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Under suspicion: Issues raised by Indigenous peoples

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Racial profiling is an insidious and particularly damaging type of racial discrimination that relates to notions of safety and security. Racial profiling violates people’s rights under the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code). People from many different communities experience racial profiling. It is often directed at First Nations, Métis, Inuit and other Indigenous peoples, as well as people in racialized communities. It is often influenced by the distinctly negative stereotypes that people in these communities face.

What we did

In 2015, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) began a year-long consultation to learn more about the nature of racial profiling in Ontario. Our aim was to gather information that will help us guide organizations, individuals and communities on how to identify, address and prevent racial profiling.

To gather information, we connected with people and organizations representing diverse perspectives. We conducted an online survey, analyzed cases (called applications) at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) that alleged racial profiling, held a policy dialogue consultation, and engaged in other approaches. We also reviewed the academic research.

We specifically reached out to Indigenous individuals and groups representing Indigenous communities to understand their perspectives and experiences of racial profiling. Together with the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC), we organized focus groups, and the OFIFC also gave us a comprehensive written submission. Approximately 160 participants identified as First Nations, Métis or Inuit or of mixed Indigenous ancestry.

What we heard

We heard that Indigenous peoples across the province experience widespread racial discrimination and racial profiling. Alarmingly, the OFIFC says that in some communities, racial discrimination against Indigenous peoples is normalized.

It is simply normalized in some communities for Indigenous people to encounter racial profiling on a daily basis ranging from being denied service or provided inferior levels of service, to being unfairly targeted, harassed, and humiliated. In northwestern Ontario, community members describe being treated as “second class citizens” in their own communities (OFIFC submission; for more details see our report, Under suspicion: Research and consultation report on racial profiling in Ontario).

Indigenous peoples told us they experienced racial profiling in policing, child welfare, health care, education, retail and private businesses, government and social services and housing, among other areas. They described being followed, watched, singled out for scrutiny and/or treated as if they were a risk to others because of their ancestry or race.

Indigenous participants also described other forms of racial discrimination in these areas, such as inequitable treatment, harassment, hate activity and everyday racism. Many of these experiences could amount to 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, our report includes these important experiences and perceptions. Here are some highlights of what we heard

Perspectives on the OHRC’s definition of “racial profiling”

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.

The OFIFC and other Indigenous participants expressed concerns that this definition does not take into account the specific historical context of Indigenous peoples. For Indigenous peoples, racial profiling must be understood in the context of colonization. It is often experienced as part of the legacy of historic state practices that were intended to eliminate Indigenous cultures and disrupt communities through forced assimilation.

We heard that the narrowness of the definition does not reflect a holistic approach to the lives of Indigenous peoples, who may experience racism, discrimination and unfairness in multiple and interconnecting ways.

We heard that human rights policy work on racism and racial discrimination must appreciate how Indigenous peoples’ realities of racism relate to this distinct historical and political context. In our 2017-2022 strategic plan, the OHRC has committed to advancing human rights by engaging with and establishing trusting relationships with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities and groups.

Next step

The OHRC will collaborate with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities and groups to better understand Indigenous perspectives. We will work towards collaboratively developing resources and tools to address Indigenous peoples’ human rights.


We heard that racial profiling and racial discrimination in policing is a serious concern for many Indigenous peoples. In their submission, the OFIFC writes, “In many communities, Indigenous people suffer egregious treatment by law enforcement that takes the form of targeted questioning, harassment, and provocation, and can lead to police brutality, charges, and the act of ‘over-charging’ individuals.”

Several Indigenous survey respondents reported that when walking or driving, they were stopped by police without adequate explanation, questioned and asked for identification. Some respondents said that they believed they were followed or stopped because they were known to live in First Nations communities (because their licence plates showed that they lived on a First Nations reserve), or because they were incorrectly assumed to be intoxicated.

The reservation I live on is located next to a town of 9,000 people. The police often sit on the road between the town and our reserve waiting for people who may violate the rules of the road. What the police will say is that they are conducting normal traffic monitoring. Yet if you drive out toward the west of the town where there is a non-native community the police presence is nearly non-existent… For all I know maybe it is a good place to issue tickets but to me it looks bad and looks like racial profiling (First Nations male, age 55 and over).

We also heard concerns about under-policing. Some Indigenous respondents expressed their concerns that police did not adequately respond to them or their family members when they reported a crime or when they needed help from the police.

Courts and corrections

Several participants raised concerns about racial profiling and racism against Indigenous peoples that they believe exists in the criminal justice system. For example, a representative of Aboriginal Legal Services (ALS) said that in northern Ontario, Indigenous accused people are often placed hundreds of kilometres away from their communities without any social support, which makes it very hard to come up with a bail plan. As a result, many Indigenous persons languish in jails before appropriate accommodations or releases can be made. This is partly because only a few specialized court services in Ontario address Indigenous accused people within the larger history and culture of Indigenous peoples (Gladue courts).

Many people raised concerns about the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the Ontario and federal corrections systems. Jail data obtained by the Toronto Star shows that Indigenous peoples are overrepresented in youth facilities and adult jails in Ontario. And Indigenous peoples are disproportionately represented in admissions to adult correctional services across Canada.

At the federal level, the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) indicates that Indigenous men and women prisoners “lag significantly” behind non-Indigenous offenders on nearly every corrections indicator including being classified as higher risk, being less likely to be given parole, and being more likely to return to prison because parole is revoked, which is often for administrative, not criminal, reasons.

Retail sector

We heard that shopping, a common day-to-day experience, can be psychologically stressful because of racial discrimination and racial profiling. Indigenous participants described a range of experiences that they perceived to be discriminatory while visiting stores and shops, including being:

  • Watched or followed in retail spaces by store clerks
  • Followed and stopped by security guards in stores or shopping malls
  • Inappropriately questioned 
  • Talked to or asked questions in a rude, hostile or suspicious way.

Participants also described other forms of racial discrimination while shopping. Several First Nations participants described how they were treated negatively by store staff when they presented their status cards. They reported that some shop clerks refused to accept the cards, or made discriminatory comments. One Indigenous woman said she was told, “Why don’t you go back to your reserve if you want taxes off?”

Child welfare

We heard concerns about racial profiling in the child welfare sector, particularly as it affects Indigenous and Black families. We heard that systemic racism was perceived to be embedded in the child welfare system, and that racial profiling that may take place in this sector targets mothers for over-scrutiny most often.

There is evidence that Indigenous children are overrepresented in the child welfare system relative to their proportion in the general population. Statistics Canada data from 2011 shows that even though Aboriginal children make up only 3.4% of children in Ontario, they represent 25.5% of children in foster care. There are many different issues that lead to involvement by child welfare authorities, but biased referrals and biased decision-making among these services may play a role.

We heard concerns that Indigenous parents are disproportionately subjected to surveillance and scrutiny, which contributes to families being reported to children’s aid societies (CASs). These experiences were viewed as arising in part from referrers’ and child welfare authorities’ incorrect assumptions about risk based on race and related grounds, and the intersections between race and poverty.

Consultation participants raised concerns about bias in the tools and standards used to assess risk to children. For example, consultation participants said that standards around the number of children allowed per bedroom are too onerous for many Indigenous families living in poverty. We also heard that these standards can affect what is seen as acceptable in a home and contribute to CAS decisions to intervene. When risk assessment standards and tools are not based on objective factors, but on the cultural norms of the dominant group, they may contribute to racial profiling.

We also repeatedly heard concerns about biased decision-making. We heard that non-Indigenous child welfare workers often do not understand the nature or structure of Indigenous families and cultural differences in how families live. Participants said that child welfare workers, many of whom are White, may be more likely to construe family situations or the actions of racialized or Indigenous people as “risky.” For example, Indigenous youth told us that they are sometimes put into care because they miss a lot of school due to practicing their traditions and taking part in ceremonies.

A significant concern raised by many Indigenous participants is that new Indigenous mothers are unfairly targeted for child apprehensions, including apprehensions at birth. 

Health care

Compared to all survey respondents, greater proportions of Indigenous respondents said they were racially profiled in health care. We heard about situations where Indigenous peoples seeking health care were perceived as a risk to others based on race and race-related grounds. For example, a midwife identified how the hospital she works at routinely calls social workers or child welfare authorities when the women giving birth are young and Indigenous:

I work as a midwife, primarily with Aboriginal women, and have lost track of how many racist assumptions and mistreatments I've observed based on race. For example…calling social workers or child protection agencies because parents are young and native – massive profiling in the selection of who has that involvement. Then, once that involvement starts, Aboriginal women are much more likely to have their babies removed for much more dubious reasons (Mixed race – White and Aboriginal female, age 35-44).

We also heard other experiences of racial discrimination in health care. Many participants said that Indigenous peoples’ symptoms may not be treated seriously because they are assumed to be drunk or high, have a history of alcoholism or are “drug seeking.” We heard that this can result in different standards of care for Indigenous compared to non-Indigenous people.

Participants said that some health care professionals may treat Indigenous peoples in a discriminatory and rude way, which results in people being reluctant to seek health care when they need it. For example, we heard that an Indigenous woman from a northern Ontario community refused to stay in hospital after being referred to as a “narcotics seeker” in an emergency room. After she was finally coaxed to return, she was found to be suffering from severe kidney problems.

Government and social services

The OFIFC and others raised concerns that some natural resource and conservation officers racially profile Indigenous peoples who are exercising their harvesting rights. We heard that Indigenous peoples may be unfairly charged or prosecuted for conservation offences for fishing, hunting and trapping without a licence, and that some conservation officers may scrutinize people so often it is seen as a form of harassment. The OFIFC reports that these unfair practices lead to families, communities and Friendship Centres “suffering from a lack of access to traditional foods, learning cultural practices and sharing land-based knowledge and teachings.”


Many participants described how they, or Indigenous friends or relatives, believed they were denied housing because of discrimination.

I accompanied a young First Nations friend in her search for an apartment. The prospective landlord made a point of mentioning that there were mice, which reinforced my friend's already strong sense (radar) that this person did not like aboriginal people and that she was an unwelcome prospective tenant. She has since died on the street in 2006 (White female, age 55 and over).

We heard that Indigenous peoples may be negatively stereotyped as unreliable tenants. They may be incorrectly assumed to be involved in criminal activity or presumed to have drug or alcohol addictions. If housing providers make decisions – for example, to not rent an apartment to someone – on assumptions of Indigenous peoples being a risk, this may be racial profiling.

For more information

To find out more about racial profiling, the full Under suspicion report is available online at

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

©2017 Queen’s Printer for Ontario