The Code protects people from discrimination in specific situations. Under the Code, you have the right to be free from discrimination in five parts of society – called social areas – based on one or more grounds.
The five social areas are: employment, housing, services, unions and vocational associations and contracts.
Discrimination based on 17 different personal attributes – called grounds – is against the law under the Code. The grounds are: citizenship, race, place of origin, ethnic origin, colour, ancestry, disability, age, creed, sex/pregnancy, family status, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, receipt of public assistance (in housing) and record of offences (in employment).
Your rights under the Code are not violated unless the discrimination occurs in one of the social areas based on one or more of the protected grounds. For example, the Code does not apply if a stranger on the street insults you by making a racist comment, because this did not happen in a specific social area, such as at your job or in a restaurant. The Code will also not apply if you feel you were treated differently in your job due to a personality conflict with your manager, because the treatment is not related to a ground such as your age, sex or race.
To establish discrimination under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, a claimant must show that:
- they have a characteristic protected by the Code (e.g. race)
- they experienced adverse treatment/impact within a social area (for example, in accessing a service, housing or employment)
- the protected characteristic was a factor in the adverse treatment or impact.
A person discriminates “directly” when the action itself is discriminatory and when the person acts on his or her own behalf. For example, a building manager who refuses to rent an apartment because he prefers to rent to someone of his own ethnic background is discriminating directly.
“Indirect discrimination” is discrimination carried out through another person. For example, a building manager tells her superintendent not to rent to people of a certain ethnic group because their food “smells too much.” The manager can be named in the human rights claim because she used the superintendent indirectly to discriminate against people because of their ethnic origin.
Sometimes a rule or practice unintentionally singles out particular people and results in unequal treatment. This type of unintentional discrimination is called “constructive” or “adverse effect” discrimination. The Code also protects against this type of discrimination. For example, an employer has a rule that employees are not allowed to wear hats or head coverings. The rule is not intended to exclude people who wear head coverings for religious reasons, but it may have this effect. Unless an employer can show that a change or exception to the rule would be too costly or create a health and safety danger, the employer should agree to change the rule.
 For more information on racism and racial harassment, see the OHRC’s Policy and guidelines on racism and racial discrimination (2005).