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On the 50th anniversary of the Ontario Human Rights Code: 1962 – 2012

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By A. Alan Borovoy

On such occasions, comparisons between then and now are irresistible. In this case, the comparisons are also monumental.

Little more than two decades before 1962, a boatload of Jews fleeing European Nazism was unceremoniously denied admission to Canada. The incident produced little public reaction. In the 1970s, boatloads of Vietnamese fleeing Asian Communism were not only allowed to come here, but in many cases, also subsidized to do so.

At the end of the 1930s, a Harvard law graduate with a brilliant academic record, upon his return to Toronto, was unable to get a job with a city law firm. The hapless graduate was Jewish. In the 1970s, that graduate had become the chief justice of Canada: Bora Laskin.

In the 1940s, racial, religious, and ethnic discrimination were both legally permissible and socially respectable. Today, such discrimination has become unlawful in the market place and disreputable in many social situations. Indeed, in today’s Canada, there are anti-discrimination laws in virtually every jurisdiction, and human rights commissions with full-time staff to administer and enforce those laws.

Who would have dreamt 50 years ago that some of our leading medical and law schools would be enrolling more women than men? And few reputable people would have dared to defend - let alone to promote – the right of same sex marriage.

The Ontario Human Rights Code is both a consequence of – and an influence on – all this social change. In addition to making us grateful, our experience should also inspire greater efforts. Intergroup injustice remains a persisting reality. The changes we’ve seen demonstrate that it is possible not only to fight – but also to beat – such injustice. In my view, that is the legacy of the last 50 years. 

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