Wellness: Rights and obligations | Darryl Singer

By Darryl Singer

Law360 Canada (February 3, 2021, 2:19 PM EST) --
•	Darryl Singer
Darryl Singer
I, like most Ontarians, am tired. Tired of the stay-at-home order that’s more of a suggestion than an actual order. Tired of not being able to go the places I enjoy. Tired of not being able to take a long overdue vacation to somewhere warm. Tired of not seeing the sunshine for the last two months. Tired of my family (I love them but if we’re being honest, we all need a teensy break from one another right now). Tired of following the rules. And yet, the last 10 months have also allowed me to shelter in place with a harmonious family, continue to do the work I love with colleagues who motivate and challenge me, earn a living and reclaim all of that commuting time to actually be less stressed and spend more quality time with my family.  

I recognize my privilege. Many have no option but to work and put themselves at risk. Many have lost their jobs or their homes. Many are literally losing their sanity — the statistics say that mental health and addiction issues are skyrocketing. And this is why, even though I am tired, I will continue to stay the course until we get the virus under control. Because I have the luxury of working at home; because I am still healthy; because I am still able to earn. Thus, I have to make some small sacrifices. I can’t go where I want, when I want. I can’t see my friends. I can’t just float back and forth seeing my 2-month-old grandchild whose house is not part of my safe bubble. I can’t drive off to Niagara to see my parents, who are not in great health.

I am lucky to be of a generation that grew up here in comfort and peace and have never had to sacrifice anything for my country until now. This is nothing. Previous generations went to war. Previous generations went without. Currently, many marginalized communities to this day sacrifice daily, whether it is food, education or the basic right to go about their business unfettered by racism, sexism, poverty or all three. So, asking people in my position to stay home and to wear a mask when we do venture out is nothing.

As we go into the 11th month of this public health crisis, we are starting to see cracks in the system. Not amongst those who struggle, but rather amongst those who really haven’t lost anything. In the last couple of months particularly we have seen many people of privilege simply do as they wish without regard for their neighbours.

Perhaps spurred on by the pre-inauguration riots in the U.S., Canadians are now more vocal about their “rights.” The right to open their business, the right to shop, the right to pray in a congregational setting, the right to not wear a mask, the right to refuse the vaccine when it arrives. What is missing from these conversations are two things: (a) an understanding of what your civil or Charter rights actually are; and (b) a dialogue about obligations.

With respect to the first, the government requiring you to wear a mask or follow social distancing protocols is not akin to the Holocaust, slavery or totalitarianism (all of which I have heard in comparison from people who ought to know better).

A free and democratic society requires both rights and obligations. It cannot function with only one. Only rights without obligation equals anarchy. Only obligation without rights equals authoritarianism. In Western democracies, we try to find the right balance. The Charter spells it out. Lots of rights and freedoms, guaranteed to all. Over time, as a living breathing document, the Charter has been expanded by the courts to include widening definitions of rights or protected groups. As it should be. Yet, s. 1 of the Charter recognizes that sometimes the good of the whole must triumph over the rights of one or a few. Such situations are limited but a public health crisis of this nature would certainly be the sort of thing the drafters of Charter had in mind.

As for the latter of the two issues, obligations, so many of us have been blessed to live a life of freedom in a country of peace and democracy that we have turned into narcissists. We forget that the world does not revolve around us and that we are but one little cog in this Canadian machine of 37 million people. At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw startling examples of obligations, kindness, humanity. We saw people recognizing that family and health was more important than, well, anything, and that we could survive without going to the mall every week to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. But as time marches on, and more is asked of us, some of us simply can’t keep up the veneer of decency.

Let’s remember that we are all in this together and only by pulling together and doing the hard work for a little longer will we get back to a time of peace and prosperity. We are Canadians. We are known the world over for our humanity and sense of community. Let’s not let each other down.

Darryl Singer is head of commercial and civil litigation at Diamond & Diamond Lawyers LLP in Toronto, a practice group he has run for the last 10 months without leaving his house.

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