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Ian Hunter
Ian Hunter
"Perhaps the CHRC's recent bad publicity will embolden people to ask whether these agencies have outlived their usefulness. Perhaps it will encourage legislators to cut back their swollen budgets." Ian Hunter


Toronto Globe and Mail | May 23, 2001

Equality's bloated bureaucracy | Ian Hunter

Preserving human rights has become a religion, says law professor IAN HUNTER.  Which helps explain the mess at the CHRC

The Canadian Human Rights Commission, an agency that usually hungers for the limelight, has recently come in for unwelcome scrutiny and unfavourable publicity.

An internal report indicated deep job dissatisfaction among its 230 employees.  Some disgruntled workers allege a "poisoned work environment"; others complain of spiteful, belittling management; still others claim sexual discrimination in hiring and promotions the very conduct the commission is mandated to eliminate.  The Globe and Mail reported that 40 per cent of the commission's staff had quit their jobs in the last 12 months; 37 per cent of the current staff were hoping to quit soon.

This was met by a general clearing of editorial throats; huffing about how unfortunate it all is, the importance of the commission's work, the necessity of righting the ship, etc.  The Globe editorialized: "It is tragic that an organization devoted to protecting workers' rights has managed to so alienate and frustrate its own staff.  The commission has a valuable role to play in protecting Canada's workers, but staff are being distracted from this mandate.  The internal strife is leaving too many victims waiting too long for assistance and justice."

I wish to suggest that the commission has become a useless excrescence and that nothing would so become it (and its provincial counterparts) as a quick, unlamented demise.  When the human-rights commissions were first set up, they often claimed that their objective was to work for the day when they would no longer be needed; well, that day has long since arrived, so good riddance to them.

Along with the (late) Justice Walter Tarnopolsky, in the 1970s I was one of the outside consultants to the federal Department of Justice on the drafting of the Canadian Human Rights Act.  What the government of the day envisaged was a modest investigative agency that would deal quickly and equitably with complaints of employment discrimination arising within the federal public service, within Crown agencies, or against private-sector employers subject to federal regulation.

What they got instead was a self-important, bloated bureaucracy whose cumbersome investigations move at glacial pace.  What they got were managers who considered their status roughly equivalent to Kofi Annan.

One of the criticisms made in the internal report is that the current commission chair, Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay, spends too much time on foreign junkets; Ms. Falardeau-Ramsay returned prematurely from Indonesia, where she had been advising on East Timor, to deny this unfounded allegation.

So where did human-rights commissions go wrong?

What was it that transformed agencies intended to protect working people against unjustified discrimination into the thought police of the nanny state, despised almost as much by those they are intended to assist as by those they proceed against?

Well, somewhere in the early 1980s, the commissions lost their raison d'être; instead of eliminating discrimination, they decided on a course of social engineering to bring about equality.

The 1981 legislative amendments to the Ontario Human Rights Code were typical, and were quickly emulated by other jurisdictions.  These amendments introduced "affirmative action" (reverse discrimination to achieve a predetermined result); in place of "equality of opportunity," they substituted "equality of result"; they changed relatively clear statutory prohibitions ("Thou shalt not discriminate" in specified areas such as housing and employment) into vague declarations of a right to "equal treatment."

To criticize human-rights legislation, its premises or its enforcers, came to be regarded as socially unacceptable antediluvian at best, at worst racist.  To speak against human rights is to blaspheme against Equality, the accepted orthodoxy of our age.

Perhaps the CHRC's recent bad publicity will embolden people to ask whether these agencies have outlived their usefulness.  Perhaps it will encourage legislators to cut back their swollen budgets.  Perhaps it will keep Ms. Falardeau-Ramsay away from the Ottawa airport.

Perhaps, but I doubt it.  The appeal of human rights is essentially theological in nature.  In contemporary society, the quest for equality is an emaciated version of past centuries' yearning for God.  The religious vision of Heaven, a land beyond time and mortality and very far off, has been replaced by a utopian vision of an egalitarian society, to be obtained through charters, human-rights commissions and legislated behaviour.

Nearly two centuries ago, the prescient Alexis de Tocqueville recognized the essentially theological appeal of the concept of Equality; he predicted that the democratic pursuit of equality would ultimately destroy liberty.  In Democracy in America, de Tocqueville wrote: "Democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom: left to themselves they will seek it, cherish it, and view any deprivation of it with regret.  But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible: They call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery."

Next time Ms. Falardeau-Ramsay is queuing up at the airport ticket counter, she might profitably ponder de Tocqueville's words.


Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the faculty of law at the University of Western Ontario.  He consulted on the drafting of the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Originally at www.freedomsite.org/pipermail/fs_announce/2001/000555.html



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