Yalden Steps Down

In the low-key manner of the diplomat he once was, Maxwell Yalden has learned to rarely concede defeat - and to measure his milestones by the inch.

Yalden Steps Down

In the low-key manner of the diplomat he once was, Maxwell Yalden has learned to rarely concede defeat - and to measure his milestones by the inch. One of the recurring issues during his nine-year tenure as chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission was the politically fractious matter of discrimination against gays and lesbians in the federal workplace and in federal law. To Yalden, as precise in thought as he is in the choice of his tailored, embassy-row suits, Ottawa's duty was simple: to honor the pledge of seven federal justice ministers since 1985 and amend the federal Human Rights Act to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Anything short of legislation, Yalden argued in his ninth and final report last week, was "a failure in moral logic." Last week, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien gave the retiring guardian of domestic human rights what he wanted: a renewed promise to broaden the law before the next federal election. "In this movement, you don't give in because you win or lose one," Yalden told Maclean's. "What matters here is to keep pushing the beast down the track."

Given the array of obstacles in his path, Yalden's parting gift was also a hard-earned accomplishment. Other repetitions littered the 98-page report; in many of the six categories based on age, racial and religious origin, sex and disability, the long-time public servant could boast of little progress. Despite increased opportunities in federally regulated workplaces, Yalden reported, women still earned an average of 70 cents for every dollar earned by men, while less than 50 per cent of disabled Canadians were employed. Aboriginal issues - "our most serious human rights problem," according to Yalden - continue to be treated with "paternalism, denial and delay." Senior citizens, said Yalden - who accepted an extension to his term last April, five months before he turned 65, in part to personalize his criticism of mandatory retirement - are "unfairly penalized by the arbitrary, lockstep process" that forces them to retire despite their willingness to work. As for himself, Yalden has no plans for a quick retirement, hoping instead to join the United Nations Human Rights Committee later this year.

As a former official languages commissioner, from 1977 to 1984, Yalden has traced the shifts in Canadian attitudes to minority rights for almost three decades. A onetime student of philosophy, educated in France and England, he argues that Canada does not fare badly in comparison to other countries. A pragmatic student of the way government works, Yalden revels in small victories. Among the accolades in his report was support of a decision by federal prisons - usually loath to admit a drug problem among inmates by providing clean syringes - to supply bleach to sterilize needles this year in an effort to curtail the spread of AIDS among inmates. "We have made real progress here and there; we backslide elsewhere," he wrote in the preface to his report. "On the whole, we do not do badly."

But evidence of an increasing intolerance among Canadians provoked Yalden to abandon his customary diplomatic tact. Citing a puzzling drop last year of nearly 20,000 complaints to the commission since a peak of 52,792 in 1990, Yalden said he suspects that many Canadians have just given up. In fact, the nation that emerged from the political and economic uncertainties of 1995 appears, he says, "at odds with itself and short of sympathy for vulnerable minorities who were seen as promoting no more than their own special interests." In a country searching to define itself through what Yalden calls "a community of values," that is a troubling sign.

Maclean's April 1, 1996