Canadian Human Rights Act, and provincial and territorial human rights laws can be repealed or changed. It was only with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that human rights in Canada were protected in the Constitution.

Federal organizations that protect human rights

The Canadian Human Rights Commission promotes equal opportunity and works to prevent discrimination in Canada by:

  • doing research and developing policies to understand human rights;
  • managing efficiently cases and complaints; and
  • representing the public interest to advance human rights for all Canadians.

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is separate and independent from the Commission. In some cases, the Commission will refer discrimination complaints to the Tribunal. The Tribunal acts like a court; it holds hearings and makes decisions on cases that it receives from the Commission. Only the Tribunal has the authority to order a remedy or award damages.

Provincial and territorial organizations that protect human rights

The Canadian Human Rights Commission protects those who have a human rights complaint with an employer or service provider regulated by the federal government. Service providers like retail stores, restaurants, hotels, construction, insurance, health care, education, and the oil and gas industry are subject to provincial and territorial human rights legislation, which establish human rights bodies.

See a full list of provincial and territorial human rights bodies.

Foreign policy

On an international level, human rights are protected through the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Charter of the United Nations was signed in 1945 and is the foundation of the entire UN organization. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created in 1948 and sets out fundamental human rights that protect everyone in the world.

Learn more about Canada’s international human rights policy.

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