Age Discrimination and the Alberta Human Rights Act

By Linda McKay-Panos

Reprinted with permission from LawNow May/June 2017 Vol. 41(5).

PHOTO: FLICKR/Stephen Bartels

Recently, the Alberta Government agreed to add protection for age discrimination in the Alberta Human Rights Act (AHRA) in two areas—tenancy and services, goods and accommodation customarily available to the public. This was the result of a Consent Order on January 13, 2017 in the case of Ruth Maria Adria v Attorney General of Alberta. Age will be covered in these areas in effective January 2018. “Age” was already covered in employment, notices and membership in trade unions. The case was very similar to that of Delwin Vriend, 1998, when the court held that the absence of protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation in the Individual’s Rights Protection Act, RSA 1980 (IRPA) violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, section 15(1). The difference is that in Vriend, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered that the words “sexual orientation” be read into the IRPA. This time, the Government agreed that the AHRA should be amended.

It is interesting to look at the history of legal protection for age discrimination.  First, it is generally accepted that youth and elders experience the most effects of age discrimination. Yet, originally the definition of “age” in the Individual’s Rights Protection Act, 1972, (IRPA) was “between 18 and 65”. So the two most vulnerable groups were originally excluded from protection in all areas covered under the IRPA. The upper limit of age 65 was removed from the definition of “age” in the 1980s, so at least elders were protected from discrimination in some areas.

After a review of the IRPA (Equal in Dignity and Rights, 1994), the Review Panel recommended that age be covered in all areas and that the lower age limit be removed. This would be in keeping with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It is clear that the addition of coverage of age in two areas will definitely be welcomed by all, especially seniors. This group is especially vulnerable and deeply affected by discrimination in all of the areas covered by the AHRA. Any fears by landlords or service providers that there will be a flood of claims must be allayed by the defence section 11 in the AHRA that allows a reasonable and justifiable excuse for discrimination. And, these landlords and service providers have a year to modify their practices and policies to ensure they comply with the law.

However, the Review Panel’s recommendation that the lower limit of 18 be removed was not followed. So, youth are still unprotected from age discrimination in all areas under the AHRA. At Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, we receive inquiries from youth who are not allowed to eat in a restaurant in groups or who are not allowed in stores with their friends. These young people have no recourse to the AHRA for age discrimination. They are able to complain about discrimination based on other grounds such as race, religious belief, and sex, however.

Young people are vulnerable in our society and we are trying to teach them to be responsible citizens. At the same time, by allowing age discrimination against them we are hurting their dignity and demonstrating that they have no rights. The message this relays is not in keeping with youth developing into responsible citizens. This current definition of age (over 18) could also be the subject of a Charter section 15(1) case, similar to that of Vriend. Again, any concerns about floodgates are allayed by the reasonable and justifiable section 11. For example, there are good reasons why youth cannot purchase liquor or attend bars that serve alcohol.

Hopefully, the Government will remove this lower limit so that all Albertans are equally protected from age discrimination.