Each year, on Human Rights Day, people around the world mark the anniversary of United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the first time in our history that nations came together to document the inalienable rights of all people. 2019 marks the 71st anniversary of the Universal Declaration. In B.C., 2019 also marks the 50th anniversary of the B.C. Human Rights Code— the law protecting people in B.C. from discrimination.
So much has changed in the landscape of human rights since the Code was enacted in 1969. In that year, same-sex relationships were still a criminal act. Residential schools continued to operate across the province. It would be decades before there was a recognized duty to accommodate people with disabilities. Transgender people in B.C. would wait 47 years to have their identity protected under the Code. People living in poverty are still not protected against discrimination on the basis of their social condition. Today, I reflect on our progress with appreciation for everyone who has worked to guide our society towards greater equality and dignity. I offer my thanks to everyone who continues to advocate for justice.
As I mark my first Human Rights Day as B.C.’s new Human Rights Commissioner my Office is celebrating these champions for change. People like Teresa Pocock, a woman with Down syndrome, who fought to live outside of an institution and to make her own choice about where she lives. We are excited to launch a video project today where Teresa shares her human rights story.
For generations, British Columbians living with disabilities have been their own champions for change, fighting for more accessible infrastructure and inclusive communities. In 1996, B.C. became the first province in Canada to close all its large institutions for people with intellectual disabilities and the first jurisdiction in the world to safeguard the decision-making rights of people with developmental disabilities.
Yet, for all their success, people living with disabilities continue to face discrimination and systemic barriers to the full realization of their human rights. Complaints about discrimination on the basis of disability continue to form the largest single source of cases before the BC Human Right Tribunal. Across Canada, people with disabilities are up to 3x as likely to be living in poverty compared with the rest of the population. For those with severe disability, close to 30% live in poverty. The situation is even worse for women, single individuals, and single parents with disabilities.
Inequality is no stranger to most of us. Yet whoever we are— wherever we come from, whatever we make, wherever we live, whomever we love— our rights to equality and justice are the same. BC has long had a means to address individual incidents of discrimination, but has lacked a body charged with education, research, and inquiries into systemic human rights problems. My mandate is to dig out the roots of discrimination and inequality – the forces giving rise to the individual complaints – by being proactive and prevention-oriented.
Inspired by B.C.’s champions for change, I commit my Office to work alongside those advocating for justice to dismantle the structures of systemic discrimination in our province, and to build a vibrant culture of human rights in their place.