KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The Nova Scotia New Democrats are proposing changes to the Human Rights Act that would offer legal recourse if access to adequate food, water, housing, healthcare or social services were threatened.
“To have a roof over your head and to not go hungry are fundamental human rights, and the same holds for access to healthcare and social services,” NDP leader Gary Burrill tells the Nova Scotia Advocate.
The changes to the Act that the NDP is proposing would allow you to take your case to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission if any of these rights were being denied.
“Say that if the Nova Scotia government provided a personal allowance in social assistance which is not enough to buy food. You could then say that access to food is a basic human right in the Human Rights Act, so I am taking my case to the Human Rights Commission,” Burrill says.
The NDP of course is not the government these days, and the Liberals are unlikely to support the amendment. But activists should familiarize themselves with the notion, because this human rights based approach holds the potential to become a powerful new weapon in the fight against poverty.
“The proposed changes address a gap that exists right now in the legal system,” says Claire McNeil, a lawyer with Dalhousie Legal Aid. “These new protections would hold government to account for actions that undermine these types of basic human rights.”
“Both at the violation stage and the remedy stage this legislation would really enhance the protection that people currently have, and it would fill gaps that currently exist. In some cases the amendments would counter and override current provisions in the law that contradict it,” says Claire.
As an example Claire mentions how Community Services will cut somebody off from social assistance for as long as six weeks because that person failed to attend an employment counseling appointment.
“Think what that does to entire families’ access to food, housing. These amendments to the Human Rights Act could potentially put a stop to such punitive practices.”
As well, because of the centrality of the Human Rights Act, the changes would ripple through the entire legal system, McNeil says. “They call this kind of legislation quasi-constitutional, in the sense that if part of other legislation is not consistent with this new protection it would fall by the wayside,” she says.
Unlike much other legislation, the Human Rights Act provides for a clear remedy, says McNeil. She mentions how the Residential Tenancies Act makes renting premises that are unfit for habitation illegal, but offers little in terms of remedies.
For instance, the amendments to the Human Rights Act could open the door to forcing the slum landlord to reimburse the tenant’s accommodation costs while she is searching for a new apartment, McNeil suggests.
No other jurisdiction in North America at this time protects an adequate standard of living. But the amendment is based on language in the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that Canada ratified.
“It is part of Canada’s international obligations, it is not like something new. We would be following through on what we said we were going to do anyway,” says McNeil.
If you can, please support the Nova Scotia Advocate so that it can continue to cover issues such as poverty, racism, exclusion, workers’ rights and the environment in Nova Scotia.