The Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission reached an historic milestone this past fiscal year. Fifty years ago, The Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission Act, 1972 established the Human Rights Commission in this province, a body committed to forwarding “the principle that every person is free and equal in dignity and rights without regard to race, creed, religion, colour, sex, nationality, ancestry or place of origin”. Cultural diversity was seen as a basic human right and a fundamental human value.

While Saskatchewan’s population size has changed little in 50 years, growing by about 200,000 over that time, the make up of our province certainly has.

In 1972, 90.2% of the population was of European origin. Separated out from that body were: people identifying as Jewish (0.2%); people identifying as “Indian and Eskimo” (4.4%), and “others” (5.2%).

In contrast, by 2021, Saskatchewan’s population, though still 66% European in ancestry, had grown through immigration from the Philippines, India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and elsewhere, with about 14% of the population identifying as a visible minority. A full 17% of the population now identify as Indigenous which includes a significant Métis population.

And we have changed in other ways too.

Today, Saskatchewan people engage in a variety of religious practices and cultural traditions associated with religion and spirituality, while 37% of us identify as non-religious.

In 1972, less than 6% of the population was over 65 years of age. Today, that percentage has grown to more than 16%. However, 20% of our current population is under the age of 15 years old. Saskatchewan has the smallest percentage of working-aged people in Canada.

Saskatchewan continues a trend to urbanization that began in the mid-1950s, with more than 2/3 of the population now living in cities and towns. Though there are now fewer independent farms, modern farms are large, sophisticated, multi-million-dollar businesses.

Women in Saskatchewan are routinely employed outside the home, and statistically have the highest levels of education in the province.

With the changes that have taken place in society since the Commission’s inception, what is the role of a modern Human Rights Commission?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the mandate of the Commission remains nearly the same as it was in 1972: to promote a “recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” and to discourage and eliminate discrimination.

What does that mean in real terms?

Although the Commission receives complaints arising in education, public services, contracting and rental/property transactions, by the far the largest number of complaints arise in the area of employment.

Complaints of discrimination based on disability, age, sex and race make up the majority of matters dealt with by the Commission. With the smallest percentage of working aged people in Canada, it is not difficult to understand how discrimination in the workplace is detrimental to the economic health of the province.
Almost a quarter of the province (22.2% of the population) self declares as having some form of disability – be it intellectual, physical, or illness related.

Women, though statistically having the highest levels of education in the province, continue to face employment barriers such as access to the trades and apprenticeship, sexual harassment and violence in the workplace, and a continuing gap in pay equity. As difficult as it is to believe, women continue to lose their jobs because they are pregnant or, as mothers, require time at home to physically recover from childbirth and to nourish their babies.

People in the province who are over the age of 50 face challenges in obtaining and retaining employment.
Mental health and addiction are identified as primary challenges in most municipalities in the province.

Workers come from diverse backgrounds and circumstance. Resolving issues of discrimination that erode secure and meaningful employment opportunities is key to a healthy economy and key to attracting and retaining good people in the workplace and the province.

Discrimination-free places of employment have higher morale, increased productivity, and higher rates of return.

The Commission assists businesses by answering questions that will help with accommodating difference in the workplace. The Commission helps resolve individual issues of discrimination and works with the parties to preserve relationships.

The Commission also works with groups of individuals and institutions to resolve problems of systemic discrimination that are barriers to economic health. The Commission provides education about best practice so mistakes are not made.

The work the Commission does is not easy and is often misunderstood. Because not everyone has experienced discrimination, it is difficult to understand that discrimination exists and more difficult to understand the toll it takes on those who do experience it.

In short, the Commission is as relevant today as it was in 1972 – if not more so.

The Commission will continue to work with communities to see that people with disabilities can get an appropriate education, enjoy all amenities, and are able to seek and retain employment. The Commission will continue to work with businesses to ensure healthy workplaces that are discrimination-free zones.