Archives » 2006 » Discrimination Against Older Persons

Why We Should Care About Discrimination Against Older Persons

October 1st is the International Day of Older Persons, a day set aside by the United Nations to address the independence, participation, care, self-fulfillment and dignity of older persons. But the reality is that older Saskatchewan residents face discrimination in many important parts of life.

Older persons are vulnerable to age discrimination in all areas covered by The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. In employment, they may be discriminated against in recruitment, promotions and layoffs, and through mandatory retirement. In public services, they may experience discrimination by health care services, special care homes, transit services, social assistance agencies and others. Older persons may also be denied housing, or reasonable accommodation of their housing needs.

Ageism is often caused by negative myths and stereotypes about the abilities of older people. These stereotypes must be addressed. Discriminatory attitudes are not only unfair. They also blind us to the benefits of age (experience, skill, tolerance and a sense of history, to name just a few), and to the real economic value of the contributions older residents can make. Age is – or should be – a good thing.

But in Saskatchewan, older people face another challenge, a legal one. The Human Rights Code makes age discrimination illegal. However, it defines “age” as being between 18 and 64 years of age. Consequently, persons who are under 18 or over 64 have no protection from age discrimination under the Code. They can file complaints of discrimination based on gender, ancestry, disability or other prohibited grounds, but not complaints of age discrimination.

One major result of this restricted definition is mandatory retirement: the definition makes it legal for employers to require employees to retire when they turn 65 years of age. This practice can have devastating effects on individuals, and is becoming questionable from a public policy perspective. People over 64 are living longer, healthier lives and can be viewed as a rich reservoir of skill and knowledge. At the same time, Saskatchewan has concerns about future labour shortages and the prospect of many key workers retiring over the next ten years. In that context, where is the wisdom of mandatory retirement? And while the shadow of mandatory retirement affects everyone turning 65, it can have especially negative consequences for certain groups. We may all hope for a life of comfort, dignity and independence in retirement, but our ability to achieve that dream could depend on whether we have been able to develop a good pension.

Some groups tend to enter the work force later than others, perhaps because they are immigrants to Saskatchewan. Others face obstacles to full employment and job success because of their gender, ancestry, or disability. Women, for example, may take time away from the workforce to raise children, or experience wage inequality while they are employed. With longer life expectancies than men, they may face a longer, poorer retirement. Some people simply can’t afford to retire at age 65.

This is a national issue, and the legal landscape appears to be changing. Saskatchewan is now among a minority of provinces that permit mandatory retirement based solely on age. Recent case law also suggests that restrictions on human rights protections against age discrimination – such as the Code’s definition of age – may be contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But regardless of what courts and tribunals may eventually decide, our provincial government can take a proactive stand against age discrimination and eliminate the restrictive definition of age now contained in the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. This step is unlikely to cause huge numbers of people to postpone retirement; in fact, most people will probably continue to retire by age 65 or even earlier. But individuals should have the choice of extending their workforce careers if they wish to do so. This could be a very good thing for older people, and for the province.

Donna Scott, Q.C.
Chief Commissioner
Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission