Today is my first day on the job as Ontario’s new chief human rights commissioner and, already, I am keenly aware of the need to convince Canadians of the continuing relevance of statutory human rights bodies like the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).
The OHRC was created in 1961 and was the first human rights body in Canada. To put this in perspective, the Commission was “born” the same year as Amnesty International, and precedes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982). In the more than 50 years since its inception, the OHRC has played a central role in defining the type of society we want to live in--one that values and respects diversity.
The human rights landscape has changed dramatically since 1961. There are now parallel human rights institutions federally and in every province and territory, and numerous international human rights treaties to which Canada is a party. We have also seen the proliferation and professionalization of countless domestic and international human rights NGOs that monitor and advocate for vulnerable and marginalized groups. There are more groups protected against discrimination than ever before, and the language of “rights” permeates every facet of our lives.
In 2008, Ontario changed its human rights system to allow aggrieved individuals to directly access the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. The OHRC’s role was refocused to address persistent, systemic discrimination. These changes did not end critiques of the system. Some argue that the OHRC has not done enough to further its important mandate. Others believe that Canada is part of a “post-discrimination” world and that human rights commissions have outlived their usefulness. And those are the people who care. In Ontario, most people are ambivalent or simply don’t know about the OHRC, its role, and its work.
This is ironic because some of the issues that have captivated Ontarians in recent years clearly fall within the OHRC’s jurisdiction and are issues on which the Commission has been actively engaged. The persistence of workplace sexual harassment was brought to the forefront through the Jian Ghomeshi allegations, the accommodation of religious minorities was highlighted in the divisive niqab debate, Desmond Cole’s powerful personal reflection on carding brought into focus the racialized policing of young men across this country, Indigenous women face disproportionate levels of violence and await a national inquiry, and people with mental health issues continue to be over-criminalized and subject to solitary confinement in our jails.
The role of the OHRC is to engage with these and many other difficult discrimination-related issues and provide guidance on what Ontario’s Human Rights Code requires government, employers, landlords, and service providers to do. The Commission approaches these tasks in a way that is principled, strategic, impactful, and collaborative. This may require the OHRC to work behind the scenes to persuade the powers that be, but it also requires us to step into the fray and exercise bold leadership.
The human rights landscape has changed since 1961 because Ontario has changed. Our province is now perhaps the most diverse place on Earth. As a result, the human rights issues we face are often the most complex, the most cutting-edge. By zealously protecting the bedrock principles that have allowed for this unique place to develop the way it has, the OHRC works to guard against the tyranny of the majority and to be a shield against the small-minded politics of fear and divisiveness. The OHRC can also serve as a model for leadership at home and around the world. This country and this world need institutions like the Commission now more than ever.
Chief Commissioner, Ontario Human Rights Commission