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Under suspicion: Frequently asked questions

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What is racial profiling?

Racial profiling is a specific type of racial discrimination that pertains to safety and security. The OHRC currently defines racial profiling as:

[A]ny action undertaken for reasons of safety, security or public protection that relies on stereotypes about race, colour, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, or place of origin rather than on reasonable suspicion, to single out an individual for greater scrutiny or different treatment.

Racial profiling can happen in various sectors in society including police, child welfare, retail, national security and corrections institutions. Although we use the term “racial profiling,” we recognize that it can also intersect with creed profiling. Muslims and people of other faiths may experience both. Creed profiling may happen when people are subjected to heightened security, scrutiny and surveillance because of their outward appearance or perceived belonging to a certain creed, based on stereotypes about people of that creed, or because of their associations with particular ethnic and racial groups.

Why is the OHRC focusing on this issue?

People in racialized and First Nations, Metis and Inuit (Indigenous) communities have had longstanding concerns about racial profiling.

Racial profiling is a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code). The Code makes it illegal to discriminate based on race, ancestry, colour, creed, citizenship, ethnic origin and place of origin, in five social areas, including housing, services and employment. Despite this legal protection, racial profiling continues to be a serious and persistent human rights issue in Ontario.

Racial profiling is often not viewed as a serious human rights issue in the way that other forms of racial discrimination are. Many institutions, police leaders and people in the general public have denied the existence of racial profiling, or have viewed it as warranted.

Combatting racial discrimination, including racial profiling, has been a core part of the ongoing work of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). In 2003, we released the results of a year-long public interest inquiry into the personal and social impacts of racial profiling. Through detailed first-person narratives, our report, Paying the price: The human cost of racial profiling, showed the severe and widespread impacts of profiling on racialized and Indigenous individuals and communities. 

Since then, we have helped to advance the law before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) and the courts, initiated partnerships with law enforcement institutions in an effort to affect large-scale organizational change, conducted training and public education, launched public interest inquiries, made submissions to government, and worked with community and advocacy groups.

In our 2017-2022 strategic plan, we committed to being a leadership voice on human rights issues and making sure that people’s lived experiences are at the centre of our work. We will use our enforcement powers under the Code to work towards non-discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system, including ending racial profiling in policing.

As part of this ongoing work, we decided to provide more detailed policy guidance on racial profiling. The aim is to give specific information to organizations, individuals and communities on how to identify, address and prevent racial profiling. To do this, we reviewed the case law and completed a year-long consultation. This report, Under suspicion, presents what we heard from that consultation. 

What did the OHRC’s research and consultation involve?

To gather information for the consultation, we connected with people and organizations representing diverse perspectives, including affected people from Indigenous, racialized and Muslim communities, legal and academic researchers, educators, human rights practitioners and police, among others. We conducted an online survey, analyzed HRTO applications that alleged racial profiling, held a policy dialogue consultation, conducted research, had focus groups with Indigenous peoples and received written submissions. Almost 1,650 individuals and organizations told us about their experiences or understanding of racial profiling in Ontario.

What are the impacts of racial profiling?

Many consultation participants talked about the ongoing and long-term effects of dealing with racial profiling and racial discrimination. They reported significant emotional impacts, including embarrassment, disappointment, anger, helplessness and diminished self-esteem and self-worth. They also commonly reported fear of the institution involved, and feelings of mistrust and vulnerability.

Survey respondents also talked about how their achievements and contribution to their communities were eliminated, as their uniqueness as individuals was reduced to base stereotypes about guilt and criminality because of how they look. Some people said that racial profiling and racial discrimination had happened to them so often they were desensitized to it. Many described a sense of defeatism or hopelessness and some resigned themselves to the constant expectation that they would be treated unfairly.

Consultation participants spoke of severe negative mental health impacts such as stress, insomnia, depression, PTSD and even suicidal thoughts. They spoke of anxiety when interacting with institutions where they might be racially profiled, such as border crossings, stores and airports. Some people talked about how the prevalence of dealing with such discrimination or countering others’ negative perceptions of them had become an exhausting part of their daily lives.

Many people talked about other severe personal consequences of racial profiling – Indigenous and racialized parents having their children apprehended by child welfare authorities, people being arrested, searched or assaulted, and having to pay legal costs to defend against charges resulting from racial profiling. Some survey respondents talked about the ongoing impact of racial profiling, such as having a police record because they were stopped or carded. We were told this information could be accessed and used during later stops, and could affect people’s future employment.

Is there any difference between racial profiling and racial discrimination?

Racial profiling is an insidious and particularly damaging type of racial discrimination that relates to notions of safety and security. It often, but not always, relies on stereotyping based on preconceived notions about the character of a person or group.

Other forms of racial discrimination and racism, such as inequitable treatment, harassment, systemic discrimination, everyday racism and hate activity, are persistent in the lives of racialized and Indigenous peoples, in addition to racial profiling. Many consultation participants gave multiple examples of these. Many of these experiences could constitute violations of people’s rights under the Code, but they may not be what the OHRC would typically define as “racial profiling” because they do not take place in the context of safety and security. However, these experiences can create the conditions that give rise to incidents of racial profiling and often happen alongside it.

Doesn’t racial profiling only happen in policing?

No. Although racial profiling in policing continues to be a major issue, racial profiling occurs in many other sectors beyond policing. For example, many participants told us they regularly experienced racial profiling in retail and private businesses. People reported being racially profiled by various systems, organizations and institutions – education, retail, child welfare, transportation, private security, national security and other areas. Consultation participants commonly named experiences of racial profiling and racial discrimination in more than one sector.

Isn’t singling someone out based on their race, ancestry or creed acceptable if it leads to reducing crime?

No. If law enforcement authorities act because of perceived threats to safety and security that are based on stereotypes about race, then it is racial profiling. Although some people and institutions see racial profiling as a normal, even valuable tool for gathering information, assessing risk and ensuring safety, it is a form of discrimination that violates the Code.

Racial profiling is also a bad law enforcement strategy. By intentionally or unintentionally focusing attention on a racial group rather than using more specific criminal profiles, racial profiling draws attention to many innocent people who often find the undue scrutiny alienating and threatening. This can result in mistrust
of law enforcement. As well, disproportionate scrutiny of a group based on race contributes to unduly criminalizing some racialized groups, because generally speaking enhanced scrutiny of any group will uncover more illegal activities of some type.

Isn’t it only racist individuals who racially profile?

Racial profiling is not just about individual actions based on a person’s conscious or unconscious bias. In fact, racial profiling can be more subtle. It can become part of the “normal” way an organization operates. We heard how many individual incidents of racial profiling may arise because of policies, procedures, decision-making practices or culture embedded throughout the organization or sector. Collectively, we must focus more attention on racial profiling as institutional or systemic.

What are the responsibilities of organizations to prevent and address racial profiling?

Major challenges to addressing and preventing racial profiling include lack of understanding about racial profiling, acknowledging the existence of racial profiling, overcoming the mistaken belief that it works or that its extent has been exaggerated and lack of committed leadership to address the issue.

A comprehensive strategy that speaks to both individual and systemic elements of racial profiling is required to overcome these challenges. The OHRC has proposed several strategies for doing this, including:

  • Anti-bias training
  • Developing policies, procedures and guidelines
  • Effective accountability monitoring and accountability mechanisms, including:
    • complaint procedures
    • disciplinary measures
    • data collection, analysis and reporting
  • Holistic organizational change strategy
  • Leadership
  • Communication (external and internal)
  • Engagement with affected stakeholders.

The OHRC has used these elements in its human rights organizational change projects. We have also called for the collection of race-based data (and data based on other Code grounds) in sectors such as policing, corrections, education and child welfare. In these sectors in other jurisdictions, it is common for race-based data collection to take place as a way to measure disparities. However, race-based data is collected inconsistently in Ontario.

Is there anything that can be done if I or someone I know feels that they have been racially profiled?

Anyone who believes they have experienced racial profiling or racial discrimination in areas such as employment, housing and services can:

  • Access the business or government service’s internal complaint
    mechanism or oversight body, if available. For example, complaints
    about police services across Ontario are handled by the Office of
    the Independent Police Review Director
  • Get free legal advice from the Human Rights Legal Support Centre (HRLSC)
  • File a human rights complaint (called an application) with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO), within one year of the last event of discrimination.

For more information

To learn more about racial profiling, the Under Suspicion report is available online
at Also available on the website is Paying the price: The human cost of racial profiling (2003), along with our Policy and guidelines on racism and racial discrimination (2005). 

To file a human rights claim (called an application) contact the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario at:

Toll Free: 1-866-598-0322
TTY Toll Free: 1-866-607-1240

If you need legal help, contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre at:
Toll Free: 1-866-625-5179
TTY Toll Free: 1-866-612-8627