Canada’s Human Rights Act

The Canadian parliament passed a law prohibiting discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, age, sex, marital status, or conviction for an offense for which a pardon has been granted.

Summary of Event

Bill C-25, the Canadian Human Rights Act—first read in the House of Commons on November 29, 1976, and first read in the Senate on June 6, 1977—received the Royal Assent on July 14, 1977, and was proclaimed to be in force on August 10, 1977. The act was revised and expanded in 1985 to provide for those with physical disabilities and to clarify issues involving sexual harassment, the elderly, and women on maternity leave. Canadian Human Rights Act (1977)
Human rights;legislation
[kw]Canada’s Human Rights Act (Aug. 10, 1977)
[kw]Human Rights Act, Canada’s (Aug. 10, 1977)
[kw]Act, Canada’s Human Rights (Aug. 10, 1977)
Canadian Human Rights Act (1977)
Human rights;legislation
[g]North America;Aug. 10, 1977: Canada’s Human Rights Act[02930]
[g]Canada;Aug. 10, 1977: Canada’s Human Rights Act[02930]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Aug. 10, 1977: Canada’s Human Rights Act[02930]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 10, 1977: Canada’s Human Rights Act[02930]
[c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 10, 1977: Canada’s Human Rights Act[02930]
Basford, Stanley Ronald
Begin, Monique
Léger, Jules
Nicholson, Aideen
Trudeau, Pierre
[p]Trudeau, Pierre;Canadian Human Rights Act

The Canadian Human Rights Act extends the laws that proscribe discrimination and that protect the privacy of individuals. The law is premised on the notion that every person should have an opportunity equal to that of other persons to make for himself or herself the life that he or she is able and wishes to have, consistent with his or her duties and obligations as a member of society, without being hindered in or prevented from doing so by discriminatory practices based on race, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, age, sex, marital status, or conviction for an offense for which a pardon has been granted. The privacy of individuals, and their right of access to records containing personal information concerning them for any purpose, including the purpose of ensuring accuracy and completeness, should be protected to the greatest extent consistent with the public interest.

Part 1 of the Canadian Human Rights Act defines discrimination as the denial of goods, services, facilities, or accommodations customarily available to the general public. In employment, it is discriminatory to refuse to employ, to refuse to continue to employ, or to differentiate adversely in the course of employment. Part 1, section 11, requires that equal wages be paid to men and women for equal work value, based on skill, effort, and responsibility.

Part 2 of the act created the Canadian Human Rights Commission to administer the Canadian Human Rights Act and to ensure that the principles of equal opportunity and nondiscrimination are followed within the areas of federal jurisdiction. This commission is composed of two full-time and six part-time commissioners. The commission is authorized to investigate complaints of discrimination in employment and in the provision of services, and complaints alleging inequities in pay between men and women based on equal work. The commission monitors annual reports filed by federally regulated employers under the Employment Equity Act, and programs, policies, and legislation affecting women, aboriginal peoples, visible minorities, and persons with disabilities, to ensure that their human rights are protected. It also develops and conducts information programs to promote public understanding of the Canadian Human Rights Act and the commission’s activities.

Part 3 of the Canadian Human Rights Act explains the procedures to be used when a complaint is filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Upon receipt of a complaint, the commission first determines whether or not its agency is the correct one to handle the complaint. The complaint is either accepted for investigation by the commission or sent to another federal agency for appropriate action. If the commission accepts the complaint for investigation, every effort is made to reach an early settlement between the two parties. If the complaint cannot be settled, the commission prepares an investigative report requesting the appointment of a conciliator to arbitrate the dispute.

If conciliation cannot be reached, the case is returned to the commission for a decision either to dismiss the case or to refer it to a human rights tribunal. A tribunal hearing results in a written decision, binding on all parties. Tribunal decisions may be appealed to a review tribunal or to the federal courts. In some discrimination cases, Canada’s Supreme Court makes the final decision. Remedies for complainants include reinstatement and/or compensation for lost wages, letters of apology, or the issuance of antiharassment policy by an employer. The Canadian Human Rights Act provides for fines of up to fifty thousand dollars for threatening, intimidating, or discriminating against an individual who has filed a complaint, or for hampering the investigation process.

The act authorized the Canadian Human Rights Commission to create an administrative structure to administer the act. The Canadian Human Rights Commission delegated to the Office of the Secretary-General of the Human Rights Commission the authority to oversee staff at headquarters and regional offices that investigate discrimination complaints throughout the country, except those dealing with employment and pay equity.

The secretary-general’s office provides support to the Canadian Human Rights Commission and its seven specialized branch agencies: the Legal Services Branch, which represents the commission before tribunals, review tribunals, and the courts; the Anti-Discrimination Programs Branch, which handles all complaints filed with the commission, except employment and pay equity complaints; the Employment and Pay Equity Branch, which advises the Human Rights Commission on employment and pay equity matters, offers educational programs to employers and community groups, and investigates and conciliates equal pay complaints; the Policy and Planning Branch, which monitors and researches domestic and international human rights issues of interest to the commission; the Communications Branch, which explains the role and activities of the commission, discourages discriminatory practices, and fosters public understanding of the act; the Corporate Services Branch, which provides headquarters and regional operations with support services; and the Personnel Services Branch, which provides headquarters and regional operations with support services in pay, benefits, staffing, resource planning, and health and safety.


Between 1985 and 1994, the Canadian Human Rights Commission received 464,535 inquiries. Actual complaints filed between 1991 and 1994 totaled 4,852, including all referrals to alternate redress. For the years 1991 to 1994, based on the number of discrimination complaints filed, the types of complaints were ranked in the following order: disability, sex, national or ethnic origin, race or color, family or marital status, age, religion, and discrimination after being pardoned. In the same years, the ranking order of methods of disposition of complaints was dismissal, settlement approved by all parties and the commission, sent to conciliation, no further proceedings, and early resolution. Canadians continued to file complaints an average of more than 800 cases per year in the following years, leading to a backlog in the early twenty-first century. The commission instituted a new business model in 2002 to clear this backlog. Between 2002 and 2006, it began to clear more cases annually than new complaints received, and the backlog of unresolved complaints dropped from nearly 1300 to 720, indicating progress on more timely clearance of cases. Canadian Human Rights Act (1977)
Human rights;legislation

Further Reading

  • Canadian Human Rights Commission. Annual Report, 2005. Ottawa, Ont.: Minister of Supply and Service Canada, 2006. Provides a detailed self-examination of Canada’s record on human rights.
  • Commerce Clearing House Canadian Limited. Ottawa Letter. Ottawa, Ont.: Author, 1976-1977. Weekly reports chronicling the legislative progress of Bill C-25 (the Canadian Human Rights Act) in Canada’s parliament.

  • House of Commons Debates, Official Report. Vol. 3. Ottawa, Ont.: Queen’s Printer, 1976-1977. Record of the Canadian parliamentary debates on Bill C-25, the Canadian Human Rights Act.

  • Revised Statutes of Canada, 1985. Vol. 5. Ottawa, Ont.: Queen’s Printer, 1985. Includes the complete and revised Canadian Human Rights Act.

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