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.