The latest from Ontario...
Celebrating 50 years of human rights
Fifty years ago, the newly-created Ontario Human Rights Commission knew what it was up against. Discrimination was as blatant as the signs that advised "No Jews or Blacks need apply." But it was clear to the government of the day that dealing with discrimination needed more than just laws. The Commission's first Director, Daniel G. Hill, said the objective was "to challenge popular myths and stereotypes about people" and described human rights legislation as "the skilful blending of educational and legal techniques in the pursuit of social justice."
Over the years, our collective sense of what are myths and what is reality has grown sharper and more focused. The '70s saw a better understanding of gender discrimination, and ensuring the right to be free from sexual harassment.
In 1981, the revised Human Rights Code included the grounds of marital and family status and disability. Five years later, sexual orientation was added.
We talk about adding "grounds" to the Code, but, in fact, we have added people. Ontarians have come to recognize that it is fundamentally wrong to treat individuals and groups differently because they seem "different" from a traditional view of what people in Ontario look like, or act or pray or play.
Fifty years on, direct discrimination is less obvious, but subtle barriers to progress and success continue to hold back many of Ontario's most vulnerable people. Those "popular myths" are often built into the structures of the places we work or live – systemic discrimination.
In response to those changing circumstances, the Government of Ontario revamped the human rights system in Ontario three years ago. Now, the OHRC has the mandate to concentrate on educating, empowering and acting to make sure everyone is included and has the opportunity to succeed. We are also, as you will see in the updates that follow, developing new tools to help workers and their employers, service providers and other institutions to look at their structures through a human rights lens and remove the barriers to equity.
Along the way, perhaps inevitably, there have been concerns about the way our society has changed. For some, change has been uncomfortable, or even threatening. But with each new ground in the Code, each acknowledgement that discrimination exists, each new group of people protected, there has come a growing acceptance that inclusion works for us all.
In the words of Daniel G. Hill, human rights work presents us with "a tough challenge, but a magnificent opportunity." Fifty years later, the challenge is no less tough and the opportunities continue to be magnificent.
Considering the Code ground of "creed"
The time has come to update our (1996) Policy on creed and the accommodation of religious observances. The first of many consultations planned for this project was held in January 2012 in partnership with the University of Toronto’s Religion in the Public Sphere Initiative and Faculty of Law.
Topics discussed included:
- Human rights and protecting creed rights in a secular society
- Creed and freedom of religion: contending terminologies, definitions and interpretations
- Inclusive design and accommodating creed
- Intersection of creed and other grounds of the Ontario Human Rights Code
Working towards systemic change in housing
Since the release of our Policy on Human Rights and Rental Housing in 2009, we have taken a range of other steps to connect human rights and housing. One systemic goal has been to make sure that zoning and other municipal bylaws do not create barriers and discrimination in housing for vulnerable people who identify under a ground of the Ontario Human Rights Code (the Code), even unintentionally.
Many municipalities try to use minimum separation distances as a way to manage “overconcentration” of some types of housing within a neighbourhood. Minimum separation distances limit housing options such as group homes and supportive housing, and can have a negative impact on the people who rely on these options.
We are intervening in applications to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario that involve complaints about minimum separation distances and other zoning issues in the cities of Toronto, Smiths Falls and Kitchener. Each of these cases involves concerns that municipal bylaws create housing barriers for people with mental health issues.We’re asking municipalities to look at the broader issues and consider incentives and ways to encourage and facilitate affordable housing in the other parts of the municipality. To support these efforts, we have published a new guide titled In the Zone: Housing, human rights and municipal planning which was released in Kingston on February 17th. The guide is available on the OHRC website, and you can order printed copies (both English and French versions are available) by emailing us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Listening and learning about mental health
In the winter and spring of 2011, we held a wide-reaching consultation on human rights and mental health and addictions. This included eight town hall meetings in four cities across Ontario, in-depth interviews, nine focus groups and a public survey.
We received more than 1,450 written and verbal submissions from people with mental health issues, people with addictions, advocates, families and organizations, making this the biggest-ever response to an OHRC consultation. We are now analyzing this wealth of information, and will release a consultation report later this year. The knowledge we have gained from this process will help define our future work on mental health and addiction as we develop a formal policy.
For more information on our mental health-related work, see Top of Mind – an update on human rights and mental health.
Reconciling competing rights
Over the last few years we have been taking steps to advance understanding of how best to address competing rights.
- In 2005, we began the dialogue by releasing a research paper, Balancing Conflicting Rights: Towards an Analytical Framework
- In 2007-08, we conducted an extensive literature and case law review as well as one-on-one interviews with various stakeholders
- In March 2010, we partnered with York University’s Centre for Public Policy and the Law to hold a policy dialogue on competing human rights. The Association of Canadian Studies and the University of British Columbia Press both published research papers from the Policy Dialogue
- In December 2010, the OHRC tested its process for addressing competing rights at a two-day workshop with representatives from Ontario’s education sector and others
- We are intervening in relevant cases proposing our process to help the courts examine competing rights questions; for example:
- N.S. v. M---D. S. & M---L. S. considering whether allowing a woman to wear a “niqab” veil as religious accommodation while testifying against the men alleged to have sexually assaulted her interferes with their Charter right to full answer and defence
- Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission v. Whatcott considering whether freedom of expression and religion include the right to distribute pamphlets alleged to contain hate speech targeting gays and lesbians.
We are continuing our dialogue with various groups and receiving positive feedback on our process proposal from all sides. The process will be the basis for a new OHRC policy anticipated for release in the next few months. The policy will help various sectors, organizations and individuals deal with everyday situations of competing rights and avoid litigation. The policy can also serve as a resource for the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and higher courts for addressing these cases.
For more information including a review of relevant case law, visit www.ohrc.on.ca
Supporting police in building human rights into all their work
In June 2011, we released a new guide called Human rights and policing: Creating and sustaining organizational change. The guide defines and explains some of the key human rights terms and principles, and includes several best practices to help police better serve the needs of Ontario’s increasingly diverse communities through inclusive police services and addressing human rights issues before they happen. It also offers advice on how to incorporate a human rights lens in every part of a police service, including internal staffing and training.
The guide was inspired by the OHRC’s project charter work with the Toronto Police Service, the Toronto Police Services Board, Ontario Police College and most recently, the Windsor Police Service. Since the release of the guide, we have partnered with the Ontario Police College, the Toronto Police College and the Windsor Police Service to deliver human rights-based training.
Bringing web-based learning to life
One of the OHRC’s key roles is to educate people across Ontario about their rights and responsibilities under the Code. The challenge is to use limited resources to meet unlimited requests for education and information. The Internet is a big part of meeting this challenge, and is helping us reach a greater audience than ever before.
In June 2010, we launched our first e-learning module, Human Rights 101. Developed with assistance from the New Media Studies Program at the University of Toronto Scarborough and input from community stakeholders, Human Rights 101 users will be able to learn about human rights information over the Internet. Designed to be accessible to a wide range of users, employers, workers or newcomers to Canada can now get information on human rights history, principles, legislation and policies at the click of a button any time of the day.
The e-learning module provides background to modern human rights, the Ontario Human Rights Code, Ontario’s human rights system and the OHRC’s policies and guidelines. After working through the various sections, users can also take a quiz at the end to see how much they have learned.
Human Rights 101 is currently being translated into 13 languages!
Growing our human rights community online
We first landed on the social media scene in 2010 with the launch of our Twitter feed and Facebook fan page. Since then, we have steadily made valuable ties with communities through individuals, organizations and professionals who share our passion for human rights and social justice.
Tracking and taking part in online conversations allows us to better respond to issues and developments as they happen. Social media communication also means our news and updates are delivered in real-time – which means stakeholders, employers, landlords, service providers, human resource professionals and lawyers know more about our activities and can connect with new resources and support materials as soon as they’re published.