image of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The Fragility of Human Rights

In many parts of the world, especially for those who are impoverished or disenfranchised due to their ethnicity or other factors that make them “different” from the majority, basic human rights are only a dream. Just as frightening are those countries where a minority holds power and denies rights to those in the majority. Those of us who live in western democracies can be forgiven for thinking with self-satisfaction that our rights are secure and protected under law. Actually, most Canadians don’t think much about human rights on a day-to-day basis. However, even within our own country, human rights laws can be contentious, and those in positions of power can take advantage of others.

The important thing to understand is that, despite our rhetoric that human rights are fundamental, inalienable, and transcendent, they still boil down to the expression of a power relationship. Those who have power enshrine in law how those without power will be treated. Those who have power police themselves, and set up commissions or tribunals to adjudicate situations where self-policing breaks down. However, penalties for breaching Canadian human rights legislation are typically weak or non-existent. We rely very heavily on the honour system – we Canadians are a polite people, after all.

I am thinking about human rights today for two reasons.

The first reason relates to a news article. Earlier this week, a woman in Regina who uses a guide dog was denied service at Chuck E. Cheese (you can read about it here). The restaurant chain has apologized and says that staff training will occur; however, such an apology does not take away the humiliation that she must have felt while her kids watched their mother arguing and ultimately being forced to leave. The lesson learned by her children is that some teenage kid has more power than their blind mom – reinforcing the diminished role that our society offers to those with disabilities. I can guarantee that the corporate apology was not given in front of her children with enough fanfare and ceremony to erase this lesson from their minds. A human rights complaint has been filed, and we will see what those in power (Saskatchewan’s Human Rights Commission) decide to do about those others in power (corporate executives at Chuck E. Cheese). Meanwhile, guide dog users keep trying to inform, educate, convince, and cajole people about the law, one bad encounter at a time. Sadly, this woman’s experience is all too common.

Those who require protection through human rights legislation must rely on those in power (our government) to enforce the laws, weak as they may be. But what happens when it is the government that is violating the rights of guide dog users? This brings me to the second reason for writing about human rights.

I have written extensively about the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) and their ill-conceived efforts to create a service dog team standard. The Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) has become involved with CGSB’s service dog team standard process. The CHRC says:

“The CHRC has concerns that the process the CGSB has undertaken has not sufficiently consulted, included, and considered the views of those persons with disabilities affected by the standard, and will not produce a standard that protects human rights. Further, we are concerned that the process so far, and the draft standard – especially if implemented widely – could create, rather than remove, barriers for persons with disabilities.”

The CHRC goes on to make eight recommendations to CGSB. I encourage you to read the full statement, which can be found at the “Hands Off Our Harnesses” blog (you can read it here).

Two examples; one where corporate Canada fails to properly prepare their staff to meet the public, and another where the Government of Canada fails to meet the test of its own Human Rights Commission. Without thought or consideration for vulnerable Canadians, those in power continue to violate human rights. It is tiring – indeed, exhausting – yet, we must stand on guard, oh Canada, and take every opportunity to highlight for Canadians how fragile our human rights remain in this country. And, how weak is our human rights legislation when the CHRC can make recommendations, yet CGSB continues to plow ahead with their process.

On the topic of “standing on guard”, because CGSB is continuing their process and plans to release another draft of their service dog team standard, all affected guide dog users, allies, and organizations must begin preparing to respond to draft two. In our next post, we will consider what questions might be important for you to ask yourself in preparing to comment on the pending second draft.

Until then, travel safely, and give your pooch a pet from me.

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