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In the General Assembly, a final, heroic debate lasted until late in the evening of December 10, 1948.  Then the President of the General Assembly called for a vote of the member states of the United Nations for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Forty-eight nations voted for the Declaration, eight countries abstained (the Soviet bloc countries, South Africa and Saudi Arabia) and two countries were absent -- the community of nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without dissent.  It was deemed "an historic act, destined to consolidate world peace through the contribution of the United Nations toward the liberation of individuals from the unjustified oppression and constraint to which they are too often subjected."


Canada and the UN

Canada is a free and democratic country that, having signed and ratified numerous human rights treaties, serves as a symbol of peace and equality throughout the world.  It could be said that protecting human rights is not only a part of Canada's heritage it is also a part of Canada's character.  So to most, if not all Canadians, honouring international human rights commitments and abiding by international laws and conventions is just a matter of course.*

There is the possibility that Canadian provinces may not implement international commitments in domestic legislation.  Nevertheless the two levels of government can and should co-operate in order to fully protect human rights in Canada.  Although it may be strictly true for example that the provinces have jurisdiction over the administration of human rights in the work place, this does not necessarily mean that provincial Human Rights and International Human Rights conflict, even though they may be different.  According to the Canadian Human Rights Commission human rights are paramount and must be interpreted liberally and progressively, it would seem then that the truly Canadian solution would be to observe all applicable laws, both the provincial human rights legislation where it applies and the International human rights law simultaneously.

Nevertheless there are some employers in Canada that use this element of provincial jurisdiction as a tool to rob their faithful employees and deprive them of the human rights that they are entitled to under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  This is how they work; first they note that the administration of human rights in the workplace is within the jurisdiction of the Province.  Next they carefully observe that though Canada might well be a state party or a signatory to a piece of International law, the provinces are not.  So instead of abiding by all human rights laws both provincial and international they choose to abide by provincial law only, thus effectively ignoring their duty to respect international human rights.  By way of example here's a statement coming directly from the Toronto office of Molson Canada:

"To our knowledge, the Province of British Columbia has not ratified or otherwise adopted the United Nations Human Rights Declaration.  Accordingly, the human rights legislation that applies to Molson in these circumstances is the British Columbia Human Rights Code and not the Declaration."
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It is by this means that Molson Canada rationalizes it's two-tier wage and benefit schemes and attempts to deny its moral responsibility to treat its employees in a manner consistent with the requirements of international human rights law, thus flying contrarily in the face of UDHR article 23(2) that clearly states "Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work".

Generally speaking governments have an obligation and duty to ensure that International human rights are implemented within their sovereign domain, and in Canada for example, Canadian courts have found international human rights law and instruments, including the UDHR, to be valuable interpretive aids in defining the meaning of freedom of expression and reasonable limits upon that freedom pursuant to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Even when governments fail to promote, protect and embody human rights, it does not mean that human rights cease to exist or disappear down some kind of black hole.  Human rights are considered to be innate, inherent, fundamental and inalienable; they exist regardless of the recognition and respect or lack of it by governments and corporations.  Furthermore the UDHR is now widely considered to be a part of international customary law.

So, what can we as ordinary union members do when faced by flagrant violations of our international human rights by companies like Molson Canada? Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to realize that collective agreements involve two parties, and that even if the employer chooses to ignore human rights and its duties as a corporate citizen, we need not be complicit in these evils.  We have a right to demand fairness in our contracts with regards to human rights, and a duty to ourselves and our fellow workers, to refuse to negotiate and ratify agreement that breach our human rights, it's that simple.  After all, we are Canadian, even if Molson can no longer claim to be fully so.

In Solidarity,
John Barker


* The first paragraph in this essay refers primarily to Canada's current self-image rather than any necessary actuality.  We should not remain unaware of Canada's imperfect human rights record, for example official discrimination against certain classes of immigrants, such as the Chinese head tax and later Chinese Immigration (Exclusion) Act, Japanese internment camps and the inhumane treatment of the native population, who couldn't even vote (without giving up their treaty rights) until as recently as 1960.  Even today, the vast majority of Canadians are blissfully unaware that the two-tier pay and benefit schemes that so many employers are implementing, are actual human rights violation according to the UDHR.

Some sources used in this article:

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Jan 2006