A message from the Chief Commissioner
This past year we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As we did, I thought about how recent the concept of human rights really is, and how, over 60 years, it has changed to include more and more people in our communities. People with disabilities, members of the LGBT communities, newcomers from across the globe – are just some of the people who have worked hard to see themselves reflected accurately and equitably in our society. That work has resulted in great advances; much has been achieved in just 60 years.
The question of “what are human rights” continues to be debated. This year, more voices called for social and economic status and gender identity to be treated as essential human rights. Some of those debates are ongoing and, made more concrete by the current economic slowdown, will grow louder. New concerns will be raised and will need to be carefully considered. Human rights, it is clear, are not static – they change as our society changes and the members of our communities change.
Sadly, some long identified issues have been very slow to change. The discrimination faced by Aboriginal and Black people is persistent and hugely damaging. Working with these communities is a key priority for the OHRC.
The Ontario human rights system has had its own internal changes to deal with, too. The structure of the system has been revised and improved to meet the new challenges and needs of the people of Ontario. At the OHRC, we no longer have responsibility for individual complaints, since December 30, 2008, but we continue to have a role in many cases before the Human Rights Tribunal and other venues.
The changes to the system have resulted in a greatly reduced workforce at the Commission and required many tough decisions. But thanks to the professionalism of all involved we are moving forward with our new mandate and making a positive difference in the lives of people in our province. That mandate sees us proactively addressing systemic discrimination. We are working with organizations and communities to find and implement solutions to problems that, left unaddressed, are harmful to individuals and communities.
We had first-hand experience of such problems as we worked to deal with attacks on Asian Canadian anglers. While there were specific roles for police and provincial Natural Resources staff, the question of how to change attitudes contributing to hate, racism and resulting discrimination was the challenge. In the end, we learned that while no one may have direct responsibility, everyone has a real role to play: school boards, police, municipalities, community groups and more came together to find long-term solutions and to help build the infrastructure to prevent future problems. In the same way, we continue to work with the Ministry of Education, various police services, private-sector employers and other organizations to identify problems and implement solutions.
The faltering global economy has created new human rights concerns for Ontarians. We have made submissions to the Government of Ontario to include a human rights perspective in their work to deal with poverty reduction, youth violence and economic recovery. We have heard from many women who have been laid off or fired because they were pregnant. It is an all too familiar picture: in hard economic times, vulnerable people often bear the brunt, even though the law is clear that should not happen. We will continue to work with a wide range of communities whose members are suffering as a result of the recession. We are responding, in part by clarifying and developing our policies on housing, and on the intersection (or often “collision”) of competing rights.
In these times of change, one factor is constant: the OHRC attracts controversy. Because we often deal with emerging issues that society has not yet resolved, controversy is not surprising. This past year, we have addressed issues around freedom of expression – a concept and a right that the Commission fully supports. Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of this country and this province. The Human Rights Code does not give the Ontario Human Rights Commission the power to, for example, censor the media and, in my opinion, it never should. At the same time, we all need to recognize that the way an issue is expressed can sometimes have a negative impact on people in the community.
This year of transition has been challenging but rewarding and exciting as well. It is a privilege for me to lead a group of committed Commissioners and to have the opportunity to work with the smart and professional staff at the OHRC. Thank you all for making so much happen. I also thank our many community partners, both old and new, who have challenged and supported us. Their contributions have been crucial to our success.
Finally, I know that as change continues, we are well positioned for the future. With a dedicated team in place, we will continue to ensure that rights are protected and that communities are inclusive. In short, we will help the people of Ontario incorporate human rights into public affairs, commerce and daily life.