‘Rights inflation’ taking hold in Canada

June 1, 2015

Experts differ about the fallout as more people frame grievances as rights issues

OTTAWA, June 1, 2015 — It’s called ‘rights inflation,’ and a provocative essay says it’s taking hold in Canada as more and more people frame their grievances—no matter what kind—as ‘human rights’ issues. But there’s no consensus about whether that’s a bad thing, and people from different fields, including law and political science, will present different points of view at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Pearl Eliadis, a Montreal-based lawyer and human rights advocate, says that even though more people are framing grievances as human rights issues, “I don’t think this results in a cheapening of rights. It’s more about rights evolution than rights inflation,” she argues. “Human rights law evolves to take account of human rights situations, realities and problems.”

She gives the issue of rights for transgendered people as an example. Two decades ago, transgendered people were not on the public radar; now they are. And that raises a set of questions, such as which bathrooms should they use, and how should they be treated in school. In other words, what are their rights?

Every year there are thousands of legitimate complaints that are filed about a variety of rights issues, she says, adding that more people are using rights legislation to effect change. And to anyone who thinks there are too many rights, she asks: “Which rights would you like us to take away?” The only real problem she sees is that there is as yet no efficient way of weeding out legitimate complaints from frivolous ones.

Dominique Clément, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta, doesn’t see things the same way. He argues that there should be a distinction between human rights on the one hand, and social justice issues on the other. Human rights, he says, are not negotiable. They include freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, equal treatment under the law, and the guarantee of physical security. Social justice issues are something else altogether, he says, and should be debated in a public forum. What’s happening now, he says, is that we are confusing one with the other.

For example, he says that in 2012 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a British Columbia school board discriminated against a dyslexic boy named Jeffrey Moore by not doing enough to give him the help he needed. Moore had been referred to a diagnostic centre, but the centre was closed for budgetary reasons before he could enrol. Clément says that by framing issues as human rights matters, we hand more authority over to the courts, whose rulings may force governments to spend more money or who end up making life-or-death decisions about individuals.

“Do you want judges to making those decisions?” he asks, recalling a recent case in which an Ontario judged ruled that her parents had the right to refuse chemotherapy to an 11-year-old Aboriginal girl suffering from leukemia because they had “a constitutionally protected right to pursue their traditional medicine.” The girl eventually died. “That case shows the judge was not qualified to make that decision,” he says.

Clément argues that rights inflation is actually cheapening rights. These days, he says, even decisions about whether to go to war are being framed in terms of human rights. “If human rights is about everything, then it’s about nothing,” he argues.

Pearl Eliadis and Dominique Clément will be presenting their research on June 3 at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa. This panel event will include several other researchers, is called “Rights inflation and the crisis of Canada’s rights culture” and will take place at 8:45 am on the University of Ottawa campus in the FSS building, in room 1030.

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About the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences

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About the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences promotes research, learning and an understanding of the contributions made by the humanities and the social sciences towards a free and democratic society. Established in 1940, with a membership now comprising 160+ universities, colleges and scholarly associations, the Federation represents a diverse community of 85,000 researchers and graduate students across Canada. The Federation organizes Canada’s largest academic gathering, the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, bringing together more than 8,000 participants each year. For more information, visit www.ideas-idees.ca.

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