Reconnect. Renew. Results.
2015-16 has been a time of transition for the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) – and for me personally, as I took on the role of Chief Commissioner in November. As is my nature, I adopted the “dive right in” approach and, just over six months into my term, the OHRC is well-positioned to embark on a bold new approach that emphasizes community trust, human rights accountability, and measurable impact.
The OHRC has been working hard to ensure that we are actively engaged as a leadership voice on complex human rights issues in our province – from carding to religious freedom to solitary confinement. I have travelled to hear directly from people about their concerns. We have connected with community partners, including writing to hundreds of stakeholders; inviting community groups to present at our Commission meetings; conducting one-on-one meetings with Ministers, Officers of the Legislature, and police chiefs; and speaking at countless events to make sure that our message reaches thousands of people across Ontario.
We have also refocused our efforts to engage with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples by placing an emphasis on building durable and lasting relationships that are grounded in a deep understanding of the unique human rights issues facing Indigenous peoples. I have personally undertaken to better understand the history and legacy of residential schools and the continuing impact of intergenerational trauma, as well as learning more about Indigenous peoples’ own conception of human rights.
We are committed to creating a circle of knowledge where learning from First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples – about their concerns and values – is given as much importance as providing information to Indigenous peoples about their rights under the Code. That’s the only way the OHRC can begin its journey towards a “nation-to-nation” relationship with Ontario’s Indigenous peoples.
We have also strived to make sure that our policies and positions reflect the lived experience of vulnerable and marginalized people. You will see this approach reflected in our work on racial profiling, carding, and solitary confinement. Despite our unique mandate and role as an arms-length government agency, we cannot lose touch with the people on the ground whose perspectives and day-to-day reality must be the foundation of our work.
The OHRC has also renewed its commitment to creating a climate of human rights accountability through strategic exercise of our enforcement powers under the Code. We have raised the stakes on various human rights issues by backing up our policy work with legal interventions and motions to enforce settlement terms before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
We have piloted an approach that brings the weight of our expertise into forums where our perspective may not always be expected (or welcome!). This past February, we appeared before the Toronto Police Disciplinary Tribunal to request permission to intervene in a matter involving use of force on four Black teenagers who were walking to a tutoring session in their Lawrence Heights neighbourhood. The case raises issues of racial profiling which, we believe, are relevant to officer misconduct. More broadly, we sent a strong message that the OHRC is going to great lengths to ensure human rights accountability.
Similarly, we have used our inquiry powers to bring about systemic change. Immediately after the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, we wrote to Ontario’s 47 children’s aid societies requesting data to examine the over-representation of First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and Black children in the child welfare system. We adopted a similar approach when we wrote to all Ontario colleges and universities asking them to revise their accommodation policies to respect the privacy and dignity of students with mental health disabilities.
We are also re-evaluating how we do our work to isolate the factors that lead to success. For example, over the years we have dedicated significant resources to helping large institutions with human rights organizational change projects. This is a planned change process aimed at developing capacity within an institution to address and prevent human rights violations in their employment and service practices. It is a process of moving an organization to fully respect and accommodate the dignity, worth and rights of all people. Of course, this all sounds great, but having engaged in many such projects, we have seen mixed results. We are currently reviewing our work in this area and identifying key factors necessary for successful institutional change projects. For example, we know that commitment from the leadership of an organization, along with a willingness to commit sufficient resources, are critical to success.
This report highlights our progress on priorities articulated in our last strategic plan, namely to continue our work related to the Code grounds of race, Indigenous ancestry, mental health disability, family status and creed; and to focus on discrimination in services, housing, employment, and policing.
The report highlights several areas where our work has had a clear and direct impact on vulnerable Ontarians. Whether it is educating tens of thousands of people about their rights and how to exercise them, or improving the treatment of prisoners with mental health disabilities, or calling for an end to racial profiling in carding, there is growing evidence that our systemic work does indeed play out in people’s everyday lives.
These successes would not be possible without the stellar work of our dedicated staff who continue to work closely with and learn from people across Ontario. And I thank our Commissioners, whose insight and guidance is so critical to shaping the work that we do. Special thanks go to Commissioners Larry McDermott, Fiona Sampson, Bhagat Taggar, and Maggie Wente who completed their terms in 2015-16. And, of course to Ruth Goba whose leadership as interim Chief set the course for a new relationship with racialized communities and the foundation for a smooth transition.
When your core business involves ending discrimination in a province of over 13 million people, the biggest challenge is to ensure that the OHRC remains a catalyst for change or, more bluntly, to prove that our work can deliver results.
As we approach 10 years since the move to a direct-access human rights system in Ontario, we are well-positioned to embark on a strategic planning process to chart a bold new vision for our work. This will include a province-wide dialogue about our role, to allow us to develop priorities that resonate with the public and allow us to deliver results.
On a parting note, I want to express how deeply humbled and honoured I am to have been appointed as your human rights commissioner. Many times a week I have a “pinch me” moment when I realize that I have a tremendous platform to bring about positive change in our province. I am committed to making sure that the voices of the most vulnerable members of our community are heard at the table. Thank you for placing your trust in me.