2011-2012 was a year of celebrations. We began the year by celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and ended it by getting ready for June 15, 2012 – the 50th anniversary of the Ontario Human Rights Code. These milestones offered a time for reflection on where we started, the progress we have made, and the work we need to do so the next generation can continue to advance human rights in Ontario.
Looking back over five decades, there have been many changes and advances in human rights in Ontario. And there have been many people who helped to change how we dealt with human rights issues, and even what those issues were. For example, I think of the many people who have experienced first-hand the pain that racism and discrimination bring. And then I think about my predecessors, such as Daniel Hill, Rosemary Brown, Tom Symons and Catherine Frazee, who have taken steps to bring about real systemic change in Ontario.
The first Human Rights Code was created to undo some of the damage that racism and religious intolerance were causing in workplaces, in services, in communities and in our homes. While we have enjoyed much progress, there are still many barriers based on race and creed, and on more recent Code grounds such as disability and sexual orientation. There is still a clear need to prevent personal experiences of discrimination, and to eliminate the systemic barriers that often lead to that discrimination.
The challenge we face today is to learn from the past, to acknowledge there is more work to be done, and to put into place the tools the next generation will need to ensure another 50 years of human rights advances. These tools are the policies, the guidebooks, the legal decisions, the consultations and above all, the education and partnerships that defined the OHRC’s work in 2011-2012.
For example, we held the largest public consultation in our history, examining discrimination faced by people with mental health disabilities. We continued our work on other disability issues, including commenting on draft standards and regulations arising from the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
We put the finishing touches on a policy that will help individuals and organizations find respectful solutions when rights conflict with each other, and we have begun to revise our policy on creed and religious accommodation. These policies clarify the law and offer strategies for resolving future issues.
We held public interest inquiries, and in some cases took legal action, to advance human rights in housing – so all Ontarians can truly feel right at home. We also took this work a step further, by producing a guide to help municipalities connect human rights, planning and zoning to eliminate problems from arising in the first place.
We reached out and delivered public education and training, including online or e-learning modules, to make sure that people from across Ontario can learn about what their human rights are and how to protect them. And we reinforced partnerships with police services and education sectors to help make human rights lived realities.
We also took targeted legal action at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) and in the courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, to clarify the law and enforce the Code. We settled Commission-Initiated Applications against three municipal transit providers, and made their services more accessible to riders with visual disabilities. We intervened in applications before the HRTO involving mental health, and at higher courts on issues involving family status, competing rights, creed and freedom of expression.
There is a common thread to most of the examples I have given – that thread is partnership. The only way our small organization can make a genuine impact on the lives of more than 13 million Ontarians is by working with partners who help us expand our reach. More than ever, we are reaching out to communities, getting input, raising awareness and working with them on solutions.
We are using new technology – social media, online surveys, an improved website – while at the same time acknowledging that face to face meetings are often the best way to hear and to be heard.
All of this would be impossible without the inspired work of a dedicated, passionate and smart team of Commissioners and staff who share a commitment to building respect for the human rights of every Ontarian.
Are we ready for the next generation? I think we are. And more importantly, I think they are ready – to learn from paths already taken, to add their own experiences to the mix, and to be the new visionaries who advance human rights across Ontario. I look forward to seeing what the next 50 years will bring.