Wither Human Rights?

By Lynne Fernandez, Errol Black Chair in Labour Issues

That Nelson Mandela’s memorial be celebrated on International Human Rights Day is destiny; a more poignant coupling of events cannot be imagined. It seems unusually cruel then to sully today’s tributes to this great man with grumblings of suppression and abuse, but the irony of today’s events coinciding with anti-union legislation being passed in Alberta demands comment. At the same time that her government has pushed Bill 45 through the Alberta Legislature, Premier Alison Redford is paying tribute to Nelson Mandela.

It is impossible to reconcile the image of a young, idealistic Canadian lawyer helping Mandela hammer out a new Human Rights code for South Africa with today’s Premier Redford as she supported the passing of legislation that will egregiously infringe on Human Rights in Alberta.

According to the Calgary Herald, “the passing of Bills 45 and 46 on Wednesday night mark a dark chapter in Alberta History.” These are strong words from what is often a business friendly newspaper in a corporate-friendly town.

Even the Wild Rose Party voted against this legislation. It is not difficult to see why: according to NUPGE’s James Clancy:

“Bill 45, the Public Sector Services Continuation Act, places further restrictions on over 100,000 unionized workers in Alberta who already are denied their right to strike.  It broadens the definition of a strike to include “any slowdown or any activity that has the effect of restricting or disrupting production or services.”

Bill 45 can be best described as legislative overkill.  It denies individuals the fundamental right to freedom of expression.  Bill 45 introduces for the first time in Canada, a vague legal concept of “strike threat” which makes it illegal to canvass the opinion of “employees to determine whether they wish to strike” or to freely express a view which calls for or supports strike action.

Those who are not directly involved with a union, like academic or public policy commentators, could be prosecuted for suggesting that a strike is the only recourse to protect the public interest or draw attention to unsafe working conditions that put the health of workers and the general public at risk.

Bill 45 also imposes huge punitive fines on unions, their members and citizens who encourage or support an “illegal strike” or “strike threat.”

It is likely that this legislation will be challenged under the Charter. How could Redford, a legal expert in human rights, not see this coming? According to the Herald: “Nobody believes that and no one can believe that a so-called human rights lawyer would allow such an abomination to the most fundamental right of any free and democratic society — the right to speak and say things that the state might not agree with.”

Nelson Mandela was himself a firm advocate for union and worker rights.  He once declared: “The kind of democracy that we all seek to build demands that we deepen and broaden the rights of all citizens. This includes a culture of workers’ rights.”

As the world says farewell to Mr. Mandela, perhaps Ms. Redford will reflect on his life and deeds, on the time she spent with him and on their shared ideals.  If she does, she will have to question what has just happened in Alberta.

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