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Experts question Tory MP's bill to protect political belief in Human Rights Act

OTTAWA — A Conservative MP's bill to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on political belief and activity would not have protected anti-vaccine mandate protesters who broke the law, legal experts say.
Conservative MP Garnett Genuis's new private member's bill looks to add political belief and activity to the Canadian Human Rights Act as grounds of discrimination. Human-Rights-Legislation Conservative MP Garnett Genius rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA — A Conservative MP's bill to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on political belief and activity would not have protected anti-vaccine mandate protesters who broke the law, legal experts say.

Alberta MP Garnett Genuis tabled the private member's bill last week, pointing to what he described as the "selective use" of the Emergencies Act during the convoy protests last month. At a news conference, Genuis claimed the federal government was using political affiliation as a factor in the freezing of bank accounts linked to protests.

"As Conservatives said at the time, we oppose the breaking of laws," said Genuis last week. "But the inconsistent application of those laws to different kinds of protests, and the risk of application of sanctions by private banks acting at the behest of government to individuals who had actually not been involved in law-breaking — this raises serious concerns about the kind of political discrimination that we are allowing to take place."

Genuis did not respond to requests for an interview about his bill.

The RCMP has said banks froze about 257 accounts after it passed on names of people directly involved in the protests, not those of supporters who onlydonated to the convoy. The Ottawa demonstrations blockaded streets, shuttered businesses and plagued residents with near-constant honking for more than three weeks. Similar protests also closed border crossings in Windsor, Ont., Emerson, Man., Coutts, Alta., and Surrey, B.C.

Introduced in 1977, the Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on more than a dozen grounds, including race, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability and marital status. The act applies to the federal government as an employer and in some cases, as a service provider, First Nations and federally regulated companies such as banks and airlines.

Genuis said his bill would address a lack of federal protections for political belief and activity. Many provinces and territories have human rights legislation that explicitly addresses political discrimination. Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nunavut are among those that do not.

A private member’s bill, especially when put forward by an opposition MP, has a far lower chance of surviving the legislative steps to become law than a government bill.

University of Windsor law professor Richard Moon said the wording of Genuis's bill differs from the language used in provincial human rights codes. 

"It's noteworthy that the language used here is not 'opinion and belief,' but includes the term 'activity,'" he said. "One could think, what is he aiming to get at by including that?"

Moon said the bill would not protect individuals engaged in illegal activity, nor would it protect those protesting vaccine mandates whose views are not really political.

"I don't think the inclusion of this bill and the inclusion of this ground of discrimination is going to do the work that Mr. Genuis thinks it is," said Moon. "And indeed, I don't think it should do that work."

Paul Champ, an Ottawa-based human rights and constitutional lawyer, agreed, saying the freezing of bank accounts was tied to criminal activity, not political affiliation. Champ represents Ottawa residents and businesses and workers in a class-action lawsuit against the convoy protesters.

"With all due respect to Mr. Genuis, I think he's out in right field on that one. I don't think there's a connection on political beliefs," said Champ. "It's about people who are participating in criminal offences or donating money to support people who are committing criminal offences."

Champ said he doesn't think the bill will really change anything.

"I kind of just have a big shrug," he said.

Dalhousie University law professor Wayne MacKay said discrimination based on political affiliation is much less prevalent today and is likely less common than characteristics such as socioeconomic status in driving forms of discrimination.

"It still may well be worth dealing with for sure, but it may be that there's other barriers to equal access that are more deserving of the time and money of including it in the Human Rights Act," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2022.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which is funding a project by Carleton University's School of Journalism and The Canadian Press.

Tobin Ng, The Canadian Press

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