Posted in Opinions, Top Opinions

Canada’s Human Rights Codes should address size-based discrimination

Protecting our citizens from being treated unfairly for their weight needs to become a priority

Image Credits: Brittany Barrell

Jon Gerrard, a Liberal MLA of Manitoba, recently introduced a private member’s bill aiming to “forbid discrimination based on a person’s ‘physical size and weight,’” according to The Huffington Post. But Gerrard doesn’t want to stop there. He wants Manitoba to pioneer an effort to get obesity covered under the Human Rights Codes of all Canadian provinces.

When we talk about human rights in our country, we’re thinking of freedom, access to food, education, and clean drinking water. Then there’s the laundry list of attributes that nobody should use to discriminate against others, such as race, religion, sexual orientation, and the like.

Essentially, we frame laws with the notion that while you can’t be faulted for being who you are, what you’ve become through the decisions you’ve made is fair game.

In other words, some might argue that while you have no control over the race or gender you are born with, obesity happens because of your choices. Should our laws really protect size and weight the same way they protect other traits?

While choice certainly plays a role in some cases, research partially ties obesity to genetics, as well as to medical conditions like thyroid disorders. Some actually have a higher propensity to put on weight later in life, beyond their control. This is reason enough to put it in the Human Rights Code.

The sheer number of people who are stigmatized for their weight makes doing so only practical. According to the Obesity in Canada report of 2016, roughly 25 percent of Canadians are obese and around 36 percent are overweight. Senators Art Eggleton and Kelvin Ogilvie, members of the committee that produced that report, stated in a special to The Globe and Mail that approximately two-thirds of adults and a third of the children in this country fall somewhere in that spectrum of obese to overweight.

These figures suggest that size-based prejudice just might affect more people than prejudice against anything else on the Human Rights Code does.

I concede that no legal action or symbolic act is likely to completely eradicate the name-calling, physical abuse, social exclusion, and the like that can come with one’s size. Tackling this requires the same earnestness and commitment from all stakeholders that fighting other social injustices does. But law can help fight the intolerance present in spheres of life such as employment, housing, or public institutions — spheres where cases of discrimination are numerous.

For instance, in 2010, a Quebec Human Rights Commission ruled in favour of a woman who alleged discrimination because she was denied a disabled parking spot by her condominium. More recently, Gerrard himself referred to cases of people “who should have had screening tests but didn’t, who should have had immunizations but didn’t, who didn’t get the kind of care they should have got,” reportedly due to their weight.

Several human rights commission rulings have sided with plaintiffs, due to those individuals’ obesity being considered a disability. While that might seem good enough, adding it to the Human Rights Code by itself (as opposed to a being a subsection of disability) might give current and future cases more legal gravitas.

Legally, obesity isn’t concretely classified under disability, which lengthens the process of seeking justice. Including obesity in the Human Rights Code would remove ambiguity as to who falls under it and what constitutes discrimination, while making judicial recourse quicker for victims.

Obesity exists worldwide, and policymakers need to take bold steps to help, but we must protect those struggling with it while we look for a solution. Their rights and their personalities aren’t defined by the tape measure or the weight scale, nor should they be.

  • Robert Hicks

    There is hope for a better tomorrow – but not for bigots.

    By Robert Hicks:

    Anxiety is spreading like a big sneeze that is enveloping and infecting our society with fretfulness. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association we all feel nervous or worried at times, and as our world becomes more complex there is a lot to be anxious about. For some it may simply be the state of the world, but if you are struggling to build, or perhaps rebuild, your life you can at times experience an overwhelming amount of anxiety.

    Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling of worry and fear and is a normal response to a lot of situations, but if it is persistent and it’s interfering with important aspects of your life you should seek attention for it. An inability to relax, ease the mind of concerns and constantly carrying around stress could be a sign of an anxiety disorder. While anxiety can be a helpful feeling when it motivates us or warns us of danger, an anxiety disorder, on the other hand, causes unexpected or unhelpful anxiety that seriously impacts our lives, including how we think, feel and act.

    There are six major types of anxiety disorders, each with their own symptom profile: generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, anxiety attacks (panic disorder), obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobia, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

    One way to regain control and reduce the power of anxiety is to change our perspective. As the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said, “Everything we here is an opinion not a fact, everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

    Coping with anxiety is a part of life and often with a quiet introspection and examination of our emotional state and perspectives we will discover that many of our anxieties are resolvable. But unfortunately, for many people, anxiety disorders can become overwhelming and alleviating their symptoms of depression and anxiety requires the help of friends and the assistance of professional support networks.

    For thousands of years there have been a myriad of causes of severe anxiety and depression. Today, perhaps more than ever before, some of those major causes are racism, prejudice, bigotry and discrimination.

    Racist attitudes and beliefs are misconceptions about people based on perceived racial lines and are often founded on the fear of difference, including differences in customs, values religion, physical appearance and ways of living and viewing the world. This destroys community cohesion and creates divisions in society and contributes further to the general and social anxiety disorders that are common in our society. Racism is not just an added stress to individuals of minority ethnic groups (identified as racial groups) but is a pathogen which generates depression.

    Prejudice, which is also fed by anxiety and false perspectives, is when a person negatively prejudges another person or group without getting to know the beliefs, thoughts and feelings behind their words and actions. It is grounded in misconception, misunderstanding and inflexible generalizations. Regrettably this leads to bigotry, which is stronger than prejudice and a more severe mindset that is often accompanied by discriminatory behaviour.

    Bigots are obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices largely because of their own anxiety. They lack rational reason, sound moral judgement and hardly ever use logic. A bigot’s anxiety overwhelms their reason and unfortunately becomes ingrained in their nature. Their emotions almost always trump reason, and there is no more powerful emotion than fear. For those who stand for equality, human rights and social justice the troubling undercurrent of bigotry is the tragedy of our time. The key to removing bigotry and all the anxiety that comes with it is to banish the bigot’s fear and remove their ignorance. Unfortunately they are often so devoted to their prejudices they are beyond help.

    Prejudice, racism and bigotry have a terrible impact on our society. Each leads to the morally outrageous treatment of others that we call discrimination which undermines equality of opportunity in our society. Each shows nothing more than ignorance, each is fear, each is cruelty, each is all the things that make for unhappiness. Ignorance is no excuse, anxiety and insecurity are not justifications, and that is why each in all their forms must be uncompromisingly condemned everywhere in the world.

    Luckily, we can be proud of Canada’s multiculturalism and the tolerant and compassionate ways of our nation. In Canada you can take comfort in knowing that there are a lot of people in your community that care deeply about you, your health, and your future. In Canada support and assistance is available for anyone who seeks it. In my view everyone in Canada, except for non-reasoning bigots, can hope for a better tomorrow and a happy future.

    As the famous American psychiatrist Karl Augustus Menninger (July 22, 1893 – July 18, 1990) said: “Fears are educated into us and can, if we wish, be educated out.”

    Every young person living in Canada deserves to grow up in supportive and nurturing environments, and develop the social and emotional skills they need to work with others cooperatively, resolve conflict and cope with challenges they face in life. Every person living in Canada, including new refugees, should have access to a range of mental health services, treatment and supports as soon as the need for these services arises.

    Mental health is a serious matter. If you or someone you know is suffering please seek professional help. Contact a community organization like the Canadian Mental Health Association to learn more about support and resources in your area.