Making human rights an issue for all the wrong reasons

Posted on May 25, 2009 in Equality Debates – columnists – Making human rights an issue for all the wrong reasons: The scary thing is scrapping rights body may work for Tory leadership candidates
May 24, 2009.   Avvy Go, Director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic

News flash! Human rights are a central theme in the provincial Progressive Conservative party leadership race. But wait, the two candidates who are trotting out the human rights bandwagon do so not to jump on it, but to trash it.

Both Tim Hudak and Randy Hillier have vowed to scrap the Human Rights Tribunal if they get the top job for their party. They both seem to think that attacking an organization mandated to protect the rights of the vulnerable will win them votes. The scary part is that they may well be right.

Some have compared the Hudak/Hillier tactic to John Tory’s ill-fated campaign platform to extend public funding to all faith-based schools, while other PC insiders are concerned that it will alienate voters at the next provincial election as it portrays their party as rights bashing. Both the comparison and the concern may be unfounded.

However misguided, at least John Tory’s stand on the school funding issue was premised upon a desire to promote some notion of equality among people of different religious backgrounds. A call for the dismantling of the Human Rights Tribunal is definitely not grounded on any sort of equity principle. It is clearly intended to evoke certain emotion among eligible voters with a view to making political gains.

If history is a teacher, then these two leadership candidates have learned their lessons well. The same mean-spirited campaign strategy had been employed by former party leader Mike Harris and earned him two consecutive terms of office.

For many mainstream Ontarians, Harris is best remembered for his Common Sense Revolution and the 22.5 per cent cut to welfare rates.

But for members of marginalized groups, the true legacy of Harris lies elsewhere. Harris and his cronies came into power by vowing to repeal the Employment Equity Act. Calling it the “job quota law,” the Tories claimed the act undermined merit-based hiring and took jobs away from deserving Ontarians.

Sadly, voters in this province eagerly bought what they were being sold by Harris, who went on to win the premier’s job by stripping access to equal employment opportunity by women, people with disabilities, racial minorities and aboriginal peoples.

Those who think that this time around voters will not repeat the same mistake they did with Harris should think again. Indeed, the very same socio-economic conditions that gave rise to Harris-style government are present today.

Back then, as it is now, the province was in a recession. Angry and desperate Ontarians were looking for something – and someone – to blame for their economic woes. Those with the least political power became the convenient scapegoats.

Overnight, welfare moms, racial minorities and immigrants became a drain on our society and were the prime targets for the backlash. Rather than exposing the fallacies of the neo-conservative policy of the day, the media did little to counter the negative stereotypes invoked by the Tories to justify their political stand.

Further, two recent academic studies yet again confirm racism is alive and well in Canada. The first, a study by Jeffrey Reitz at the University of Toronto, found that the more discrimination someone faced, the more they were likely to identify with their ethnic group, rather than as a Canadian. As the headline in the Toronto Star report about this study starkly stated: “The darker your skin … the less you fit in.” With a weaker sense of Canadian identity, scholars point out that many in these racialized communities are less likely to vote.

The second study was conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia who found that job applicants with “English-sounding names” have a greater chance of getting job interviews than those with Asian names.

Workplace discrimination is precisely the ill that employment equity law is designed to cure. Despite mounting evidence of the rise in racial inequities, policy-makers have yet to acknowledge the social harm created by the repeal of the Employment Equity Act in 1995. Instead, Ontarians are often told that racism and discrimination are no longer an issue, as we now live in a post-racial era thanks to the election of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Putting aside the completely illogical link that is made between the election of another nation’s president and the status of racial equality in our own backyard, and the growing signs that the Obama administration may be different in appearance but not in substance when compared to the previous administration, Canadians must face up to our own responsibilities, both legally and morally, to ensure that all people are treated equally and with respect.

Our journey toward equality is never-ending, and our human rights laws are an important tool to guide us along the way. Rather than electing political leaders who strive to gain power by appealing to the darkest side of our nature, let us start choosing those who champion a vision of rights and justice.


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