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Canadian Human Rights Commission faces downgrade as international body launches review


The Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) faces the threat of international embarrassment as an oversight body reviews its “A” status.

The “special review” comes after CBC News and other media outlets reported that the federal government found the CHRC discriminated against its own employees, and after employees pointed out that the commission dismissed a disproportionate number of race-based complaints.

“Canada has long been seen as home to many nations, a champion of diversity and a global leader of human rights,” said Nicholas Marcus Thompson, executive director of the Black Class Action Secretariat. 

“But our country is at risk of having that reputation irreparably damaged, with its human rights status now being examined by a United Nations oversight body.”

That oversight body — a subcommittee of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) — reviews the accreditation of national human rights institutions. GANHRI is not a UN body but oversees the relationship between human rights institutions and the UN, compliance with the UN’s Paris Principles and access to UN committees.

In February, the Black Class Action Secretariat, the Canadian Association of Public Employees and a coalition of other unions and civil society organizations submitted a complaint to GANHRI, citing the federal government’s conclusion that the commission had discriminated against its employees.

“This decision is unprecedented,” said Thompson. “This now puts us among the ranks of Russia, Iraq and Venezuela who have faced special review.”

A map shows that Canada joining Russia, Iraq and Venezuela in facing a ‘special review’ of a national human rights institution at a press conference in Ottawa on Monday, June 10, 2024. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

In March, the federal government reported that the CHRC had discriminated against its Black and racialized employees. The government’s human resources arm, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBCS), came to that conclusion after nine employees filed a grievance through their unions in October 2020.

That grievance alleged that “Black and racialized employees at the CHRC face systemic anti-Black racism, sexism and systemic discrimination.”

CBC News obtained the TBCS’s March ruling, reviewed associated documents and spoke to a group of current and former commission employees.

They described what they called a hostile and racially charged workplace, where Black and racialized employees are excluded from career and training opportunities and are shut out of formal and informal networks.

They claim the careers of Black and racialized employees remain stagnant while white colleagues advance and say the ranks of senior management remain predominantly white. The current and former employees who spoke to CBC say their health has suffered as a result of workplace discrimination.

Employees also flagged the high dismissal rate for race-based complaints — an assertion the CHRC’s data backs up — and said all-white teams are typically assigned to investigate them.

The Senate of Canada also launched an investigation of the commission and found that Canada’s human rights system faces a crisis of confidence.

WATCH: Senator says ‘crisis of confidence’ must be addressed  

Canadian Human Rights Commission has a racism problem: Senate report

A Senate committee report says anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination are pervasive at the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the federal public service.

Those findings form the basis of GANHRI’s special review.

According to GANHRI, national human rights institutions that receive a “B” status cannot participate in sessions of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), take the floor on any agenda item, or submit documentation to the council.

The Canadian government is running to sit on the UNHRC from 2028 to 2030 through a vote that will likely take place in 2026.

Since Canada’s Human Rights Commission and the government are independent, the special review outcome does not affect Canada’s diplomatic standing at the UNHRC.

Canada helped to establish the Geneva-based UNHRC. It investigates alleged human rights breaches in UN states and issues reports on human rights issues, such as Iran’s ongoing crackdown on women’s rights.

Commission says it’s making ‘significant progress’

This is the first time the Canadian Human Rights Commission has been subjected to a special review.  The commission said in a statement issued to CBC that it welcomes the review and looks forward to participating.

“Our submission will show that over the past six years, the Commission has made significant progress on how it supports people filing discrimination complaints based on race,” said Véronique Robitaille, intermediate director of communications for the commission.

“We will also provide GANHRI with information on the Commission’s efforts to create a diverse, healthy, safe, and respectful workplace through its anti-racism action plan.”

Global Affairs Canada and the Department of Justice did not immediately respond to CBC’s request for comment.

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