One of the privileges of being Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (the OHRC) is the opportunity to be out in communities across our province, speaking with people and learning about their experiences with human rights.
Fifty years after Ontario’s Human Rights Code (the Code) was enacted there are people who believe that human rights violations are a thing of the past. But everyday I am reminded that is simply not the case. Discrimination, and the barriers created by that discrimination, continue to exact a terrible toll on the lives of many Ontarians – especially the most vulnerable.
That is certainly the experience of a young man stopped by the police for “driving while Black.” And of a woman who was fired because she was pregnant. And of the man who could not serve on a jury because his kirpan – a small ceremonial dagger that is a symbol of his faith – was not allowed in the courtroom. And of the teenaged girls with mental health issues who can’t get a safe place to live because of arbitrary zoning bylaws.
This report sets out many of the ways the OHRC is working to eliminate these barriers. To meet our mandate of creating systemic change to protect and improve human rights, we aim to set standards, show the way forward and to monitor the results.
Those standards are rooted in the Code and clarified in our policies and through strategic legal work. Public education and communications try to get the word out on how to make lasting and effective change. Long term partnerships help us see what works, and what needs improvement in the way we approach some of the complex problems of discrimination.
Our work often starts with conversations – to eliminate barriers we need to understand them. The biggest public consultation in our history led, this past year, to Minds that matter, our consultation report on human rights, mental health and addictions. What we heard will inform our forthcoming policy on mental health and bolster our continuing involvement in mental health-based human rights cases. We have lately expanded our work to look at methadone clinics and discrimination against people with addictions.
Our Policy on competing human rights is changing the way organizations deal with some rights-based issues – and we saw this tool for resolving conflicts reflected in two important decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada. Many Ontarians experience conflicting rights every day – in schools, workplaces, in services and in the neighbourhoods where they live. How those conflicts are addressed can lead to greater tensions or to greater awareness and understanding. We’ve been told that our framework can help resolve some of the thornier problems.
We know that changing organizations to embrace human rights approaches can be tough – but that successful efforts have a lasting impact. We’re working to help police services to understand how and why they must eliminate racial profiling, educate their staff about human rights in policing, and to earn respect in the communities they serve. We promote human rights-based data collection as a good way to identify issues in policing, and have taken that position in several cases in the courts and tribunals.
Human rights in housing continued to be a focus, as we wrapped up public interest inquiries into rental housing licensing, worked with municipalities on zoning issues and took legal action both at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and the Ontario Municipal Board.
We reviewed and reported on government policies affecting housing and land use planning, accessible voting options, and proposed changes to the Building Code.
To further our education efforts, last year we expanded our reach in social media, produced video vignettes featuring some of Ontario’s human rights pioneers, and worked with the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario to produce Working Together. This video connects the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the Human Rights Code, and is now required viewing for all Ontario Public Service employees. It can be a helpful tool for every Ontario employer.
2012 also marked the release of the Report of the Ontario Human Rights Review by Andrew Pinto. That review confirmed many of our own findings and restated the need for the OHRC, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) and the Human Rights Legal Support Centre to better coordinate human rights works across the province. The report coincided with our latest strategic planning and has helped to inform that process. One clear message has been the need to better clarify what each partner in the human rights system does so that people who need the system find the best route to advice and solutions.
The Pinto report also emphasized the needs of employers. We know that most human rights complaints come from the workplace. When employees understand their rights and employers know their responsibilities, the parties can work together to resolve issues. As we create new policies and revise old ones we are working to improve the guidance we give to employers so that they not only understand the standards they are expected to meet but also have best practice examples and useful guidelines to draw on. We continue to seek ways to connect with employers, especially small and mid-size companies. We will expand our ongoing partnership with the Human Resources Professionals Association and other groups that help us connect with employers across Ontario.
The Human Rights Review also drew attention to what we have known – and struggled with – for many years: the plight of First Nations and Aboriginal Peoples in Ontario. This issue, along with racism, is one of the most complex, enduring and sadly corrosive forms of discrimination in Ontario. We are drawing on the spirit of the tremendous work done by our colleagues and friends at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help guide us. We know that we must work harder to build relationships and create real trust for our work in First Nations communities. We have found that every time we concentrate on a particular aspect of discrimination – for example, in the past year on mental health, housing, creed, and education – we find evidence of how First Nations and Aboriginal Peoples are directly affected. First Nations and Aboriginal issues are a priority for the OHRC.
Although we have not made all the progress that is needed, I am very proud of our accomplishments in 2012-2013. They reflect the vision, support and plain good work of Commissioners and staff. Individually, we share a commitment to human rights. Together, we are taking action that can have a positive effect on the lives of everyone in Ontario.
We also know that none of this would be possible without our many partners. When we needed to survey specific groups of people, they sent surveys to their networks and arranged for us to meet with their clients. When we wanted to speak with people in closed locations like psychiatric facilities, they unlocked these opportunities. When we needed guidance on areas like creed, gender identity or zoning, our partners shared their expertise. When we wanted to take training on mental health and competing human rights on the road, our partners opened their doors to us.
That is why this year’s report is called “Rights, partners, action.” No matter what our policies say or our legal work accomplishes or who our education efforts reach, we depend on our partners to make change – to find the barriers, eliminate them and build human rights into their work. I am very grateful to each of you who has supported us in the past year and I look forward to our continuing work together in the future.
Capturing past, present and future: Living Rights Project update
Over the past year, we have added dozens of submissions to the Living Rights Project. This “virtual living library” includes written submissions, poems, many videos and even a painting, depicting different perspectives on human rights in Ontario.
As part of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Ontario’s Human Rights Code, we invited human rights leaders to be interviewed on video. We’re still editing them and gradually adding them to the library, but there are already many powerful stories available online. For example, you can hear the Hon. Jean Augustine talk about the harsh realities of being a Black woman in Toronto before the Code. You can listen to human rights legend Alan Borovoy talk about the unusual tactics he used to shame people into respecting human rights in the early days of the OHRC. And Cheri DiNovo talks about her work to bring in Toby’s Law, which in 2012 added gender identity and gender expression to the Human Rights Code.
The Living Rights Project also steps beyond the past and includes many stories of today’s human rights issues, and even has a section where human rights leaders offer advice to the next generation.
The quotations included throughout this report are just a few examples of the stories that await on www.ohrc.on.ca.