Opinion: Adding unvaccinated people to Alberta’s human rights law defeats its purpose

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Premier Danielle Smith plans to add protection for those who choose not to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to Alberta’s human rights law. Before moving forward, she should consider the history and purpose of this act.

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Alberta’s first human rights law, the Individual Rights Protection Act, was the second law passed by former premier Peter Lougheed when he was elected Progressive Conservative premier in 1971, the first being the Alberta Bill of Rights. Alberta joined provinces in passing human rights laws across the country following atrocities committed against Jews before and during World War II – the first being Saskatchewan in 1947. Ontario had passed the Racial Discrimination Act in 1944 and followed with the Ontario Human Rights Code. in 1962. The Canadian Human Rights Act was passed in 1977. All provinces and territories now have human rights legislation.

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Human rights law exists to prevent discrimination and promote a society in which everyone is equal in dignity, rights and responsibilities, regardless of grounds such as race, religious belief, colour, gender, gender identity, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, sexual orientation, to name a few.

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These grounds differ slightly in each province and territory and in the Canadian Human Rights Act, but they are intended to encompass people and groups of people who have been historically disadvantaged, vulnerable and subjected to differential treatment due to Personal characteristics.

Protected lands can change over time. Several provinces have added grounds of gender identity, gender expression and family status to their human rights laws in recent years, as understanding of the harms experienced by people because of these reasons became evident. The Supreme Court of Canada can also “add” a ground to human rights legislation where the omission of the ground is found to be discriminatory.

This is what the court did in the Vriend case, when it ruled in 1998 that the Alberta government must add sexual orientation as a ground to its human rights law. Not including it meant that a gay person could be fired from a job because of their sexual orientation and have no recourse to human rights law for redress. In this case, the court heard extensive evidence demonstrating the significant current and historical harms suffered by LGB people as a result of discrimination against them.

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Human rights laws are about equal access to places, activities and opportunities. All prohibit discrimination in employment, in the rental of accommodation, in services and facilities usually available to the public, and in the publication and display of notices and other discriminatory representations. They differ from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because the charter only protects against discrimination by government: legislation, government actions, and government actors like the police. The charter is also part of our Constitution, which means it cannot be changed easily.

Human rights laws, on the other hand, can be changed by provincial and territorial legislatures, Parliament and the courts. Yet it is essential that governments understand the purpose of these acts when they do so.

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It is difficult, if not impossible, to understand « those who choose not to be vaccinated against COVID-19 » as a group that needs protection under Alberta’s human rights law. The group is diverse, and it’s only their decision not to get vaccinated that sets them apart.

Unlike those whose vaccination status may be motivated by disability or religion, they made a personal choice. And while freedom of choice is important in a democratic society, it is not absolute. It is a fundamental premise of society that governments make rules to restrict freedoms when necessary to protect others. Choosing to drive on the wrong side of the road to get somewhere fast is illegal because it will likely put others at risk.

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Human rights law is about protecting rights, not freedoms.

The freedoms of those who choose not to be vaccinated will always have to be weighed against the rights of those who are vulnerable, disadvantaged and therefore protected in our human rights law.

Adding the protection of freedom not to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to Alberta’s human rights law would demonstrate a complete disregard for the purpose of the law, its history and the people. that it is supposed to protect. The plan deserves a big Alberta whoa!

Patricia Paradis is the former executive director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at the University of Alberta, and she taught human rights law at the Faculty of Law there for 23 years.

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