PUTTING PEOPLE AND THEIR RIGHTS AT THE CENTRE:
Building Human Rights Accountability
Ontario Human Rights Commission Strategic Plan 2017 – 2022
Chief Commissioner’s message: Human rights at the crossroads
Extensive conversations with nearly 300 people representing over 80 organizations have strengthened the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s (OHRC) resolve to promote and enforce human rights, engage in relationships that embody dignity and respect, and create a culture of human rights compliance and accountability across Ontario.
I am consistently amazed by how many people are personally invested in the work of the OHRC and care deeply about our success. They encouraged us to use our unique mandate to address anti-Black racism, Indigenous reconciliation, Islamophobia, the rights of children and youth, and persistent discrimination in employment and in the criminal justice system. They implored us to get at the root of much of today’s inequality: the ever-present risk of poverty faced by people with disabilities, people with diverse gender identities, and many others the Code is meant to protect.
Throughout our discussions, another broader theme also emerged: a sense that we are at a crossroads, a point where our society must make crucial decisions that will have far-reaching consequences for the human rights landscape going forward. As our society becomes even more diverse, the lived reality of people with privilege and power is easily contrasted against people who continually find themselves on the margins. In 2016, the voices of people who were once silent (or silenced) have grown louder in their demands for a most just society – and not tomorrow or sometime in the future, but today.
The central question, then, is whether human rights are the starting point to inform all public policy choices, or whether they are dispensable when they conflict with the majority’s will or with other competing priorities or values. The answer is at the heart of broader social movements focused on anti-Black racism, Indigenous reconciliation, Trans rights, workers’ rights, rights for people with disabilities, and sexual violence and women’s equality.
This Strategic Plan positions the OHRC in this crossroads moment: as a leadership voice on critical and emerging human rights issues, and as an institution that will use its functions and powers to make sure that people and their human rights are at the very centre of the decisions we make as a society.
The OHRC’s role is to expose and address forms of discrimination that are rarely subject to adjudication. This plan reflects my personal belief that, when dealing with systemic discrimination, progress is more likely if we isolate social systems where even small shifts in the landscape can have big ripple-out effects, and then use the breadth of our functions and powers to effect change in those priority areas. The laws of physics apply: the most stagnant and complex systems often need the biggest push if we want to see progress towards substantive equality.
Through a focus on reconciliation, the criminal justice system, poverty and education, we will address the discriminatory impacts of broader systems of colonialism, state power, resource allocation, and enculturation – which cause nearly all Code-protected groups, especially those with intersectional identities, to be marginalized and to have their disadvantage exacerbated or perpetuated.
Overwhelmingly, though, people told us that they were less concerned about what we chose to prioritize and more interested in how we did our work to make sure that the OHRC has a measurable impact on the human rights landscape. As one Commissioner so aptly put it, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
So, beyond our substantive areas of focus, we will aspire to be transformative in our approach. We will focus on our people, our community, developing evidence-informed approaches, and delivering practical advice. Perhaps most importantly, we will continue to be a leadership voice across the full range of issues that fall within our mandate, and will retain capacity to address critical and emerging issues across all Code grounds and social areas. These foundational strengths are the core – they will allow us to grow, learn, reflect and work towards our vision of an inclusive society where everyone takes responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights; where everyone is valued and treated with equal dignity and respect; and where everyone’s human rights are a lived reality.
Our society has come to a fork in the road: a moment where decisions must be made about the core values that should drive social policy into the future. In this pivotal moment, my conversations across the province confirm that Ontarians have big ideas and favour bold approaches to address persistent human rights problems. The OHRC must engage the public and empower people as accountability agents. We know that our work has the most impact when we amplify the voices of the most marginalized people, and when the public echoes our human rights message and demands action. Together we can create a society where promoting, protecting and being accountable for human rights is everyone’s responsibility.
Renu Mandhane, B.A., J.D., LL.M.
Ontario Human Rights Commission