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Community engagement a cornerstone of pandemic response

Community engagement is a cornerstone of the OHRC’s work. Tapping into the lived experiences of the people and communities across Ontario keeps our finger on the pulse of emerging human rights issues, allows us to target our resources and efforts to where they are most needed, and provides us with feedback on our own progress. This has never been more critical than in the past year.

In our Strategic Plan, the OHRC made an explicit commitment to make sure community engagement is the starting point for action. This commitment led us to establish, pursuant to s. 31.5 of the Ontario Human Rights Code, a series of advisory groups to reflect the lived realities in the areas we are focusing on. From individual advocates to community service providers, to public and private actors and leaders – the relationships we have developed across all sectors have helped us advance transformational policy reform, fuel our public interest litigation, and guide and illuminate our systemic inquiries.

Along with the larger Community Advisory Group, we created smaller groups of people and organizations with specific lived experience or expertise in key areas. Our advisory groups include: Education, Employment, Poverty and Indigenous Reconciliation.

Each group meets regularly and offers an opportunity for the community to add their input on the work we are doing, and to hold us to account for that work. We regularly call for governments and organizations to consult with vulnerable or equity seeking communities, so we believe it is important to hold ourselves to the same standards.

Although the OHRC’s focus on engaging with communities started well before we had to tackle a pandemic response, we have seen that the need for community engagement has never been more critical in these challenging times. In addition to implementing an internal system to facilitate timely identification of new and evolving COVID-19 issues which included daily and weekly analysis of COVID-19-related reports, statements and inquiries from government and media, the OHRC made it a priority to meet with stakeholder organizations, and Indigenous communities and organizations.

A good example of how community engagement propelled our work happened in January 2020 during the early days of COVID-19. The OHRC heard concerns from Chinese and Southeast Asian communities who were being labelled as COVID-19 carriers and experiencing forms of anti-Asian racism. Acting on these concerns, the OHRC issued a statement calling out xenophobia and pernicious racial stereotypes.

In March 2020, the OHRC quickly convened a group of human rights experts and stakeholders to engage on principles underlying a human rights-based approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic across a range of potential policy, legal, regulatory, public health and emergency related responses. These engagements culminated in the OHRC’s release of its Policy statement on a human rights-based approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both of these were among the first statements and initiatives commenced on these important issues by a human rights agency in Canada, and this wouldn’t have happened without our community connections.

In addition, throughout the year, we continued to listen to community perspectives for a better understanding of the impacts of COVID-19 on Human Rights Code-protected vulnerable communities. For example, in April 2020, after Ontario Health shared a draft Clinical Triage Protocol for Major Surge in COVID Pandemic (draft protocol) with hospitals and health care organizations, the OHRC wrote to the Minister of Health stressing that any progress to develop a draft protocol should include human rights experts and representatives from vulnerable groups.

The OHRC quickly began its own stakeholder consultations with organizations representing people with disabilities, Black and other racialized communities, and older people, who raised serious concerns about the potential negative impact of the draft protocol on vulnerable groups protected under the Code. The OHRC continued to engage with these stakeholders over the course of the year, including in December 2020, when the OHRC co-facilitated a meeting that brought together human rights stakeholders, bioethicists, policy makers and government representatives to discuss how to move forward with the draft protocol. The OHRC then relied on the perspectives shared from these engagements in its advocacy with the Ministry.

These are just a few examples of why community engagement will continue to drive our work to embed human rights in pandemic responses – and will continue to be a cornerstone of all of our work.


Bringing eLearning to life

In November 2020, OHRC launched the newest version of its main online training program, Human Rights 101third edition (2020). This revised eLearning program offers a fresh new look, expands discussions on types of discrimination, and shares the latest directions in human rights, along with added scenarios and knowledge checks. The course, designed to provide an understanding of rights and responsibilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code, covers:

  • The Code
  • Types of discrimination
  • Interpreting and applying the Code
  • Is this discrimination?
  • Ontario’s human rights system.

Human Rights 101, which is one of the OHRC’s most popular eLearning programs, also added new features on the technical side, as it became fully Flash-free and mobile-friendly, which makes it easier to navigate.

Also, the OHRC greatly expanded its roster of other learning tools available to organizations for their internal training. Anyone with a smart phone with Internet can now take Working Together: The Code and the AODA, about our rights and responsibilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), and Call it out: racism, racial discrimination and human rights, our 30-minute interactive eCourse about race, racial discrimination and human rights protections under the Code.

Even before COVID-19, it had become clear that organizations are eager to provide tailored human rights and racism awareness training to their employees across Ontario. That’s why the OHRC worked to strengthen connections and deepen collaborations with learning design, human resource and training teams elsewhere in the public and private sectors. The result is the most robust collection of tools for organizations’ own learning management systems (LMS) with the greatest variety of options we have ever offered.

Many organizations worked with the OHRC to provide feedback and test prototypes of our products. These included the cities of Toronto and Windsor, the Town of Oakville, Mohawk College, the Real Estate Council of Ontario, Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, Joseph Brant Hospital and several others. These organizations became the earliest adopters of HR101, Working Together and Call it Out.

To take any of these eCourses yourself, or to obtain a copy for your group’s viewing or training, visit eLearning.


Twitter iconTwitter

Irwin Elman @irwinelman
This is great @OntHumanRights! Is there a way we could create a child and youth friendly version? I know there are many who would assist if you are up for the challenge. Let’s do it!


Paolo De Buono, Rainbow #BLM, MSc, JD, OCT @misterdebuono
As an educator, don't wait for the human rights training that may not happen soon. There is learning available such as this 30-minute eLearning course by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Your teaching services in ON are subject to the Ontario Human Rights Code.


Making personal connections across Ontario

In this challenging year, when in-person engagement with people across Ontario was not possible due to pandemic restrictions, the OHRC shifted its focus online. The Chief Commissioner, Commissioners and the Executive Director continued to be featured speakers at conferences, training sessions, public meetings, news conferences and other events. Through these online efforts, over 4,100 people were engaged in 39 public speaking events.

As well, the Chief Commissioner recorded two video addresses, with an estimated audience of over 200,000.


Speech/video highlights:

  • Department of Justice/Canadian Bar Association Conference, “The future of law”
  • Ontario Bar Association: “Annual update on human rights law”
  • Canadian Institute, 11th Annual Law of Policing Conference: “Racial profiling”
  • Ryerson University: “Anti-discrimination policies and practices in times of Black Lives Matter and COVID-19: Ontario and Baden-Württemberg compared”
  • Concerned Citizens and Advocates, Kenora: “Anti-Indigenous racism in Kenora


Continuing to focus on public education

The pandemic also posed a major challenge as the OHRC worked to provide human rights education across Ontario. This past year, many organizations cancelled events the OHRC would normally have been involved with, but we continued to engage online and remotely wherever possible. Training session highlights included:

  • Hospital for Sick Children, University of Toronto: “Taking a human rights-based approach to COVID-19
  • York Regional Police Hate Crime Conference: “Race-based hate and the Policy on eliminating racial profiling in law enforcement
  • Human Resources Professionals Association Systemic Racism Webinar Series: “Definitions and approaches to addressing systemic racism”
  • Niagara Catholic District School Board: “Human rights essentials for educators.”
  • Ontario Public School Boards Association: “Using Code special programs to hire diverse teachers”


Community Advisory Group continues to share, teach

Using a new approach to engagement, the Community Advisory Group (CAG) met virtually this year, participating in videoconferences in September and December, 2020. This group includes 44 community leaders, who represent diverse communities from across Ontario. Members learned about recent OHRC initiatives and shared current and emerging human rights issues affecting the communities they serve. Major themes included the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on already vulnerable groups leading to further marginalization, and the continued rise in hate including anti-Asian and anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Member advice and insights have continued to guide ongoing OHRC work as well as plans for the coming year.  


Introducing the Community Advisory Group

  • Zanana Akande, Black Legal Action Centre
  • Elton Beardy, Feathers of Hope
  • Juana Berinstein, Association of Ontario Midwives
  • Paul Champ, Champ & Associates
  • Uppala Chandrasekera, Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario
  • Lisa Cirillo, Downtown Legal Services
  • Claudette Commanda, First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres
  • Mojdeh Cox, Canadian Labour Congress
  • Mike Creek, Working for Change
  • Jeremy Dias, The Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity
  • Debbie Douglas, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants
  • Yasin Dwyer, Ryerson University
  • Patti Fairfield, Ne-Chee Indigenous Friendship Centre
  • Mustafa Farooq, National Council of Canadian Muslims
  • Lyndon George, Hamilton Community Legal Clinic
  • Avvy Go, Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic
  • Kenneth Hale, Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario
  • Kelly Hannah-Moffat, University of Toronto
  • Dakota Heon, Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres Youth Council
  • Raihanna Hirji-Khalfan, Training Consultant
  • Carl James, York University
  • Salha Jeizan, Multicultural Inter-Agency Group of Peel
  • Saleha Khan, Peel Regional Police
  • Farrah Khan, Ryerson University
  • Anita Khanna, United Way Centraide Canada
  • Lori Kleinsmith, Bridges Community Health Centre
  • Shalini Konanur, South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario
  • Robert Lattanzio, ARCH Disability Law
  • Elizabeth McIsaac, Maytree
  • Fallon Melander, Metrolinx
  • Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, Canadian Civil Liberties Association
  • Juliette Nicolet, Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres
  • Kiki Ojo, Kojo Institute
  • Paula Osmok, John Howard Society of Ontario
  • Pam Palmater, Ryerson University
  • Jessica Reekie, Ontario Justice Education Network
  • Cecil Roach, York Region District School Board
  • Nancy Rowe, Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation
  • Neethan Shan, Urban Alliance on Race Relations
  • Talayeh Shomali, Canadian Civil Liberties Association
  • Balpreet Singh, World Sikh Organization of Canada
  • Catherine Soplet, Peel Poverty Action Group
  • Tony Kourie, Canadian Human Rights Commission
  • Clara Matheson, Human Rights Legal Support Centre


Employer Advisory Group sets three practical goals

The Employer Advisory Group (EAG) has identified three practical goals for its work: to evaluate the needs and priorities of employers; to evaluate current human rights tools and resources to determine if new tools are needed; and to recommend changes to the human rights adjudication process. While work on these goals was paused for most of 2020 as members pivoted to respond to the demands of the pandemic, it is now underway again.

In December 2020, the OHRC made significant progress on the third goal by facilitating a meeting involving EAG members, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) and the Ministry of the Attorney General to discuss challenges employers face in the human rights adjudication process. Issues raised by EAG members included procedural delays, insufficiency of skilled vice chairs, lack of settlement statistics, and the need for ongoing and meaningful stakeholder engagement. EAG members noted that these issues “significantly impede the HRTO’s ability to ensure that alleged violations of the Code are adjudicated in a fair, timely, transparent and professional manner that satisfies and meets public service standards for all parties, including employers.” At this very productive meeting, the HRTO outlined steps it is taking to address the identified deficiencies and invited EAG members to take part in stakeholder engagement opportunities planned for 2021.  

In January 2021, the EAG held its first plenary meeting since the onset of the pandemic. Members discussed challenges with the human rights adjudication process, and shared ways that COVID-19 has affected the sectors and employers they represent. Members expressed a strong interest in having a mechanism to bring new and emerging workplace human rights issues to the OHRC’s attention, and in being consulted on potential solutions.


Introducing the Employer Advisory Group

  • Jane Albright, Ontario Municipal Human Resources Association
  • Diane Brisebois, Retail Council of Canada
  • Cindy Cacciotti, Council of Ontario Universities
  • Lisa Carty, Office of the General Counsel, Deloitte LLP
  • Dennis Darby, Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters
  • David DeSantis, Council of Directors of Education
  • Michael Duben, Ontario Municipal Administrators’ Association
  • Tony Elenis, Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association
  • Janice Hall, Technation
  • Plamen Petkov, Canadian Federation of Independent Business
  • James Rilett, Restaurants Canada
  • Rocco Rossi, Ontario Chamber of Commerce
  • Laura Russell, Schedule 2 Employers’ Group
  • Carissa Tanzola, Ontario Bar Association – Labour and Employment Section
  • Louise Taylor Green, Human Resources Professionals Association


Calling on Facebook to prevent discrimination

In December 2020, the OHRC and the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) welcomed the news that Facebook has now implemented and is enforcing several safeguards to prevent discriminatory targeting of advertisements for housing, employment and credit opportunities in Canada.

This development arose after the OHRC and CHRC’s joint call for Facebook to take action on this issue. The commissions first wrote to Facebook in June 2019 to express concern that the platform enabled ads to be targeted in ways that excluded people based on protected characteristics, like age or gender, contrary to Canada’s federal and provincial human rights laws.

We urged Facebook to take several steps to address this issue, consistent with changes being made in the United States. In January 2021, Facebook publicly committed to making these changes in Canada by late 2021. Changes included:

  • Restricting the ability of advertisers to target ads that offer housing, employment and credit opportunities based on age, gender, postal code, or any other detailed options describing or appearing to relate to characteristics protected under Canadian and Ontario human rights laws
  • Providing education to all advertisers about discriminatory advertising, and requiring advertisers to self-declare that they are not engaging in discriminatory housing, employment or credit advertising
  • Monitoring for any housing, employment and credit ads that may still target in a discriminatory way, and preventing these ads from running
  • Providing access to all Canadian advertisements for employment, housing and credit opportunities in an Ad Library that can be viewed and searched by all users.

Advertising is how many Canadians learn about critical opportunities, like a job opening or an apartment for rent. Part of ensuring equal access to these opportunities is making sure everyone has a chance to learn about them in the first place. The importance of this is even more evident today than when the commissions first called on Facebook to make these changes. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented numbers of people facing precarious housing, employment and financial circumstances – with the people in our communities who were already the most marginalized being disproportionately affected.

It is imperative to make sure that available housing, employment and credit opportunities are advertised without discrimination and in line with human rights laws. The new safeguards are an important part of achieving this.

We know that Facebook is also aware of the need to ensure that its ad delivery algorithms are not themselves causing ads to be distributed in a discriminatory way. As automated decision-making and artificial intelligence (AI) systems are increasingly relied on, it is critical that these systems are not biased and do not create or perpetuate systemic discrimination. We understand that Facebook is engaging experts, academics, researchers, and civil rights and privacy advocates on the issue of algorithmic bias, and is also using internal pilot projects to identify and address bias issues with its own algorithms. We urge Facebook to pursue all efforts to address algorithmic bias, and ask that Facebook report to us on developments it makes in this area.

The OHRC and CHRC look forward to seeing the operation of the new Canadian advertising safeguards and the further steps that Facebook takes to protect against discrimination.


Media highlights


Our Commissioners

Our Commissioners have in-depth knowledge and expertise in human rights and issues relating to vulnerable populations, public policy, social values, and concepts of fairness, justice and public service.


Ena Chadha, Chief Commissioner
Appointment: July 22, 2020 – July 21, 2021


Jewel Amoah
Appointment: May 28, 2020 – May 27, 2022


Randall Arsenault
Appointment: January 9, 2020 – January 8, 2022


Brian Eyolfson
Appointment: November 12, 2020 – November 11, 2022


Violetta Igneski
Appointment: January 9, 2020 – January 8, 2022


Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner
Appointment: October 30, 2015 – May 21, 2020


Gary Pieters
Appointment: March 25, 2021 – March 24, 2023

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