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Human Rights Perspectives: Emerging Issues and Workplace Impacts

Marie-Claude Landry

Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission

The following was delivered by Marie-Claude Landry, Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, at the Canadian Work–Life Leadership Circle Round Table on February 26, 2016. Hosted by the Vanier Institute of the Family and Alterna Savings, this event brought together employers and HR professionals and practitioners to engage in conversation about work–life quality, flex and intergenerational change in workplaces.


Good morning!

I have been looking forward to this discussion all week. Thank you so much for inviting us to participate.

As the Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, I’m happy to be discussing work–life balance from a human rights perspective.

I think this discussion is incredibly important, and I hope it will contribute to a better future for our children.

I must tell you that I personally have lived and understand this issue – as an employer, a daughter, a mother, and a grandmother.

Today, many employees across Canada are struggling with how to meet both their work and family caregiving obligations.

Of course, accommodating family obligations poses very real challenges for employers, too.

But the truth is, being more flexible and more proactive about accommodating family obligations is one of the best decisions an employer can make.

And here’s why – I’m going to give you three reasons.

First: because the concept of family is evolving every day, our workplaces should too.

Second: because accommodation is about working differently, not less.

And finally: because supporting employees to meet their family obligations means that everyone wins.

Before I go on, I would like to tell you a bit more about the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

We are Canada’s human rights watchdog.

We operate independently from government.

We stand up for people who are experiencing discrimination in Canada.
… people who are not receiving a fair and equal chance
… people who are not being fully included.

As you know, the Canadian Human Rights Act includes “family status” as a ground
of discrimination.

Family status – or a ground like it – is included in almost all provincial human rights codes, including the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Recently, the courts have confirmed that caregiving is a protected right under “family status.”

This means that despite workplace policies or practices, an employer must accommodate employees who are providing necessary caregiving to their loved ones.

As I mentioned, the challenge for today’s employer is that the concept of family is more complex than ever.

This brings me to my first point: The concept of family is evolving every day.

Nearly 40 years ago, when the Canadian Human Rights Act was created, the socially accepted definition of family was very limited.

Today, much has changed.

The term “family” is no longer just a mom, a dad, a brother and a sister.

It is a mom and a mom, a dad and a dad, a grandparent and a child, a friend caring for a neighbour, and so on.

So what does this mean for employers?

It means that when it comes to family obligations, employers need to keep an open mind.

Employers should review and revise policies on leave and benefits to recognize that families come in many forms.

One example of emerging family diversity issues is the increasing recognition of transgender rights.

An important change to the Canadian Human Rights Act will hopefully happen soon. It will make the rights of transgender people in Canada explicit in federal human rights law.

This is coming. And in many provinces, it has already happened, including in Ontario, which already has protections on the basis of gender identity and gender expression.

Workplace policies need to be made more inclusive to support trans employees who are transitioning, and employees with trans partners or children.

There are many agencies, including Egale and the 519 in Ontario, who can assist workplaces to be more inclusive of trans employees and their families.

Some employers are concerned. They think that as the definition of “family” expands, it will mean more accommodation requests, more absences, and less productivity.

Not true.

This brings me to my second point: Accommodation is about working differently, not less.

Accommodating employees means trying to find ways for them to meet both work and family obligations in creative and flexible ways.

Our Guide to Balancing Work and Caregiving Obligations provides some examples of various flex-work options.

It also explains that accommodation is a two-way street.

It’s about give-and-take.

Employers are not required to accommodate an employee’s every wish or preference to care for their family.

For example, leaving work to attend a child’s soccer game is, in most cases, a
personal choice.

But leaving work to bring an injured child to the hospital when no other caregiver is available is an obligation of the employee that must be accommodated.

The final solutions may not be ideal either. An employee who needs to leave early to care for a loved one may be required to make up the time.

Both the employer AND the employee need to work together to find a realistic solution that is good for both of them, and that works for everyone.

Of course, from a human rights perspective, there’s something even better than single accommodation solutions.

And that brings me to my final point today: When a workplace is inclusive and proactive about accommodating family obligations, everyone wins.

Studies show that workplaces that are open to flexible work arrangements have:
• lower rates of absenteeism,
• more loyalty among staff,
• higher morale and retention, and
• increased productivity.

A flexible workplace gives employees more options to balance their work and their family obligations.

This can actually reduce requests for accommodation.

So a flexible and inclusive workplace is better for the employee…
… which is better for productivity
… for the employer
… for the economy
… for society.

Consider this…

It was not long ago that taking a year of parental leave was not even an option.

Today, it is a given.

A change to our policies can create a culture shift in our workplaces, so that we can all work and care for loved ones.

It’s about being proactive.


… because the concept of family is evolving every day and so our workplace policies should too.

… because accommodation is about working differently, not less.

… because when we are proactive about accommodating the family obligations of our staff, everyone wins.

Thank you.

This document can also be found on the Canadian Human Rights Commission website.