RMCLA is often asked, “What are the differences between human rights and civil liberties, and how far can my liberties be restricted?” One way to think of fundamental human rights are that these are the rights protected by law and stated in the constitution, whereas, the liberties you have are related to the choices and actions you can make concerning each of these rights.
Fundamental freedoms are typically noted as the following:
- “ freedom of conscience and religion;
- freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
- freedom of peaceful assembly; and
- freedom of association.”
Of course, we have more constitutional rights, but we most often refer to our liberty or choice to make decisions within these fundamental rights. For example, we have the option to join one protest (and use our freedom of peaceful assembly) over another protest, or not join any protest. We also have the choice to follow one religion rather than another, have one belief preference over another, or say some words and not others. We can also decide not to follow any religion or not to make any choices regarding freedom of conscience and religion, not have a particularly defined belief, or not to express oneself on any specific topic. These are some examples of our liberties, of course there are many more.
There are plenty of examples in society where our liberties are restricted. In any society, citizens must follow a specific set of laws and not break these laws; these restrict our liberties and typically for good reasons that are justified under the constitution. We see this in other walks of life as well. When you decide to follow a certain religion, there may be pressure to follow a set of behaviours over other behaviours. When you join a company as an employee there may be a code of behaviour that states certain behaviours can and cannot be followed. In all these cases, when liberties are restricted it may or may not be justified under the constitution. It can be especially problematic when government directly or indirectly through laws, contracts, or their boards, authorities, or other bodies, restrict our rights.
Restricting Liberties through Covenants
It is the set of restrictions related to organizations that are of recent concern to RMCLA. When employers or organizations request that a person can only be an employee, or part of the association of people that make up the organization, and ask the person to sign a contract that restricts behaviours as a condition of this association, then the agreement is called a covenant. Signing employee contracts and agreeing to such codes of conduct are commonplace. The question regarding whether covenants are problematic arises when the contract or covenant restricts an employee’s fundamental freedoms as noted by the constitution, or when the covenant obliges the employee to restrict the rights of others. These may be customers, clients, patients, or other people that may served or supervised.
How far can covenants go? How obliged are employees to follow the covenants? What are the rights that people may loose if they join with, or seek services from, an organization with specific covenants? The questions concerning covenants are endless.
In many cases, organizations are arms of the government (such as schools, health authorities, and so on) and restrictions of our liberties can occur through these types of organizations, and although may not be directly limited by legislation are in fact sanctioned by governments. Covenants can produce unique problems in education of children, university or college education, and in health. In this case, we will focus on health covenants.
Covenants concerning Health Care
Health covenants can have implications for the types of service offered to and received by the public. For example, some covenants state that the health professionals cannot provide physician-assisted dying, even though Canadian law allows a person to choose assisted dying under strict circumstances. Abortions, the morning after pill, voluntary sterilization, and birth control may not be offered through some organizations due to these covenants. The right of some LGBT people to join with their sick partners and assist in making health decisions may be restricted or blocked. This list goes on and on.
Many of the above scenarios appear to be true in Alberta for those receiving services from ‘Covenant Health,’ a Catholic health organization. Covenant Health believes that it has a,
…“thousands-of-years-old calling to serve others… through protecting the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.” This includes guiding the policies adopted by Covenant on, among other things, birth control, pregnancy termination and end-of-life care.”
A key phrase here is “sanctity of life from conception to natural death.” Covenant Health is one of the largest health organizations in the province; in 2015 its budget was $895-million. The funds directed toward Covenant Health are entirely at the discretion of the government. This is about 5 per cent of the provincial health budget. The organization is dependent on public funding, with 88 per cent of its revenue in 2015 coming from the Alberta government. Some Alberta communities only have Covenant Health serving it so that people there have no other options in the community.
A fundamental question arises as to what degree Covenant Health can restrict its services and make decisions for patients and communities they serve, when it is contracted to provide the full range of public health services by the Alberta government.
We invite you to come to a discussion about Alberta’s covenants in health care on January 13th, 2017 at the University of Calgary’s law school.
In the meantime, we encourage you to read various articles about covenants in health and other services. These include: