60 years: celebrating the past, accepting the challenge of the future
To me, human rights means respect … equal access to justice … being in touch with some of the very most important things in this universe. Human rights to me means that we get to live in a world with equality and peace.
To me, human rights means that you have the right to love who you want … respect for our differences … the ability to live your life without fear … allow people to live with dignity, freedom, equality, peace and justice … create equal opportunities for all … built on mutual respect and understanding. Human rights also means having a lever for those who experience inequality.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission to me means that we all get to live in a world of peace and equality, which makes us all happier … it means a life free from poverty and a life full of opportunity. The Ontario Human Rights Commission means bringing this vision to life.
These are a few of the words that kicked off the OHRC’s virtual celebration on March 29, 2021, as we celebrated its 60th anniversary. This YouTube event marked the start of a 15-month period of commemoration and celebration of both the OHRC’s 60th anniversary and the 60th anniversary of Ontario’s Human Rights Code in June 2022.
The OHRC was built on the dedication and sacrifices of people who challenged the status quo as individuals, and as members of larger communities. At the virtual celebration, we shared just a few of the many stories from the visionaries who have led us, pushed us and worked with us to make lasting positive change across Ontario.
From our founding in 1961, the principles of dignity and inclusion have inspired our work and served as the cornerstone of the transformative changes the OHRC has achieved in its 60 years of human rights advocacy.
This spirit of dignity and inclusion has always been embodied in our work with communities, as we collectively seek to eliminate the root causes of systemic discrimination. As the OHRC recognizes its achievements, these achievements are not ours alone. This has been a shared journey realized through the insights, vision and tenacity of the individuals and communities across Ontario who share a commitment to equity and respect.
Human rights are first and foremost about elevating the voices of marginalized groups, so that everyone can be heard equally with dignity and compassion. This 15-month celebration is a testament to the many dynamic people who have propelled the OHRC to be a recognized human rights leader in Ontario and around the world.
This year is an opportunity to look back at the human rights heroes who led the way, celebrate the tireless community advocates who continue to advance human rights in an era of uncertainty. It is also an opportunity to nurture the next generation of human rights leaders who are redefining the social realities and who will transform the way we conceptualize equality rights for decades to come.
View the virtual celebration
A full video of the March 29 event is available on YouTube or through the OHRC website. The video features a variety of visionaries from the past and the present, who share their personal experiences advancing human rights in Ontario, and add their thoughts on what the future holds. These include past and current chief commissioners and commissioners, people whose human rights cases led to ground-breaking change, and community partners who support us and challenge us to continue to advance human rights.
Many ways to take part – watch for details
There will be more celebrations over the months leading up to the 60th anniversary of the Human Rights Code in June 2022, and various ways to take part. We will regularly update our website with what is coming up as plans are finalized.
Zahra Vaid @zahravaid
Human rights is access to justice for those who have been excluded, today & historically, from seeking redress for wrongs done to them. It is a space, in law & beyond, for intersectional analysis & restorative justice. Most importantly, human rights can save lives. #OHRCat60
Hockey Hall of Fame @HockeyHallFame
In 1986 Justine Blainey-Broker was awarded the right to play in the MTHL after being denied due to gender (after she already earned a spot on a team). Join the @OntHumanRights in celebrating 60 years of protecting Ontarians.
Human Rights Canada @CdnHumanRights
Congratulations on a terrific milestone! We loved hearing all these positive messages!
Thank you for all the hard work you do. There is so much discrimination going on I face it all the time for disability. I feel empowered to know I can fight back and that is a big comfort to me.
YouTube live stream comment highlights
Congratulations ORHC. I had the pleasure of working as a consultant when I headed up the Urban Alliance On Race Relations 1990-1991. Great to be a witness to all the achievements of the OHRC.
#accessibilitydoneright Thank you!
Congratulations on 60 years! Your work is needed now more than ever as we see the pandemic magnify existing inequities. Thank you!
It's so good to hear about these important cases from the people who fought them. What a service they and the Commission have done for the public, over so many years.
Keep challenging the complacency of our institutions and our societal biases - produce more justice for the others.
“I’m sure he had a tiny budget; I don’t think he had more than one or two employees in those early years at the Commission so it was a tiny operation … He printed up pamphlets and brochures and distributed them and travelled around in his Volkswagen Beetle telling everybody about the Commission, sent out information to everybody he knew in Canada and the States.”
- Lawrence Hill, speaking about his father, Daniel Hill, OHRC 60th anniversary kick-off event
“So at the age of 10 I wanted to play hockey with my brother, and they told me little girls weren’t allowed. I was allowed to practice with him, but I was not allowed to play with him. I was told that the girls should play with the girls, that boys should play with the boys … we finally did win, and I did get a chance to play hockey with the boys … full contact, body checking. All five-foot-four of me, with six-foot guys. And I loved it!”
- Justine Blainey-Broker, OHRC 60th anniversary kick-off event
“The Commission’s approach of working with rather than working for communities I think is a very critical practice of the Commission…the Commission by forming partnerships has validated, legitimized the experience of ordinary people, given credibility to the hard work that community-based organizations with very little resources do, and benefited in that by involving them as equal partners the Commission’s own work has been enriched and gained in credibility.”
- Dr. Alok Mukherjee, interim chief commissioner, 1992–93
“The parties managed to reach an agreement with nine movie theatres who all worked toward the agreement and the settlement and from that settlement was where we saw rear-window captioning services available at movie theatres. That created quite a different experience … I could have a conversation with my family about what I saw in the movie whereas prior to the technology it was about guesswork and trying to understand what I was watching on the big screen.”
- Gary Malkowski, OHRC 60th anniversary kick-off event
Muhammad Ali and the Ontario Human Rights Code
On March 29, 2021, the day of the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s (OHRC) 60th anniversary, the Toronto Star ran an in-depth, multi-page photo feature story on the 55th anniversary of Muhammad Ali’s famous Toronto boxing match. This incredibly popular article, called “How Muhammad Ali’s iconic Canadian debut brought Ontario’s human rights code into focus,” showcased Ali, his civil rights activism and Canada’s first human rights statute, our very own Ontario Human Rights Code (Code).
In the early 1960s, through his friendships with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Ali stood as a strong supporter of the civil rights movement. In 1966, due to backlash for speaking out against the Vietnam War, his name change from Cassius Clay and conversion to Islam, Ali was denied access to American boxing arenas. He may have been ostracized for his beliefs in the U.S.A., but that loss was Canada’s gain, which is where this unique Ontario human rights story unfolds.
In March 1966, Ali arrived in Toronto for his historic match against Toronto boxer George Chuvalo at Maple Leaf Gardens. In the days leading up to this legendary fight, Ali gave a rousing and remarkable interview about his motivation for changing his name. Ali emphasized that “Clay was not my name. We want to be called after names of our people, names that fit us Black people and Clay was a White man’s name, it was a slave name, and I am no longer a slave.” A prominent symbol displayed in that interview was the Ontario Human Rights Code, which served as the backdrop to Ali declaring his right to assert his identity as a free Black man.
So, what’s the background on the background? Why was the Code the backdrop of Ali’s important human rights pronouncements, and was this intentional?
Ontario’s Code is a landmark statute, the first of its kind in Canada and preceding the American Civil Rights Act by two years. The Code was enacted in June 1962 to prohibit discrimination in signs, services, facilities, public accommodation, and employee and trade union membership on the grounds of race, creed, colour, nationality, ancestry and place of origin.
Today, we know Ali’s interview took place at 1260 Bay Street, where Ali attended to sign papers in the presence of the Athletic Commissioner, who shared office space with the OHRC. The first Director of the OHRC was Dr. Daniel G. Hill. The OHRC believes that Dr. Hill had a hand in placing the Code into Ali’s interview, given Hill’s dedication to the OHRC and penchant for proudly promoting the Code.
Celebrated author Lawrence Hill, son of Dr. Hill, recalled that in the 1960s, his father was a big promoter of “storefront access” to human rights, along with being a huge Ali fan. He explains, “My father was an avid and enthusiastic promoter of the OHRC. He talked about it everywhere he went and distributed posters, pamphlets and information about the OHRC assiduously and widely in Canada and the USA. He was also a supreme fan of Muhammad Ali. He was aware of the Ali-Chuvalo fight, because I remember him speaking of it and I remember the fight too.”
Hill “can speculate about how it came to be that Ali spoke in front of the poster of the Code, and I have no difficulty imagining that my father might have been behind the effort to put the poster in the background of the interview. It’s the kind of thing my father would have been delighted to do.”
Ali’s victory against Chuvalo on March 29, 1966, was monumental in several ways. He remained a fighter and victor in the face of political backlash and criticism from the U.S.A. and the sports world. While there was some resistance to his new identity, even in Canada, Ali stood strong. In Toronto, Ali sent a message around the globe that he was his own man with the inherent right to determine his self-identity. He made clear that he was not going to accept what his former name represented or be bound by it, and the Code is as a backdrop framed the importance of this point.
Fifty-five years after Ali’s big win and many sports figures today, such as Masai Ujiri of the Toronto Raptors, use sport to speak out against and confront racial injustice. We often see how culture influences sport and how sport influences culture, and how both coalesce through human rights.
At the OHRC’s heart is a commitment to promote and advance human rights in all social sectors, and its history includes equality rights in sports. In 1987, the OHRC fought for hockey player Justine Blainey-Broker’s gender equality to play hockey on a male team. In 1988, the OHRC represented an 11-year-old girl living with cerebral palsy in securing the right to use a ramp to participate in competitive bowling. Again, in 1993, the OHRC challenged gender discrimination by a provincial soccer association. In 2014, the OHRC engaged in a settlement requiring Hockey Canada to change its dressing room policies across Ontario, to respect and accommodate transgender athletes. And in 2016, the OHRC intervened in a successful challenge of the inappropriate use of Indigenous-themed logos and team names in municipal sports. Currently, the OHRC is working to address anti-Indigenous racism in lacrosse.
Over the past six decades, many prominent visionaries have had an important role in promoting the OHRC. The story of Muhammad Ali and the Code reminds us how racial equality and sports are a significant part of Ontario’s history of human rights.
Joe Callaghan @JoeCallaghan84
Today is the 55th anniversary of Toronto’s most iconic bout. It’s also the 60th anniversary of @OntHumanRights. Rather than mere coincidence, this — and the stirring visual of Ali affirming his name change in front of the code — was a confluence, some say.