December 26, 2015
Speaking notes: Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane
(Check against delivery)
As salaam un alaikum
May peace be upon you.
It is an honour to be here tonight to talk about how human rights commissions can help address racism and Islamophobia where you live, work, study, and access services.
At the Ontario Human Rights Commission – or the OHRC – we have seen an increase in anti-Muslim discrimination and hate crimes in response to the tragic Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shooting.
Right here in Ontario, a mosque was burned, and several women have been harassed or assaulted because they wear hijab.
Indeed, Muslim women often bear the brunt of this discrimination because of their relative visibility – a toxic form of discrimination based on both religion and sex.
While it is heartening to see Canadians open their doors and hearts to 25,000 Syrian refugees – this welcome is hard to reconcile with lingering stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists and security threats.
Our challenge is to build a society where race and religion are respected and welcomed, rather than mistrusted and excluded.
And human rights commissions can play an important role.
We use our mandate to advance understanding – and compliance – with human rights laws, which protect against discrimination based on religion, race, citizenship, sex, and gender.
The right to be treated equally based on creed, and to freely hold and practice religious beliefs of one's choosing, is a fundamental human right in Ontario and most other jurisdictions in North America.
It is against the law to treat someone unfairly, harass them, or subject them to extra scrutiny because of their religion.
It is also against the law to deny you a job opportunity because of your Muslim faith, or refuse to serve you, or rent you an apartment.
The law also says that employers, housing and service providers have a duty to accommodate people based on their religious beliefs.
We have just launched a new policy on creed that can help people understand how accommodation works in practice.
It addresses creed accommodations, relating to prayer and religious rituals, dress codes, and dietary requirements.
But, of course, human rights laws are just one part of the solution.
It takes the whole community to build the kind of society we want to see – and you are part of this community.
Action can only happen if we know there is a problem – so we need you to be our eyes and ears on the ground.
And we need you to know your rights and responsibilities under human rights law, like Ontario’s Human Rights Code.
Our website, www.ohrc.on.ca, has all kinds of information about human rights.
And I invite you to follow me on Twitter, at @RenuMandhane. In fact,
I tweeted a greeting just before speaking to you tonight.
We are happy to see that community groups are already speaking out when they see acts of racism or Islamophobia.
By adding the voice of the OHRC to this mix, we can amplify the message and move the discussion away from being a “Muslim issue” towards being one that concerns society as a whole.
To that end, we are in the preliminary stages of an exciting new partnership with OCASI, the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, NCCM – the National Council of Canadian Muslims – and the Canadian Arab Institute.
These groups are already working on campaigns and education programs to make sure that our welcome of Syrian refugees includes reminders to landlords, employers and service providers of their obligation to not discriminate because of religion.
Check out NCCM’s “Stronger Together” campaign, where you can add your voice and speak out about racism and Islamophobia.
Also, check out OCASI’s new website, WelcomeOntario.ca., which offers resources for Syrian refugees and the people who work with them.
Our partnership with OCASI, NCCM and the Canadian Arab Institute is one of many steps we are taking to listen to your issues and concerns, and to act on them.
I encourage you to check out my blog on HuffingtonPost.ca, where I address rising Islamophobia and the importance of vigilantly protecting religious freedoms.
We’re here. We’re listening. And we can be your partners to say there is no place for racism or Islamophobia in Ontario, in Canada, or anywhere in the world.