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1996 – Sexual Freedom a Human Right

January 27, 2010

On May 9, 1996, the Canadian queer community won a twenty-year battle when Bill C-33, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) was adopted in the House of Commons by a vote of 153-76 (Warner, 214). The CHRA was passed in 1977, to provide Canadians with equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination based on grounds including gender, ability, ethnicity and religion. The 1996 amendment explicitly bans discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation.” The act says that queer Canadians are entitled to “an opportunity equal with other individuals to make for themselves the lives they are able and wish to have…” (Section 2).

Since the Mulroney government in the 1980’s, gay activists have attempted to push the federal government to prohibit discimination in employment, access to services, and rights on the basis of sexual orientation. In 1992, Kim Campbell (then Justice Minister) tabled the amendments to the CHRA but after much controversy over whether or not to recognize same-sex marriages, the bill died when Parliament was prorogued in 1993.

The struggle made incremental progress, for example, with the Chretien government passing Bill C-41 (1995) enforcing tougher sentencing on hate-crimes, including among them crimes based on sexual orientation.  There was ongoing opposition from many religious and conservative groups against including sexual orientation in the Canadian Human Right Act, including from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada who pitted one fundamental human right against another, saying that “inclusion of sexual orientation could affect the freedom of speech and religious freedom of many Canadians who believe homosexual practice to be immoral” (Warner, 213).

The amendment to the CHRA was a major victory for the LGBTTQ community and a turning point in the agenda of gay liberation movements. The prominence of the rights struggle on the Canadian political agenda made gay issues more visible to mainstream Canadians. However, some gay liberation activists criticized the movement for seeing changes in policy as ends in themselves and not as effective means of changing social norms and combating homophobia and heterosexism (Warner, 215-17).

This graph, from a government research paper examining the role of the CHRA in advancing queer equality rights in Canada, shows the history of complaints on the basis of sexual orientation in employment and services (section 7),  discriminatory practices (section 10) and harassment (section 14).

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