Transit accessibility: calling all stops
In July 2007, Lepofsky v. Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario found that the TTC’s failure to ensure announcements of all stops on buses and streetcars violated the human rights of persons with disabilities, particularly riders with visual impairments.
With this precedent in place, the Commission is working to expand call-outs across Ontario. The recent Tribunal decision shows that a policy of announcing stops only upon request is not enough – the only way to ensure an accessible system is to call out all stops.
In a letter to operators across Ontario, the Commission asked transit services to review their accessibility policies and practices and inform the Commission on the steps they were taking to make sure all transit stops were announced. The Commission is reporting publicly in May 2008, and will then consider its next steps. Its goal is to have the effect of the Tribunal’s decisions applied across Ontario, and make sure the duty to accommodate riders with disabilities is respected.
Safe schools for all
In April 2007, the Commission and the Ministry of Education signed a settlement to resolve a complaint about the Education Act. The Commission-initiated complaint alleged that the Act’s safe schools provisions had a disproportionate impact on racialized students and students with disabilities. In this comprehensive settlement, the Ministry agreed to take a variety of critical steps, including legislative changes to remove the “zero tolerance” focus, and changes to curriculum, staffing, training and data collection policies.
Over the past year, the Commission has worked with the Ministry to implement the agreement including:
- serving on a working group, giving a keynote address and leading a concurrent session at the Ministry’s symposium on safe and healthy schools in March 2008
- providing training and public education sessions on the settlement and what it means for schools and school boards
- providing input to the standing committee that reviewed changes to the Education Act, which was amended in June 2007.
The Ministry has made notable progress in meeting the terms of this settlement, and the Commission will continue to monitor and support the Ministry in taking the next steps towards safe and healthy schools.
Since the settlement in 2005 of its complaint initiated against the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), the Commission has continued to work with TDSB to adjust its safe schools policies and procedures to eliminate the potential for discrimination.
This work became even more critical in May 2007, when the TDSB had to cope with the shooting death of a student in one of its high schools.The TDSB created the School Community Safety Advisory Panel, led by lawyer Julian Falconer, to inquire into the death of Jordan Manners at C. W. Jefferys Secondary School.
Commission staff offered advice and assistance throughout the panel’s research and reporting stages. Examples of Commission involvement included providing a submission during the consultation process, and working with the panel to present “Breaking the Logjam: A Blueprint for Progress on School Safety” in November 2007. This one-day syposium offered an opportunity to take critical look at previous reports, recommendations and action plans not necessarily implemented over the last few years, and to consider what was needed to bring these to fruition.
In January 2008, the panel released a 1,000-page report that included dozens of recommendations to enhance equity, human rights and safety in Toronto schools. The Commission will continue to offer assistance to the TDSB on creating an equitable learning environment that is safe and effective for all students.
Fishing without fear: the Asian Canadian Angler Inquiry
In November 2007, the Commission launched an inquiry following media reports and community concerns about a number of incidents across south and central Ontario in which Asian Canadian anglers were physically or verbally assaulted while fishing.
The Inquiry, launched in partnership with the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic (MTCSALC), invited people who had either encountered or witnessed incidents while fishing to share their experiences by calling a telephone hotline or completing an on-line survey. The Commission received over 30 accounts from communities in the areas of Aurora and Richmond Hill, Ottawa, and Lake Huron. The majority of submissions came from three areas: Lake Simcoe, Peterborough, and the Rideau Locks, all popular areas for locals and tourists who enjoy water sports, including angling.
In a December 2007 preliminary report, the Commission highlighted the role of racism in these events, citing accounts of racial harassment, ranging from verbal assaults using racial slurs, to destruction of fishing equipment, to stone-throwing. Racialized anglers felt their physical and psychological safety and integrity threatened, and in some of the cases under police investigation, they were subjected to physical violence.
The report also outlined the profound impacts of the incidents on persons involved, their friends and families, and the Asian Canadian community as a whole. Anglers who contacted the inquiry expressed a sense of helplessness or fear of reprisal in reporting incidents to authorities.
A number of submissions raised concerns about conserving and protecting fish stocks. This is important in environmental terms, and is also vital to the livelihoods of many Ontarians. However, it was disturbing that many submissions raising conservation concerns showed the very kind of stereotyping and name-calling that the Commission is fighting against. The Commission was also concerned that Asian Canadian anglers were viewed as outsiders in relatively homogeneous communities and assumed to be breaking the law. In fact, there was no evidence of illegal fishing in any of the cases investigated by police.
In the first months of 2008, the Commission met with various organizations, including police services, municipal governments, provincial ministries, school boards, community organizations and fishing/sporting groups to create an action plan to address the root causes and prevent these kinds of incidents from happening in the future. A report outlining over 50 commitments is being released in May 2008.
Raising concern about Islamophobia in the media
In March 2008, the Commission had before it complaints filed against Maclean’s magazine related to an article entitled “The future belongs to Islam.” The complainants alleged that the content of the article and the refusal by Maclean’s to provide space for a rebuttal violated their human rights. The Commission found the matter not to be within its jurisdiction for dealing with a complaint.
At the same time, the Commission has a broader role to speak out on issues that may cause tension and conflict or discrimination against protected groups. The Commission strongly condemns any stereotyping of racialized communities, including Islamophobic portrayals of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians, as being contrary to the values enshrined in our human rights laws.
Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of our democracy, but it is just one of many rights included in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, such as freedom from discrimination. No single right is more important than another, and the enjoyment of one depends on the enjoyment of them all.
The human rights system exists in Canada, in part, to shine a light on prejudice and to foster debate and action. The Commission will continue to take an active part in encouraging dialogue and suggesting a way forward.