A message from the Chief Commissioner
Earlier this year, many Canadians were excited to witness visions of what an inclusive society could look like as we cheered our athletes and artists in the Olympic and Paralympic games. These talented young people with their differing abilities showed us many expressions of excellence in sport, art and culture.
Later in the year, Canada ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Much more than “just another treaty,” the Convention is Canada’s promise to protect, promote and advance the rights of people with disabilities.
Events such as these help us to focus on the possibilities that can flow when human rights, those words in the Human Rights Code, are made real. They also remind us that when they are absent, opportunity is lost, and people are excluded and silenced. In Ontario today, many people still face barriers and discrimination in their homes, workplaces, places of worship, service and social settings, because of personal characteristics such as their country of origin, their sex, their disability, their religion or their skin colour.
Our work at the OHRC over the past year has focused on identifying systemic barriers, eliminating them and helping to create new processes that nurture human rights and inclusion. Examples include our work on ending discrimination in rental housing, and our new partnerships to help bring mental illness out of the shadows and remove the stereotypes and discrimination so often associated with it.
Our work can be defined by three words: educate, empower and act. We worked hard to educate Ontarians about their rights and what to do when these rights are denied. And while we were educating them, they were also educating us – both about the causes and effects of discrimination and how we could assist in eliminating it.
We worked with sectors like education, police and local government to evaluate their operations through a human rights lens and make sure they were inclusive and welcoming to all. Thus empowered, municipal leaders are taking on racism and discrimination and police services are removing bias from within their organizations. Educators are striving to meet the needs of all the children in their communities.
And when education and partnership hasn’t been enough, we have taken other action. Examples include our intervention in the case of a woman who was ordered to remove her niqab before testifying in a sexual assault case, our work to ensure the Province of Ontario’s Special Diet Program does not discriminate, and our applications to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario to make public transit across Ontario accessible to people with visual disabilities.
Action is not just about taking a case to a tribunal or court; sometimes it involves speaking out. There is a decline in respectful conversation in our society, especially when it comes to “tough” topics like racism, religion and how we deal with what seems to be a conflict of rights. But we must have those conversations – and the OHRC will continue to both lead them and find safe places in which they can occur.
This annual report offers a brief look at what the OHRC did in 2009/2010 to educate, empower and act. But we did not do this work alone. Effective systemic change requires that we all bring our skills and experience to the task without being diverted by silos or turf or the way things have always been done. We were lucky to find that kind of partners and we thank them and will continue to work with them.
Within the OHRC, a committed group of Commissioners are helping shape the vision of human rights in Ontario and talented staff are putting this vision into action. My thanks go to my fellow Commissioners, the staff and our partners – who together make an amazing team. It is a privilege to work with each one of them.
This report talks about our accomplishments last year but it also gives a glimpse of the work that lies ahead. It will be both a pleasure and a challenge to continue to do the work necessary in building a culture of human rights for all Ontarians.