About human rights
Human rights have been described as rights to which a person is inherently entitled to simply because he or she is a human being. Human rights describe how we instinctively expect to be treated as persons. They define what we are all entitled to – a life of equality, dignity and respect, to live free from discrimination and harassment.
In Canada, your human rights are protected by Canada’s Constitution and by federal, provincial and territorial legislation. These rights are consistent with those under international treaties to which Canada is a party.
On this page:
- The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
- Discrimination and harassment
- Principal United Nations human rights conventions and covenants
- The Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out those rights and freedoms that Canadians believe are necessary in a free and democratic society. The Charter is one part of the Canadian Constitution, which is a set of laws containing the basic rules about how our country operates. The Constitution is Canada’s most important law because it can render invalid any laws that are inconsistent with it.
Since the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect in 1982, it has confirmed and strengthened our nation’s values. Canadian courts have turned to the Charter many times to make decisions that reflect our society’s values.
For more information on the Charter, see Rights and Freedoms in Canada and Your Guide to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The guide is an educational publication that explains the purpose and meaning of each of the Charter’s sections.
If you would like to order a printed copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, please complete and submit the online order form.
Discrimination and harassment
Discrimination is an action or a decision that treats a person or a group negatively for reasons such as their race, age or disability. These reasons are known as grounds of discrimination.
In Canada, you can file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission if:
- you work for or receive services from the federal government or a business or organization that is regulated by the federal government; and
- you believe you have been discriminated against based on one of the 11 grounds of discrimination protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Harassment is a form of discrimination if based on one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination. It involves any unwanted physical or verbal behaviour that offends or humiliates you. Generally, harassment is a behaviour that persists over time, however, serious one-time incidents may also be considered harassment. Harassment occurs when someone:
- makes unwelcome remarks or jokes about your race, religion, sex, age, disability or any other of the 11 grounds of discrimination;
- threatens or intimidates you;
- makes unwelcome physical contact with you – such as touching, patting, pinching or punching – which can also be considered assault.
Do not ignore harassment. Report it. If you fear for your safety or the safety of others, contact the police.
If harassment occurs at work, you should first contact the person listed in your workplace anti-harassment policy. If no policy is available:
- find out if there is a company grievance procedure; or
- contact your union representative.
If harassment occurs while receiving service from a business, contact the customer service department.
Keep a written record of the incidents, including times, places and witnesses.
You may also be able to file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
Principal United Nations human rights conventions and covenants
Canada is a party to the seven principal United Nations human rights conventions and covenants. By ratifying each of these conventions and covenants, Canada agreed to implement them and is required to report back to the UN.
Learn more about how Canada works with the United Nations.
International human rights treaty adherence process in Canada
Under international law, a state may agree to be legally bound to – or adhere to – an international human rights treaty through signature and ratification, or through accession.
When a state signs a treaty, it agrees to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty, even though the state is not yet legally bound by the specific terms of the treaty. Signature of an international human rights treaty also creates an expectation that the state will eventually ratify the treaty.
After signing, the next step is for a state to ratify a treaty. When it does this, it formally commits itself to implement the provisions of the treaty. Accession has the same effect as ratification; the only difference is that accession does not require signature or any other prior step.
Read more about the International Human Rights Treaty Adherence Process in Canada.
The Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights
In Canada, provinces and territories must willingly cooperate in the implementation of treaties and conventions; the federal government cannot use the signing of an international convention as a way of overriding provincial or territorial powers. This means that Canada’s full participation in international instruments requires that the federal, provincial and territorial governments work closely together at all stages.
The Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights (CCOHR) is a federal-provincial-territorial group that consults on international human rights treaties under consideration in Canada. The Human Rights Program – which is part of the federal department of Canadian Heritage – leads all CCOHR discussions and meetings.
Structure and operations
Established in 1975, the CCOHR consists of an official representative from each provincial and territorial jurisdiction. Representatives act as liaisons for human rights issues within their own governments, then share information and views between federal-provincial-territorial governments. The Human Rights Program represents the federal government to the CCOHR. The Departments of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development and Justice are also represented in CCOHR discussions.
Operations of the CCOHR include:
- discussing international human rights instruments that Canada is considering for signature, ratification or accession;
- discussing emerging human rights issues and human rights instruments under development at the United Nations of other international bodies;
- sharing information and best practices, to ensure awareness and understanding of treaty obligations; and
- facilitating the preparation of Canada’s reports to the United Nations on its implementation of human rights treaties.
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