Human rights under pressure: from policing to pandemics
The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) just turned 60, and next year, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Human Rights Code. Both the OHRC and the Code were the first of their kind in Canada. From the beginning, the Code enshrined the vision and the OHRC served as the leading voice for human rights.
This is a time to reflect on the past and the many people who have shaped the evolution and advancement of the OHRC and the Code. From the outset, as embodied by our first Chair, Louis Fine, and first Director, Dr. Daniel G. Hill, this advancement has depended on meaningful engagement with communities to better learn the challenges they experience, their expectations of how the OHRC can help promote equity, the places the Code could be strengthened, and how we could seize opportunities to champion human rights.
This focus on the lived experiences of communities has never been more important than this past year as Ontario and the world confronted two pandemics – COVID-19 and the sharp rise of anti-Black and systemic racism. Both crises have put the values of human rights under intense pressure and risk in our neighbourhoods, our schools, our health-care system, and everywhere else in our society.
As government and agencies began emergency planning based on the misplaced notion that the pandemic didn’t discriminate, the OHRC moved quickly to frame COVID-19 as a serious human rights issue and spotlight the potency of its discriminatory effects. Because we consistently heard how certain communities were being disproportionately disadvantaged, we understood that we had to be unyielding in our pressure to call out xenophobia and systemic discrimination that targets vulnerable groups across Ontario.
This annual report offers more detail and insight on our significant body of work, from the pandemic to policing. Along with pivoting to respond to COVID-19 issues, the OHRC continued to meet our existing commitments – to pursue systemic change in education and criminal justice, to promote Indigenous reconciliation and engagement, and to present poverty through a nuanced human rights framework.
When I was appointed Chief Commissioner in July 2020, I was met with a flurry of activity on COVID-19, as the OHRC issued policy statements and guidelines, wrote to and negotiated with many ministries and municipalities, consulted extensively with affected communities, and offered practical guidance to employers, service and housing providers. At the same time, as this annual report clearly shows, we are continuing to advance our priority commitments and advocate for equity in a multitude of new arenas, relying on disaggregated data and human rights principles.
For example, as I write this, we are in the final stages of completing two important public interest inquiries that we hope will inspire transformational, system-wide change in education and policing in Ontario. The first is our Right to Read inquiry into human rights issues that affect students with reading disabilities in Ontario’s public education system. The goal is to assess whether Ontario is using evidence-based approaches to fulfill the right to read, a crucial need for all students. The second is our ongoing inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination against Black people by the Toronto Police Service.
While the inquiries have faced delays and hurdles due to the pandemic, the OHRC team is undertaking a tremendous amount of work to release both reports in 2021–22. Both reports will outline our systemic findings, and include a series of recommendations to improve human rights in education and policing across the province.
The entire world faced a tumultuous year in 2020–21, with crises ranging from a pandemic to polarizing political change to pronounced awareness of anti-Black and anti-Asian racism and health disparities. Across the world, and right here in Ontario, human rights were under pressure and at risk of being reduced or ignored in a time of crisis. And the OHRC responded, thanks to the tireless efforts of its dedicated team. OHRC staff from diverse backgrounds contributing an expert range of talents, including legal, policy, communication, and often behind-the-scenes skills like information technology and administration, kept us solidly moving forward. Despite the challenges of remote work, our staff continued their deep commitment to advancing human rights, and gave the best of themselves to make this happen.
We also saw this commitment from our Commissioners, who steadfastly studied our work to provide their keen ideas and insights throughout the year. Like our staff, the Commissioners played a critical role in supporting the OHRC’s mandate with their thoughtful advice and strategic direction. And we saw a similar commitment from the many individuals and groups across the province, who are a testament to the vibrancy of their communities. These community advisors have continued to support the OHRC by sharing their lived realities, advising and guiding us, and alerting us to emerging issues – just as they have done for 60 years. On behalf of the OHRC, I thank you all for committing to promote justice and peace in our part of the world.
Respect, equality and dignity are at the core of the OHRC and the Code. In 2020–21, these inalienable values and human rights were definitely under pressure. But with the contributions of so many people across Ontario, they did not diminish or break.