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Racial discrimination, race and racism (fact sheet)

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Every person in Ontario has the right to be free from racial discrimination and harassment in the social areas of employment, services, goods, facilities, housing accommodation, contracts and membership in trade and vocational associations.

There is no fixed definition of racial discrimination.  However, it has been described as any distinction, conduct or action, whether intentional or not, but based on a person’s race, which has the effect of imposing burdens on an individual or group, not imposed upon others or which withholds or limits access to benefits available to other members of society.  Race need only be a factor for racial discrimination to have occurred.

“Race” is a prohibited ground of discrimination in the Ontario Human Rights Code (the “Code”), but like racial discrimination, it is not specifically defined.  The Commission has explained “race” as socially constructed differences among people based on characteristics such as accent or manner of speech, name, clothing, diet, beliefs and practices, leisure preferences, places of origin and so forth.  The process of social construction of race is called racialization: “the process by which societies construct races as real, different and unequal in ways that matter to economic, political and social life.”

Recognizing that race is a social construct, the Commission describes people as “racialized person” or “racialized group” instead of the more outdated and inaccurate terms “racial minority”. “visible minority”, “person of colour” or “non-White”.

Racism is a wider phenomenon than racial discrimination.  While the Code seeks to combat racism through public education and the advancement of human rights, not every manifestation of racism can be dealt with through the current human rights complaint mechanism and process. Nevertheless, racism plays a major role in fostering racial discrimination.

Racism is an ideology that either directly or indirectly asserts that one group is inherently superior to others.  It can be openly displayed in racial jokes and slurs or hate crimes but it can be more deeply rooted in attitudes, values and stereotypical beliefs.  In some cases, these are unconsciously held and have become deeply embedded in systems and institutions that have evolved over time. Racism operates at a number of levels, in particular, individual, systemic and societal.

Despite the fact that Canada has made much progress, unfortunately racism and racial discrimination remain a persistent reality in Canadian society. This fact must be acknowledged as a starting point to effectively address racism and racial discrimination.

For further information or copies of the Commission’s Policy and Guidelines on Racism and Racial Discrimination