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Taking the pulse: Peoples’ opinions on human rights in Ontario

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Survey overview 

Taking the pulse

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) undertook a public opinion survey to gauge and give voice to people’s attitudes – both positive and negative – about human rights in Ontario.

The survey asked respondents about their human rights awareness, attitudes towards groups, and about personal experiences of discrimination. Some of the questions were purposefully polarizing to most accurately assess both how people feel about human rights and the extent of prejudice towards groups who experience discrimination. The questions were not intended to measure attitudes about specific public policies and the responses should not be read in this manner.

A polling firm conducted the online survey early in 2017 using a sample of 1,501 people age 18 and older. The sample is generally proportionate to Ontario’s actual population in terms of gender, age groups, ethnic and racial identities, disability status, foreign-born populations, education and income levels, and regional distribution. For example, the survey sample reflects Ontario’s ethnic and racial diversity insofar as 76% of respondents identified as British/European and 24% of respondents identified as having non-European origins.

Terms used in the online survey and report to describe a group’s ethnic, racial or visible minority status or other identity, are in accordance with Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey.

The full dataset for the OHRC survey is available online.

Survey highlights

The survey provides a useful indicator of the state of human rights in Ontario today. To that end, several themes and trends – both positive and negative – emerged from the survey.

Discrimination remains a problem in Ontario.

  • Two-thirds (66%) of respondents think discrimination is at least somewhat of problem in Ontario.

Discrimination based on race, Indigenous ancestry and poverty is of particular concern.

  • A majority (63%) believe race or colour to be one of the most common reasons for discrimination in Ontario, followed by sexual orientation (34%), disability (25%) and creed or religion (24%).
  • A higher proportion of Indigenous respondents (70% vs. 49% of all respondents) say they experienced some form of discrimination in the past five years.
  • Respondents overall are least positive towards people in receipt of public assistance compared to other groups. Only 39% say they feel at least somewhat positive towards this group.

Discrimination happens mostly at work, or in public places outside the scope of the Human Rights Code.

  • 45% of respondents who experienced discrimination or harassment in the past five years say it happened at work, 42% say it happened in a public place (i.e. outside the jurisdiction of the Code), 16% in a shop or restaurant, and 12% at school.

Negative stereotypes persist about transgender people, refugees, Muslim and Arab people, other racialized groups, Indigenous peoples, homeless people and people in receipt of social assistance.

  • Fewer than half of respondents were positive towards transgender people (46%), refugees (46%), Muslim (45%) or Arab people (44%)
  • Respondents were least positive towards people receiving social assistance (39%).
  • A large minority agree with the negative (likely based on stereotype) view that police are at least sometimes justified in profiling or targeting specific groups including: Muslims (44%), Arab people (42%), young people (41%), Black/African Canadians (40%), South Asians (39%), homeless people (39%), people with mental health disabilities or addictions (39%), and Indigenous peoples (37%).

A lack of understanding of human rights and harmful negative stereotypes may underlie negative attitudes towards Indigenous peoples, people receiving social assistance and other groups.

  • Only (55%) of respondents report they have at least some familiarity with Ontario’s Human Rights Code, while 48% report some familiarity with the OHRC.
  • Despite both the provincial and federal governments’ focus on reconciliation, only 35% of respondents are at least somewhat familiar with Indigenous rights, and 34% with the impact of colonialism on Indigenous peoples.
  • 49% hold the negative view that Indigenous people receive too many government benefits. This view is likely based on stereotypes about Indigenous peoples.
  • 62% hold the negative view that it is understandable for a property owner or apartment manager to be concerned about renting to people on social assistance. Again, this view is likely based on stereotypes about people on social assistance.

On a positive note, there is broad support for further accommodating the needs of people with mental health disabilities and addictions, caregivers, transgender students and people with diverse religions.

  • Three in five respondents (60%) say we don’t do enough to support people with mental health disabilities and addictions.
  • Nine in ten (90%) support rearranging work schedules to allow parents to pick up a child.
  • A majority also support allowing transgender students to use washrooms based on their lived identity (73%) or providing a prayer space for students (71%).

Discrimination remains grossly underreported.

  • Almost half (48%) of respondents who experienced discrimination kept it to themselves.
  • Only 14% say they complained to someone in the organization where it happened.

Human rights protections are in place, but there is room for improvement.

  • Three quarters (75%) of respondents think that human rights are at least somewhat well protected in Ontario when discrimination happens. The balance (25%) think they are not very well protected or protected at all

Education is vital to advancing human rights.

  • A vast majority (89%) agree that students should learn more about human rights in school.

Why a public opinion survey?

In December 2016, the OHRC launched its 2017-22 Strategic Plan. This plan includes a commitment to monitor and report on the state of human rights in Ontario using data and other evidence-informed approaches. As part of this commitment, the OHRC commissioned a public opinion survey about human rights in Ontario. The survey was conducted in January/February 2017.

The survey questions cover a broad range of the prohibited grounds of discrimination in employment, housing and services under Ontario’s Human Rights Code. The survey deals with many issues, and devotes particular attention to the four areas of focus in the OHRC’s Strategic Plan: Indigenous reconciliation, the criminal justice system, poverty and education.

The OHRC commissioned the survey to gain a better understanding of how different people and groups perceive and experience human rights in Ontario. The survey was designed to meet several goals:

  • Creating a tool and baseline dataset to periodically measure and report on the state of human rights in our province
  • Gauging how people honestly feel about pressing human rights issues
  • Informing OHRC priorities and initiatives
  • Advancing public awareness and discourse
  • Providing data for independent research.

The OHRC’s mission is to promote and enforce human rights, to engage in relationships that embody the principles of dignity and respect, and to create a culture of human rights compliance and accountability. Periodically taking the public’s pulse will help the OHRC succeed in this mission. Public opinion surveys can be important tools in gauging this pulse.

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