National Committee on Human Rights

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A committee of the Canadian Labour Congress.

When the Trades and Labour Council and the Canadian Congress of Labour merged in 1957, each had its own human rights committees, with mandates to undermine racial discrimination in the labour movement. A new National Committee on Human Rights (NCHR) was formed at the time of the merger, and the Jewish Labour Committee’s Canadian Labour Reports, which highlighted the human rights work of organized labour, became the Human Rights Review in 1960. The NCHR’s mandate was to focus on the “elimination of racial and religious discrimination in all areas of Canadian society and the promotion of equality of opportunity in employment, housing, and public accommodation for all residents of Canada.” The group worked with local and regional human rights committees within provincial and municipal labour councils and federations to campaign for anti-discrimination legislation, education, research, publicity, and the investigation of cases of discrimination. It also worked with governments across Canada as well as social movement organizations to promote tolerance and fair practices. By 1957, seven municipal labour councils with human rights committees were located in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, and British Columbia. Provincial labour federations in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec also had their own human rights committees. The role of the NCHR was to coordinate their activities and to advise the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) executive on how best to lobby the federal government.

Most of the NCHR’s work in the 1960s involved funding local labour committees. Through the CLC, it managed to secure an amendment to the National Housing Act to prohibit awarding government contracts to companies that discriminated in their employment practices. In 1968, when the country was celebrating International Year for Human Rights, the CLC launched its most ambitious venture – funding a newly graduated social worker, Pat Kerwin, to work with Native people in Kenora, Ontario, one of Canada’s poorest regions. The project, which trained Native people to be their own advocates, also implemented several local initiatives, from securing welfare benefits for individuals to building ice rinks with government funding.

After 1968, the CLC became increasingly less active in the human rights movement. As the leader of the Canadian labour movement, it continued to play a significant role in lobbying for rights-related issues in general. It was one of the few organizations outside Quebec to oppose the use of the War Measures Act in 1970, and it lobbied on issues such as abortion, capital punishment, wiretapping, illegal RCMP activities, and the federal Human Rights Act. For its part, the NCHR played a progressively diminished role. The Human Rights Review was discontinued, and by 1977 the CLC no longer provided grants to the local and provincial labour committees. Although the NCHR still advised the CLC executive on human rights issues, and does so today, the CLC’s new Department of Social Action and Community Affairs (created in 1970) took over responsibility for a variety of human rights issues, notably those involving Aboriginal people. By the late 1970s, a separate CLC women’s bureau had been established, redirecting even more responsibility from the NCHR. Whereas the labour movement had been one of the most vocal advocates of an entrenched bill of rights during the 1940s and 1950s, it did not send a representative to the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution in either 1970 or 1981, when hundreds of other groups did so. With the exception of a few organizations, most notably the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the CLC had virtually no relationship with any rights body.