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Patricia DeGuire, Chief Commissioner, Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Conference marks 60th anniversary of Ontario Human Rights Code

Thursday, June 30, 2022 @ 2:50 PM | By Terry Davidson

Ontario’s Human Rights Code has established the province as a “leader in human rights promotion and protection,” but more is needed to help the vulnerable, racialized and marginalized fight for equality, said speakers at an event marking the Code’s diamond anniversary.

On June 23, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), the Toronto Metropolitan University’s Human Rights Services and the Lincoln Alexander School of Law held a virtual conference marking the 60th anniversary of the Code, which was enacted in 1962.

The full-day event featured speakers and panels discussing its merits and shortcomings, as well as the state of challenges currently faced by those the Code is meant to protect.  

Early on in the event, OHRC chief commissioner Patricia DeGuire spoke of both progress and problems.

OHRC chief commissioner Patricia DeGuire

OHRC chief commissioner Patricia DeGuire

“The first legislation of its kind in Canada, the Code was designed to affirm and to uphold the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family by providing a legal mechanism to combat discrimination,” said DeGuire. “The Code was inspired by principles of individual liberty and minority rights established in Canada’s constitutional traditions, and by international civil rights movements that emerged after [the Second World War].”

With this, she said, Ontario “became the first jurisdiction in Canada to formally recognize the moral, social and economic consequences of discrimination by enacting the Code and establishing a human rights commission.”

“Over time, to reflect social changes, new grounds have been added to the Code. Its broadened scope established Ontario as a national and international leader in human rights promotion and protection.”

DeGuire said now is the time “to reflect and to look ahead to respond effectively to the needs of our communities.”

She also spoke of the OHRC having insufficient resources with which to carry out its mandate.

“Despite key strategic planning, best practices and astute stewardship, we are unable to respond to the demands of our communities,” she said. “The demands are growing exponentially, and the needs are critical. Standing in this current space, I ask myself … what are the pressing needs of the communities we serve?”

She said the COVID-19 pandemic gave greater exposure to issues faced by some.

“Today, we are at the intersection of the two 2020 catastrophes: the COVID-19 pandemic and the global racial pandemic. Both have laid bare the inequities that plague our marginalized communities today.”

Panellist Laverne Jacobs, a professor at the University of Windsor’s faculty of law, noted that people with disabilities continue to face barriers.

“There are a myriad of laws, policies and practices that are designed to be neutral in their application to persons with and without disabilities, but that don’t take into consideration the realities of life for a variety of disabled individuals. People with disabilities therefore face a multitude of barriers in everyday life and through all activities of life.”

Jacobs said many live below the poverty line and thus unable to afford a lawyer. And many, due to barriers to education, are unable to represent themselves. There is also a “disconnect” between the type of equality someone may be looking for and what the Code offers.

Jacobs said barriers also exist in the form of settled cases: Many that fall under the Human Rights Code are settled, and those settlements end up sealed from public view.

“So, as a result, their ideas about how to improve [things] for persons with disabilities are not widely shared.”

Co-panellist Moya Teklu, executive director and general counsel for the Toronto-based Black Action Legal Centre, spoke of racism and inequality continuing to be felt.

“Black people are more likely to live below the poverty line. Black children continue to be overrepresented in the child welfare system — [and] once they are there, they experience more negative outcomes and less access to service than their white counterparts. Black students are more likely to be streamed, more likely to be suspended, more likely to be expelled. Black women earn less than white women and Black men earn less than white men.”

Donna Young, law dean at Toronto Metropolitan University

Donna Young, law dean at Toronto Metropolitan University

Gary Yee, vice-president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice, and OHRC commissioner Brian Eyolfson, spoke of similar themes when it comes to stereotypes and inequalities faced by Asians and Indigenous people.  

Keynote speaker Donna Young, dean of the Lincoln Alexander School of Law at Toronto Metropolitan University, drove the point home, saying that while it is need to celebrate the Code’s anniversary, it is also “important to understand that the work of the Code is far from complete.”

Young, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and Belize, says she, herself, has felt the string of racism — both as a woman and as a person of colour. This, she said, helped shape her perspective of law.   

“The Ontario Human Rights Code was designed to address discrimination towards people like me. And thought I appreciate this fact I also encourage us to be critical of it and to make sure it is doing what it set out to do.”

Young said “instances of this discrimination continue,” as well as systemic barriers and the misunderstanding of the laws and “theories designed to address these inequities.”

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