History of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission

The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission is committed to protecting and advancing human rights for all Nova Scotians. The context for this work is built upon the foundational advocacy of Nova Scotians who sought equality, fairness, justice and greater equity and inclusion. Knowledge of those who contributed to the implementation of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act is crucial for the Commission and all Nova Scotians. It is important to know this history so we can honour and advance the work of those who came before us.

In 1940, Dr. William Oliver volunteered with the Department of Education to improve the circumstances of ethnic minorities in Nova Scotia. After five years, he was hired with the Department. In 1946, the Viola Desmond case galvanized the civil rights movement in Nova Scotia. According to founding Commissioner Fred MacKinnon, Dr. Oliver spent these years, “organizing and promoting self-help in the Black communities of the province but, even more importantly, he did much to advance public support and understanding in and out of government in respect to the social and economic plight of Black Nova Scotians.”

In 1955, the Fair Employment Practices Act was passed followed by the Equal Pay Act of 1956. Both acts were designed to prevent discrimination in the workplace. Robert Stanfield was elected Premier in 1956 and made human rights, particularly for Black Nova Scotians, a priority during his next eleven years as premier. In 1959, the assembly passed the Fair Accommodation Practices Act to guard against discrimination in public spaces. Stanfield reports that, "Clearly more than a declaration of equality was required. More than the passage of Laws against discrimination would be necessary before Blacks achieved real equality and clearly years of concerted effort would be necessary."

In 1962, Premier Stanfield created and led the Interdepartmental Committee on Human Rights. The committee's mandate was to encourage the work of Dr. William Oliver in the Black communities and the new Social Development Program. According to Fred MacKinnon, without Premier Stanfield's “prodding, goading and encouraging” government into action, “Human Rights legislation might not have been introduced for at least another decade.” The Premier codified and extended earlier legislation in the first Human Rights Act of 1963. The government established the “Education fund for Negros” in 1965. While Premier Stanfield went into federal politics in 1967, he and Dr. Oliver had laid the foundation for the Human Rights Commission to be established in that same year. Others who supported the early development of the Human Rights Commission included Donald Oliver, Gus Wedderburn, Carrie Best and Delmore Buddy Daye. The Commission would later hire Gordon Earle as its first employee.

The Commission quickly introduced wide-ranging legislative amendments to the Human Rights Act, “making the Nova Scotia legislation the strongest and most comprehensive of its kind in Canada.” The Commission provided funds for Dr. Oliver's newest organization, the Black United Front and sponsored a two-day workshop with activist Saul Alinsky.

In 1967, the Commission's explicit purpose was to challenge discrimination on racial, religious and ethnic grounds. In 1991, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act and the Commission significantly broadened its mandate to include the following protected characteristics: Aboriginal Origin, Age, Family Status (the status of being in a parent and child relationship), Irrational Fear of Contracting an Illness (for example, to protect people living with HIV/AIDS adequately), Marital Status, Political Affiliation, Sex, Pregnancy, Sexual Harassment, Sex (Sexual Orientation). The Act was further amended in 2012 to provide protections based on gender identity and gender expression.

This account is adapted from “Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission” (Wikipedia).

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