Religious discrimination persists
Many Canadians believe that religious discrimination is no longer a problem in contemporary society. They point to “multiculturalism,” recent efforts to promote reconciliation with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, along with Canadians’ eagerness to resettle Syrian refugees, as proof that we have learned the lessons at the core of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
But right here in Canada, we continue to see people being harassed and even assaulted because they follow a certain religion. We see a mosque being burned, women wearing hijab being harassed, and anti-Semitic slogans sprayed on synagogues. While these may be the acts of a hateful minority, Islamophobia continues to rear its ugly head.
Less extreme, but likely more pervasive than overt attacks are new stereotypes that view all religious people as inherently backward, less tolerant, less informed, or closed-minded. This is a different form of prejudice that appears to be socially acceptable in our more secular society, and among many otherwise “progressive” or “liberal” individuals.
Of course, this is not to say that we cannot be critical of our own or other peoples’ religions, faiths or creeds, or of religion more generally; freedom of thought and expression are rightly protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But legitimate critique of creed cannot lead to harassment or other discriminatory treatment in protected social areas (employment, housing, services, contracts, unions), become an excuse to not meet legal obligations to accommodate genuinely held creed beliefs and practices, or rise to the level of hate speech or hateful acts prohibited by the Criminal Code.
With debates around religion at the forefront of many peoples’ minds, it was particularly significant that the OHRC launched its revised Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed on December 10, International Human Rights Day. The policy is an important step towards a more open and inclusive Ontario where differences in core beliefs, whether religious, atheist or otherwise, are valued, respected and accommodated—in short, the policy protects everyone.
Racial profiling in the war on terror uses stereotypes of race, religion, ethnicity and country of origin as proxies for terrorism. Muslims of Arab, South Asian and African descent are perceived as already risks to national security by virtue of their membership in these communities, as the Maher Arar case very visibly demonstrated.
– Uzma Jamil, Racial Profiling Policy Dialogue
New creed policy: reflecting today’s complex reality
On December 10, 2015 – International Human Rights Day – the OHRC released its updated Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed. The policy recognizes Canada’s long history of religious discrimination. It reflects today’s issues and changes to case law, and provides expanded information in areas like Indigenous Spirituality and creed-based profiling. Creed includes religion, broadly defined, and may include other non-religious belief systems that, like religion, substantially influence a person’s identity, worldview and way of life.
The policy was developed after extensive research, a public survey, dialogue with various religious, academic, legal and community organizations, and publication of findings.
The OHRC also prepared a checklist on the duty to accommodate creed and other resources for employers, landlords and service providers, and began training with groups across the province to help them meet their obligations under the Code.
Launch of the Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed
Renu Mandhane delivered the opening address at the launch of our Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed, co-hosted by the University of Toronto Multi-Faith Centre, noting that religious freedom was the root of the global human rights movement. (Full speech available at www.ohrc.on.ca
A new year, a new home for refugees
In statement welcoming Syrian refugees to Ontario, Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane wrote about how the Code prohibits discrimination based on a person’s place of origin and religion, among other grounds. She commented, “The OHRC is working with community groups to make sure that stereotypes and discrimination do not pose a barrier to people putting a roof over their head or food on the table.”
Honouring Holocaust victims is an important reminder of work left to do to eradicate racism
In a statement released on the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, Renu Mandhane called on Ontarians to remember the genocide that occurred during World War Two – and to honour its victims by standing in solidarity against misconceptions, stereotypes and discrimination that persist today.
Cross-sex contact and competing human rights
Sometimes a person might ask for religious accommodation to reduce or have no contact with members of the opposite sex when receiving a service, in housing or while at work. The OHRC policy statement on creed accommodation involving cross-sex contact can help organizations deal with these types of competing human rights claims.
Here are some of the considerations included in the policy statement:
- Where an accommodation has an adverse impact on others, organizations should apply a competing rights analysis as set out in the OHRC’s Policy on competing human rights.
- Every competing rights situation has to be assessed based on all of the relevant facts. Context is critical and even small adjustments to the facts can lead to a different analysis and outcome in a competing rights situation
- People who want an accommodation that restricts interactions between men and women should generally provide advance notice to organizations
- Notice is particularly important where an accommodation request may have an adverse impact on the rights of others.
Organizations have a duty to make sure everyone’s human rights are respected. They should look for a way to accommodate an individual’s creed. They must also protect and preserve the rights of women to take part equally in society. Sometimes that means accommodations will be limited or not possible at all.
Public campaign to eliminate Islamophobia, race and creed discrimination
To remind the public of our collective human rights obligations, the OHRC is working on an anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia campaign led by a committed team of community partners. These partners include OCASI (the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants), NCCM (National Council of Canadian Muslims), the Canadian Arab Institute, and the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade. Mass Minority is providing pro bono concept and design services.
This campaign and education program will include reminders to landlords, employers and service providers of their obligation to not discriminate because of religion or race.
“Muslims include many ethnicities and racialized groups, including people of Arab, South Asian and African heritage. In the global context of the war on terror, the dominant perception is of Arabs, Middle Easterners and Muslims as all being the same group.”
– Uzma Jamil
Reviving the Islamic Spirit Convention
On December 26, 2015, Renu Mandhane was a featured speaker at this international conference, attended by over 10,000 people. (Full speech available at www.ohrc.on.ca)