Blog Series: Navigating the Canadian Human Rights Landscape – Part I

Canada has a robust framework of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Across the country institutions are mandated to ensure these laws are respected, protected and promoted. This is the first in a series of blog posts showcasing the unique work and contribution that these institutions make to Canadian human rights.

Earlier this year HRI launched the Canadian Human Rights Institutions Interactive Map that illustrates the federal, provincial and territorial human rights commissions and tribunals, as well as other legislated institutions, such as ombudsman offices, information and privacy commissions, public complaints commissions, and children and youth advocates, or the provincial and territorial equivalents to these offices.

Each institution has a specialized scope of work, distinct jurisdiction and process for addressing human rights issues. Here is a brief overview of the different institutions.

Human rights commissions are legislated bodies that are independent from the government. The Canadian Human Rights Commission is the recognized national human rights institution (more on that in the next post). Most provinces and territories also have a human rights commission that addresses issues of discrimination in relation to provincial or territorial regulated agencies. While each has a slightly different structure, many often provide public education and awareness, research systemic issues and, where necessary, take legal and policy action. Some jurisdictions have a human rights commission and a human rights tribunal, while others only have one, or have additional institutions. British Columbia and Nunavut, for example, do not have human rights commissions.  Cases of discrimination are therefore addressed by human rights tribunals.

Human rights tribunals (also know as Adjudication Boards) are administrative bodies that review and make decisions on cases under federal, territorial or provincial human rights legislation. Some tribunals are direct access, where individuals can submit complaints to the tribunal directly, while others require complaints to be reviewed by the human rights commission prior to a decision by the tribunal.

Ombudsman offices, also known as Ombudsperson (BC), or Citizen’s Representative (NL), are legislated offices, independent of the government. The role of the Ombudsman offices is to ensure government accountability in the administration of government services. The Ombudsman is appointed by the legislature and is independent from the government. Nationally there are several Ombudsman offices that address specific departments of the federal government. However, there is no national legislative Ombudsman office.

The jurisdiction of each Ombudsman office differs slightly between provinces and territory, but generally covers municipalities, universities, school boards, hospitals and health authorities. Prince Edward Island, Nunavut and Northwest Territories do not have Ombudsman offices.

There are other commissions which function similarly to an Ombudsman office. Information and privacy commissions, for example, focus on issues of privacy and information security. There is a national Privacy Commissioner of Canada and a national Information Commissioner of Canada, as well as provincial and territorial commissioners. In Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, the information and privacy commissioner positions are filled by the same office. The Yukon also has a Public Interest Disclosure Commissioner.

Language commissions are mandated to implement, protect and promote the language rights of Canadians. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages is the national institution. It promotes and protects bilingualism in Canada. Ontario and New Brunswick are the only provinces with language commissions, and Nunavut is the only territory with a language commission.

Child and youth advocates are independent officers of the provincial and territorial legislatures. There is no child and youth advocate at the national level. The Canadian Council of Child and Youth Advocates is an association of government-appointed children’s advocates from each province and territory.

There are some variations here as well. In Quebec, youth rights fall under the mandate of the Commission for Human Rights and Youth Rights (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse). Prince Edward Island and Northwest Territories do not have child and youth advocate offices.

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