The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has prepared this policy statement to raise awareness of people’s rights and legal obligations to prevent and address caste-based discrimination under Ontario’s Human Rights Code (Code).
What is a caste system?
A caste system is a social stratification or hierarchy that determines a person or group’s social class or standing, rooted in their ancestry and underlying notions of “purity” and “pollution.” It is a traditional practice based in the political, social, cultural and economic structures of some cultural or religious communities and the societies in which it is practised.
Although a person’s caste may not be visible, certain markers may be used to identify and discriminate based on caste. Caste-markers can include first and last names, family deities, rituals, wedding bands, customs and ceremonies, belief systems, food habits or diet, accent, dialect, area of origin, ancestry, and descent. Skin colour or “colourism” can also be a marker of social status that overlaps or intersects with other markers. Different castes or sub-castes may take up different positions in the social hierarchy, while other groups may not be assigned a caste at all. These groups may be deemed “untouchable" and assigned a position at the bottom of the social hierarchy including local Indigenous peoples. A person’s caste is seen as immutable and determined at birth.
Impacts on aspects of life
Casteism affects all aspects of life and can result in social and economic exclusion and inequality for persons said to be of a “lower” caste. Individuals may experience discrimination in employment if they are denied promotions, assigned less desirable job duties, restricted from certain occupations, or harassed because of perceptions about caste. Individuals may face discrimination in housing if caste factors into a landlord’s decision about whether to rent them an apartment or treat them differently as tenants. Students might experience discrimination if schools fail to address harassment and bullying or other forms of negative treatment based on caste. People may refuse to enter into a contract with someone of a different or "lower" caste.
Caste-based discrimination: an internationally recognized violation of human rights
Caste-based discrimination is an internationally recognized violation of human rights. A United Nations report states that discrimination based on caste and similar systems of inherited status is a global problem. The UN refers to this form of differential treatment as “descent-based” discrimination, which includes discrimination against members within communities based on forms of social stratification that invalidate or impair their equal enjoyment of human rights.
Other human rights institutions have also recognized caste-based discrimination as a human rights issue.
Caste-based discrimination covered by Ontario’s Human Rights Code
The OHRC believes that existing grounds in Ontario’s Code provide for the necessary protections to deal with any potential form of discrimination related to a person’s caste or descent.
The OHRC’s Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed explains that conflict and discrimination claims can happen between members of the same community or group. Conflicts can be shaped by social differences and power dynamics operating within communities, whether based on a person’s socio-economic status, ancestry, creed, gender, colour, race, ethnic origin, place of origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other Code ground.
The policy also explains that discrimination may be intersectional when it occurs based on two or more Code grounds. The concept of intersectional discrimination recognizes that people’s lives involve multiple overlapping identities, and that marginalization and exclusion based on several Code grounds may happen because of how these identities intersect.
Caste is not a prescribed Code ground, and only the legislature can recognize a new ground. However, the OHRC, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and the courts must take a liberal and progressive interpretation of the Code. Human rights tribunals have found that caste-based discrimination is covered by human rights laws and can be challenged under one or more existing grounds.
The OHRC takes the position that caste-based discrimination is an intersectional system of discrimination that can be covered under any combination of ancestry, creed, colour, race, ethnic origin, place of origin, family status, or possibly other grounds, under Ontario’s Code.
Discriminatory treatment based on xenophobia, that is, dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries, is also contrary to the Code. So is discrimination based on a stereotype or perception that an individual or group practices a religion or comes from a community associated with the caste system.
Limits of the Code
The Code only prohibits discrimination in services, housing accommodation, employment, vocational associations and contracts. Therefore, not all differential treatment related to caste can be addressed under the Code.
The Code also has exceptions that permit a religious group and other organizations to limit membership, participation and potentially the employment of individuals based on a Code ground as long as they primarily serve the interests of people from the group and meet other requirements of the Code.
Legal obligation to address caste-based discrimination
Organizations have a legal obligation under the Code to make sure their environments are free from discrimination and harassment, bullying or a poisoned environment based on caste and the related grounds.
Organizations must respond to and investigate claims of caste-based discrimination, and remedy situations when discrimination is found. They should have a human rights complaint procedure in place and could also recognize caste-based discrimination in a corporate human rights policy.
Training and public awareness for staff and service recipients, such as students, may also be necessary to help prevent and address misinformation, prejudice and other barriers that contribute to caste-based discrimination, especially when caste-based discrimination is or ought to be a known problem within the organization or sector.
School boards have additional specific obligations to protect students and other members of the school community under Ontario’s Education Act and Provincial Code of Conduct for the education sector.
Hate activities targeted at a particular group may be a violation of Canada’s Criminal Code.
For more information
Anyone who believes they have experienced discrimination based on ancestry, creed or other Code grounds may contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre for advice and can file a claim, called an application, with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
Ontario Human Rights Commission
 The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has reaffirmed in General Recommendation 29 that discrimination based on “caste and analogous systems of inherited status” falls within the scope of descent in article 1(1) of the Convention.
 For more information, read The Australian Human Rights Commission, National Anti-racism Framework Scoping Report, 2022.
 A recent decision of the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal in Bhangu v Inderjit Dhillon and Others, 2023 BCHRT 24, supports this interpretation. The BC Tribunal found that caste-based discrimination claims are protected under existing grounds, such as “ancestry” and “race.
 For more information, see sections 8.2 and 8.3 of the OHRC’s Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed. See also, Sahota and Shergill v. Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha Temple, 2008 BCHRT 269 (CanLII).