On April 17, Canada celebrates the implementation of the equality provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The 1982 Charter has profoundly transformed human rights in Canada over the past generation. Although signed 38 years ago, Section 15 on equality rights did not come into force for three years because federal, provincial and territorial governments needed to amend their laws to include equality provisions.
Section 15 states that every individual is equal under the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
Unfortunately, it takes a long time for society to catch up to laws that are adopted. Decades after this great breakthrough, Indigenous peoples, Black and other racialized communities, women and members of other equity-seeking groups still face major income inequality. The gap between the rich and the poor in Canada continues to grow. A top priority of government budgets must be to reduce income inequality.
The COVID-19 pandemic lays bare the impact of these inequalities. Workers in certain industries who are more heavily exposed to infection are least able to work from home and least likely to have their leave paid for by an employer.
Women, and in particular racialized women, work in mostly low-wage “5C” occupations: clerical, cleaning, catering, cashiering and care (e.g., health care, child care, long-term care). While clerical workers might be able to work from home, the other jobs are by nature in-person. In addition, four of these professions (care, catering, cashiering and cleaning) consist of essential frontline workers combatting the virus and providing basic needs.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report released on March 16 exposed the need to improve paid leave for low and middle income Canadians who are employed and to make our EI system more responsive for those who are unemployed. The federal government’s recent temporary changes to EI and the provision of additional sick leave respond to some of these inequities. OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas says these changes must be made permanent if we truly want to make Charter Rights a reality.
“Indigenous Peoples, racialized Canadians and workers of many equity-seeking groups faced systemic discrimination before COVID-19,” said Thomas “The pandemic has shown the essential role these groups play in our society and if we want to truly recognize that, we must keep these changes to EI eligibility and paid sick days after this crisis is over.”