Restraining Equality: Human Rights Commissions in Canada


193 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-8263-7
DDC 353.4'8225'0971




H. Graham Rawlinson is a corporate lawyer with the international law
firm Torys in Toronto. He is co-author of The Canadian 100: The 100 Most
Influential Canadians of the 20th Century.


This balanced and thoughtful book is a significant contribution to the
study of human-rights administration in Canada. The authors begin with
history, tracing the rise of legislated solutions to human-rights
problems in this country, which began with the Ontario Humans Rights
Code and the Ontario Human Rights Commission in the early 1960s. In this
immediate postwar era, governments around world the began to treat the
protection of citizens’ rights and freedoms as a collective
responsibility, but few could have predicted the sprawling human-rights
industry that was being born: by the 1980s, every province and territory
in Canada had its own human-rights commission and related statute.

Initially, these commissions dealt mostly with a few complaints about
ethnic and racial discrimination. As the size of government and the
scope of rights protection grew in the 1970s and 1980s, however, the
commissions became powerful and forbidding bureaucracies: investigating
complaints, holding elaborate quasi-judicial hearings, and pursuing
other claims in the courts. The protection of human rights, the authors
conclude, had become big business.

Not surprisingly, the commissions themselves became the target of
cost-cutting governments and certain public policy commentators who
thought that the rights business had simply taken a good idea too far.
When financial constraints affected all Canadian governments in the
1990s, the commissions were forced to retrench; as they did so, they
loudly protested that basic human rights were at stake. Ironically, as
the authors convincingly argue, the protection of human rights actually
benefited from the cutbacks: forced to focus on their core mandate of
protecting individuals from discrimination, the commissions actually
brought their work closer into line with public expectations. Although
governments and citizens alike have a generally unfavorable opinion of
the rights business, the commissions and their related legislation have
had a demonstrably positive impact on Canadian society.


Howe, R. Brian, and David Johnson., “Restraining Equality: Human Rights Commissions in Canada,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 14, 2024,