In a world made small by technology, science, politics and human migration, and in which differences among people are accentuated, human rights are an increasingly important part of creating harmony and practising democracy. It is not surprising then that human rights are receiving increased attention in politics, the economy and civil society internationally.
Canada is a 'cobbled-together country' composed of indigenous peoples and subsequent waves of immigrants. Most immigrants to Canada were marginalised by poverty and prejudice in their own lands. They came to Canada (often involuntarily) to seek a better life. One result of the composition of Canada is that we cannot assume our national identity; it must be made together. We can see in both our politics and our literature an ongoing interest in discovering and creating who we are as a nation and people.1
Another feature of the cobbled-together character of Canada is ongoing concern for social cohesion. We have important differences among us and those differences include those we are creating through culture, politics, education, economics and orientation to identity. Notwithstanding Canada's high ranking on the United Nations Human Development Index, we have challenging inequalities that are measured by health status, (dis)ability, distribution of income and wealth, education, group identity and citizenship and culture. We need to be equality-seeking not only because it is right, but because we need equality to live and work together cohesively as a people and country.2
In Canada, human rights have been and continue to be an important dimension of seeking and defining equality and aspirations for equality (Ignatieff 2000: 12). The point of human rights is to assure that all people are treated as individuals within society. Through human rights legislation, Canada at the federal level and the individual provinces protect rights in areas that include religious belief, political affiliation, race, gender, ability and origin. While it is important that we have legislation and policy that seek equality, in the end equality is an experienced reality that must exist 'on the street' and in our ordinary lives. It needs to be present in the ordinary dimensions of what we think of as culture. Equality must be part of the culture.
This article explores the links and tension between official mandates and everyday realities in identity and social cohesion through an exploration of the role of human rights as they contribute to the everyday lives of people in Nova Scotia. It considers how human rights, and in particular the work of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (NSHRC), contributes to community, workplace/economy and governance.3 It seeks to show that human rights are for all of us - they benefit everyone - and that the NSHRC is a cultural and democratic asset because of the contribution it makes to the community, workplace and governance and thus the quality of life in Nova Scotia.
Human Rights, Democracy and Participation
Human rights are based in the idea that all human beings are equal as people. All people have the right to participate as individuals in civil society, politics and the economy. In Canada, human rights law and Human Rights Commissions at both provincial and federal levels assure the protection of the rights of individuals against discrimination.4
In practical terms liberal democracies are generally defined by the rule of law, representative electoral institutions, governing institutions, defined separations and inclusion of citizens as individuals with entitlements. However established in law and institution, democracy in practice is a living set of relationships with shifting emphases, expectations and commitments. Politicians, public servants, business people and citizens can all see and contribute to changes in democracy as it is practised. Democracy in Canada is and has been expanding.5
Currently we can see politics and governance responding to heightened expectations of increased citizen participation beyond voting, expanded consultation with groups, communities, organisations and sectors, expectation of the inclusion of many voices in decisions, programmes and results and the movement for reform of the public sector expressed in new forms of transparency, accountability and integrity. …