Language-related grounds of discrimination: ancestry, ethnic origin, place of origin, race

The first language we learn is frequently the language spoken by our parents or guardians and others who take care of us as children. There is almost inevitably a link between the language we speak or the accent with which we speak a particular language on the one hand, and our ancestry, ethnic origin or place of origin on the other.[4]

A person's accent is also often associated with her or his "mother tongue" or place of origin. Because a person's accent is usually related to her or his ancestry, ethnic origin or place of origin, the Code can be infringed when someone is denied employment, service, housing, or is otherwise discriminated against because of an accent. In these kinds of situations, the underlying discrimination is often actually based on ancestry, place of origin and, or ethnic origin.

Example: After an interview for a job as a school bus driver, a woman from Quebec, whose first language is French, was told she would not be hired for the position because she does not speak English fluently. She believed that she did have adequate command of English, but that she was turned down because her first language is French. Fluency in English was not identified as an essential feature of the job. Since one's "mother tongue" is closely associated with ancestry,[5] to deny a person employment because she is French-speaking could constitute a violation of the Code on the ground of "ancestry". Also, as she is from Quebec, "place of origin" could be cited as a secondary ground in the claim.[6]

Example: A teacher, originally from Poland, was on a school board's substitute teacher's list from which individuals are selected for short-term assignments. A period of time went by when he was not selected from this list for temporary assignments. The teacher learned that a note had been attached to his file which said that he did not speak English. The teacher filed a human rights application, and at a hearing before the Tribunal, the respondent indicated that the note should have stated that the complainant spoke English with an "accent" and therefore should not be assigned to substitute for teachers in English or Social Studies classes. The Tribunal ruled that the teacher was discriminated against because of his accent which is directly related to his ancestry or place of origin.[7]

There can also be situations in which the issue of fluency in a language or a person's accent in speaking a particular language, can be used to mask discrimination based on race.

Example: An African Canadian woman grew up in North Africa, speaking Italian. She had also studied in Italy. She applied for a position as a social worker with a community organization. The job description stated that, in addition to the technical skills and experience as a social worker that would be required for the job, competence in speaking "Italian, Portuguese or Chinese would be an asset". Although she was the best qualified applicant, she was denied the position because the agency felt that its client group would not be able to relate to "how" she spoke Italian, that is, her accent. She felt that her race was the real reason she was not hired and subsequently filed an application with the Tribunal.

Harassment and “poisoned environment”

1. Harassment

Harassment is defined in Section (s.) 10(1) of the Code as "engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome".[8] Harassment because of language or accent, may be a form of discrimination on the grounds of ancestry, ethnic origin, place of origin or in some situations race, contrary to the Code.

Example: A manager supervises a group of workers whose first language is Arabic. He gets angry when they speak among themselves in Arabic during their breaks. The manager orders these employees to speak "Canadian" while they are at work, and threatens to terminate their employment if they continue speaking Arabic. Unless the manager can demonstrate that speaking English at all times at the workplace is a reasonable and bona fide requirement in the circumstances, his behaviour could constitute harassment under s. 5 of the Code.

2. "Poisoned environment"

There are situations in which a single incident may be significant or substantial enough to constitute a breach of the Code by creating a "poisoned environment" for some individuals. Unequal treatment, in the form of offensive behaviour, does not have to occur continuously or repeatedly for there to be a violation of the Code.

Sections 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 9 of the Code, provide protection from discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin or ethnic origin. Any one of these sections can be the basis for a claim that a single incident was substantial enough to create a "poisoned environment".

In determining whether a "poisoned environment" has been created for persons identified by a prohibited ground of discrimination, you should look at the impact of the behaviour rather than the number of times the behaviour occurs. A "poisoned environment" can arise when a person or a group of people are treated differently for reasons related to the language they speak. Language is often a pretext for indirectly discriminating against someone because of her or his ancestry, place of origin or ethnic origin.[9]

Example: A law professor tells his class that those who speak English with a "foreign" accent do not make "good lawyers", and should not be admitted to law schools in Ontario to occupy spaces that should be held by Canadians. This remark in itself may be sufficient to poison the environment for those students in the class whose first language is not English, or those whose first language may be English but come from a country other than Canada and speak English with an accent. It may also have an impact on students whose ancestors came from, for example, Asia or Africa, because the comment targets new Canadians, many of whom now emigrate from these regions of the world.

Constructive discrimination

Under s. 11 of the Code, constructive discrimination may occur where there is a requirement, qualification or factor that is not discriminatory on its face, but when applied, results in the exclusion, restriction or preference of a group of persons identified by a prohibited ground of discrimination in the Code.[10]

Section 11(1)(a) further provides that a requirement, qualification or factor will not be found to be discriminatory if it can be established that it is reasonable and bona fide in the circumstances. Section 11(2) states, “The Commission, the Tribunal or a court shall not find that a requirement, qualification or factor is reasonable and bona fide in the circumstances unless it is satisfied that the needs of the group of which the person is a member cannot be accommodated without undue hardship on the person responsible for accommodating those needs, considering the cost, outside sources of funding, if any, and health and safety requirements, if any.”

If an employer refuses to hire or promote an employee, if a sales clerk chooses to serve only particular customers, or a building manager is consistently rude to certain tenants because of a characteristic that is closely related to grounds under the Code, these actions may give rise to a human rights claim. Language is a characteristic that is often closely associated with ancestry, ethnic origin or place of origin. Thus, the Code may be breached where a language requirement, such as "proficiency" in English,[11] excludes, gives preference to, or restricts persons because of their ancestry, ethnic origin or place of origin.

1. Bona fide occupational requirement

The Commission recognizes that proficiency in a certain language may be a reasonable and legitimate requirement for employment. For example, if English-language proficiency is required for a position, it should be established as a bona fide occupational requirement. The test for determining if a qualification is bona fide must be an objective one. The requirement for English proficiency, and the degree of proficiency required,[12] must bear an objective relationship to the essential requirements of the job, and be a bona fide occupational requirement that is imposed in good faith.[13]

Example: A supervisor in British Columbia refused to hire a South Asian man for an entry level position in a lumber mill. According to the supervisor, the applicant "could not speak English". A tribunal found that the requirement of proficiency in English was not a bona fide occupational requirement for the position, and that the complainant's level of English was good enough to allow him to complete a course on lumber grading in English and obtain high marks. The tribunal went on to find that the supervisor's refusal to hire the complainant was in fact motivated by race and place of origin, not lack of proficiency in English, and therefore constituted an infringement of his rights under the (British Columbia) Human Rights Act.[14]

Fluency in a particular language could be a bona fide requirement in some employment or service situations.

Example: An agency that serves persons from Central America requires support workers who can also act as refugee advocates. The functions of the position include providing support to clients at refugee board hearings. Fluency in Spanish in addition to English (or French) would likely be considered a bona fide requirement for the position.

In these circumstances, the requirement for the position must focus on the particular language needed to function in the job, and not on the place of origin, ancestry, ethnic origin or race of candidates for the position. In the above example, if an applicant is qualified and speaks fluently in Spanish and English, but does not come from a Central America country, she could not be denied the position unless the agency could justify a defence under s. 24(1)(a) of the Code.


[4] Espinoza v. Coldmatic Refrigeration of Canada Inc. et al., March 31, 1995), unreported, Harman, R. (Ont. Bd. of Inq.).
[5] "Mother tongue": see further Supra, note 3, Cousens. It should also be noted that there maybe a violation of the Code, based on "place of origin", when English as a "mother tongue" is a job requirement.
[6] Discrimination against a regional accent may also constitute an infringement of the Code on the basis of "place of origin." "Place of origin" may cover situations where the characteristics of a person are, to the respondent, strongly associated with a particular region, that trigger discrimination. For example, an Aboriginal man from Northern Ontario and a woman from Newfoundland may both speak with an accent typical of the regions where they live. If they are denied employment because of their accent, they may file an application with the Tribunal on the basis of "place of origin". (see further Judith Keene, Human Rights in Ontario (2d) (Toronto: Carswell, 1992) at 53.
[7]Gajecki v. Surrey School District (No. 36)(1989) 11 C.H.R.R. D/326 (B.C. Council of H.R.). See also Segula v. Ferrante, Ball Packaging Products Inc. (March 3, 1995), (unreported), Leighton, D. (Ont. Bd. of Inq.).
[8] The subjective element of this definition assumes that the person responsible for the behaviour knows that his/her comments or actions are unwelcome. The objective element is based on the assumption that the person should reasonably know that his/her behaviour is unwelcome.
[9] The Supreme Court of Canada upheld the concept of "poisoned environment" in Attis v. The Board of School Trustees, District No. 15 and The Human Rights Commission of New Brunswick et al. (April 3, 1996), (S.C.C.) [unreported].
[10]R. v. Bushnell Communications Ltd. et al. (1974) 1 O.R. (2d) 442; aff'd (1974) O.R. (2d) 288.
[11] Studies have shown that there is a significant relationship between English-language proficiency and discriminatory experiences, and that these experiences are not limited to employment (see further Racism and Chinese-Canadian Business Participation, prepared for the Chinese Information and Community Services, Toronto, March 1996). That is, persons with low levels of language skills are more likely to experience discrimination in employment, services and in housing accommodation.
[12] The degree of proficiency required must be objectively determined. There may also be situations where a certain level of language requirement is justifiable for a particular position.

Example: A store clerk should have sufficient language skills to be able to communicate with customers. Other occupations may require only a basic understanding of English and if there is no contact with the public limited communication skills may be adequate for the position. In these situations, requiring a high level of English-language proficiency would not be a bona fide occupational requirement On the other hand, a politician may need to hire an executive who is fluent in several Chinese dialects in order to serve her large Chinese-speaking constituency. In which case, fluency in particular Chinese dialects may be a bona fide occupational requirement.

[13]Ontario (Human Rights Commission) v. Etobicoke (Borough) [1982] 1 S.C.R. 202.
[14]Dhaliwal v. B.C. Timber Ltd. (1983), 4 C.H.R.R. D/1520 (B.C. Bd. of Inq.).

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