December 10, 2015
Speaking notes: Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane
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Thank you for joining us today as we launch a brand new version of our Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed.
Today is International Human Rights Day – the day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.
It is a moment to celebrate progress made over the past 67 years.
But it’s also a moment to assess current challenges to the UN’s vision of a world where “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace.”
As I highlight in my Huffington Post blog post published today, the human rights movement was a direct response to widespread antisemitism which ultimately led to the Holocaust.
By adopting the Universal Declaration in 1948, Canada and the international community rightly said, “Never again.”
The Declaration included strong protection of religious freedoms, which are echoed in provincial and federal human rights legislation, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
It is fair to say that discrimination based on creed and religion was at the root of the human rights movement, which makes today a good day to reflect on Ontario’s protection of rights based on religion.
Unfortunately, Canada has a long history of religious discrimination.
In 1914, we turned away almost all the passengers who landed on the shores of British Columbia aboard the Komagata Maru – most of them Sikh (along with some Hindus and Muslims).
In 1939, Canada turned away another ship, this time carrying nearly 1,000 German Jews who were fleeing the Nazis.
Creed has been included in Ontario’s Human Rights Code since it became law more than a half century ago.
In 1962, the Code focused primarily on race and on creed, as Ontario grappled with overt discrimination based on colour of a person’s skin or on their beliefs.
Back then, Jewish people were often the targets of harassment and discrimination – they were the people that many Ontarians viewed as the outsiders, or the “other.”
Today, different religions are viewed as “the other” but the negative treatment is starkly similar to the past. Indeed, earlier this week, Donald Trump called for an outright ban on Muslims entering the United States.
So the fabric of our society may have changed, but there is still a compelling need to protect Ontarians no matter what their belief system.
Why policies are important
The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s policies reflect current human rights case law, international standards, and social science research.
They are developed through public consultation, so they include real-life examples and issues that different communities have raised.
The courts and tribunals can look to our policies for guidance, and under the Code, the human rights tribunal is required to consider our policies if the complainant asks them to or if we do.
Our policies teach people what the law says about their human rights issue, and the OHRC’s interpretation of what the Code means in practical terms.
Policy – the big picture
The OHRC published its first policy on creed almost 20 years ago, in 1996.
Since then, there have been many important legal and social developments, as Ontario’s society has grown increasingly more diverse.
Questions about the appropriate nature and limits of rights relating to religion and creed have increasingly assumed centre stage in public discourse.
These questions have increased as global events have unfolded, and a more secular society has led to more people taking stances that are broadly “anti-faith” or “anti-religion.”
While “faithism” is often understood as hostility towards people who subscribe to non-dominant belief systems, it also includes stereotypes that view all religious people as inherently backward, less tolerant, less informed, or closed-minded.
The latter is a new form of prejudice that appears to be socially acceptable in our more secular society, and among people who are otherwise progressive or liberal.
With our changing society and evolving belief systems, it was time to revisit our policy to reflect today’s complex reality.
It took the OHRC over three years of extensive research and consultation to develop this new policy precisely because of the complex issues at play, the sometimes heated emotional responses to creed-based accommodation requests, like when a Sikh man, whose faith required him to wear a kirpan, or ceremonial knife, was serving on a jury.
He was not allowed into the courtroom because of mistaken assumptions that he was a security risk.
In a human rights settlement, the Toronto Police Service agreed to change court security procedures to accommodate religious articles such as the kirpan.
From the beginning, the Human Rights Code has acknowledged creed as a basic yet vital part of our individual character and identity, and a driving force in how many people view the world.
In short, having a creed is a human right, not a privilege.
All Ontarians have a right to be free from discrimination based on creed, whether or not they personally have a creed.
The updated policy includes several new features to help us understand our rights and responsibilities under the Code.
First, it expands on what is meant by creed.
The previous policy linked creed with religious beliefs and practices.
Today, we recognize that creed may also include non-religious belief systems which, like religion, substantially influence a person’s identity, world view, and way of life.
The ground of creed also includes protections for atheists, and other people who do not follow a particular creed.
Another new feature is a section on Indigenous spiritual practices and how to accommodate and design inclusively for them.
While many Indigenous peoples do not view their belief system as a religion or creed, our policy makes it clear that Indigenous spiritual beliefs and practices are protected under the Code ground of creed.
The policy also includes a wide variety of specific situations and accommodations based on creed.
Examples are Sabbath and prayer requirements, dress codes, and dietary needs.
And there are updated case law references throughout.
Dealing with competing rights
The courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, have ruled that there is no hierarchy of rights.
This means that creed rights have the same protections under the Code as any other ground, such as disability, sex or sexual orientation.
As well, the courts have clearly stated that no right is absolute – which means the duty to accommodate a person’s creed belief or practice may be limited where it interferes with another person’s rights.
Human rights law includes checks and balances and “reasonable” limits when one right conflicts with another right.
In 2012, the OHRC launched its Policy on competing human rights.
This policy outlines steps that sectors, organizations and individuals can take, and the questions they can consider to have a respectful dialogue and address everyday situations of competing rights.
These are difficult conversations, but we must have them to meet the requirements of human rights legislation.
Solutions must begin with respect.
Recognizing differences and finding common ground are the best routes to resolving conflicts that will continue to happen.
In human rights cases, there is no “one size fits all” solution.
When rights – including creed rights – conflict, resolution will often come through a process of respectful and open-minded dialogue.
The best approach to dealing with Ontario’s growing creed diversity is “inclusive design” (or “design with everyone in mind”).
Inclusion and respect – these all sound like the right thing to do.
But they are more than that – in Ontario they are the law.
You will hear several speakers this morning, who will each offer a unique perspective on human rights and creed issues in Ontario today.
I encourage you to note – and celebrate – the different visions they represent.
They’re a microcosm of the many, many different viewpoints that shape our society’s view of creed today.
At the same time, I invite you to look to the past and learn from it.
In their book “None is Too Many,” historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper talk about Canada’s refusal to open its doors to Jewish refugees escaping persecution during the Nazi era – and the public support for this stance.
Signs saying “Gentiles only” were common in public places, and anyone wearing a Yarmulke was an easy target for discrimination and harassment.
Fast forward to today – when harassers have selected the niqab amd hijab as their head coverings of choice when searching for people to discriminate against.
As we all know, religious prejudice, bigotry and racism can only thrive when we choose to be silent about it.
That’s why it is important that we step up, and speak out against religious discrimination.
Slowly but surely, the message is changing to one of understanding and welcome.
That’s the goal of our new creed policy as well – to provide employers, service providers, housing providers, faith groups, and our broader communities with the information they need to understand creed as a human right.
We hope it will be an important tool to enable us to respect and support Ontarians of all creeds, just as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Human Rights Code have always envisioned.