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Opening statement: Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage Systemic Racism and Religious Discrimination M-103

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September 20, 2017

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Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage
Systemic Racism and Religious Discrimination M-103

Opening statement:
Renu Mandhane
Chief Commissioner
Ontario Human Rights Commission

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Thank you, Madam Chair, for inviting me to speak today. I’d like to begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional territory of the Algonquins of Ontario, and recognize the long history of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples in Canada.

From our racial profiling consultation

Every day, people tell me about their experiences of discrimination. For them the existence of racism isn’t an idea to be debated – it is a lived reality. In our recent consultation on racial profiling in Ontario, one Black man said… [and I quote]…

Out shopping, I am the probable shoplifter.
Taking a walk, I am the probable wife snatcher or burglar. [end quote]

Over 50 years ago, the government created the Ontario Human Rights Commission to address anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, we are still in business today, and still uncovering forms of discrimination that have been hidden from public scrutiny for too long.

Up until recently, many Canadians, including myself, knew very little about the history of colonialism and the ongoing impact of inter-generational trauma on Indigenous peoples and families. For example, one woman told us… [and I quote]

I work as a midwife, primarily with Aboriginal women, and have lost track
of how many racist assumptions and mistreatments I've observed based
on race. [end quote]

About the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC)

The Ontario Human Rights Commission works to expose, challenge and end entrenched and widespread structures and systems of discrimination through education, policy development, public inquiries and litigation. We have developed detailed policies on discrimination based on race and creed.

The rise of Islamophobia

Since 9/11, we have seen a rise in discrimination against Muslim people or people perceived to be Muslim. We have heard concern that the term “Islamophobia” is vague and that it could be interpreted to include any criticism of the Muslim faith.

In our policy on creed we defined Islamophobia as:

Racism, stereotypes, prejudice, fear or acts of hostility directed towards individual Muslims or followers of Islam in general.

We have used this definition for many years without controversy. This is a straightforward definition that is completely in line with other terms we routinely use in human rights law, such as anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, or transphobia.

There is growing evidence that discrimination, harassment and even criminal activity against people who are Muslim is on the rise. Earlier this year, Statistics Canada reported that the number of police-reported hate crimes against Muslims jumped 60% in one year. Muslims were the second largest targeted group behind Jewish people.

Beyond individual acts…

Beyond individual acts of intolerance, Islamophobia can lead to viewing and treating Muslims as a greater security threat on an institutional, systemic and societal level. For example, one woman who often works in Arabic and Islamic countries told us… [and I quote]…

It usually goes like this: After check-in at the airport, I go to the security area. My carry-on will pass through the security belt, and I will pass through the scanner, both without a hitch. Even so, almost every time, I'll be told: “You've been randomly selected for additional screenings.” It's only a few extra seconds or minutes, but I've started to feel like replying back, “It's not random when it's every single time. [end quote]

Stereotypes of Muslims as a threat to security or Canadian values have been particularly pronounced, and have contributed to a hybrid of racial and religious profiling.

M-103 – calling out hate, discrimination

From the Commission’s perspective, it is vital for our leaders to recognize the ideological foundations of hate and discrimination and to name this in a clear fashion. That’s why it is important to call out Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Indigenous racism.

The adoption of M-103 is a good example of the Government of Canada playing
a leadership role in terms of both calling out racism and calling for action. This motion is similar to M-630, which condemned the rise in anti-Semitism and was unanimously adopted in 2015.

Limits to freedom of speech?

There has been a lot of discussion about the potential for motions like M-103 to limit free speech, which is a fundamental freedom under the Charter. M-103 does not limit expression. It does not prohibit any conduct whatsoever. It does not prevent people from saying what they think.

Instead, it’s a starting point for dealing with a problem that can quickly escalate and cause deadly harm, as we saw with the shootings at the Quebec City mosque.

Dealing with the harm, not the speech

Most Canadians accept that the Charter protects speech that many people would find offensive, so long as it doesn’t rise to the level of a hate crime or constitute harassment under human rights laws.

But the guarantee of free speech certainly cannot mean that the government’s hands are tied in terms of addressing the very real harms caused by racism, whether it is:

  • mistrust of public institutions
  • physical or mental harm to individuals
  • or long-term damage to a community’s collective well-being.

In the face of these harms, the Government can and must lead – by calling out racism, and putting policies and programs in place to send a strong, consistent message that racism and Islamophobia are damaging to individuals, communities, and ultimately to all of us who wish to live in peace and harmony. We need to send a collective message that, while the constitution protects freedom of expression, it also guarantees equality, regardless of race or religion.

The Government has the power to take action to protect people who are being harmed by racism and Islamophobia, and we call on it to boldly do so. There is considerable scope for the Government to develop positions, policies and programs that promote inclusion and respect, especially for racial and religious minorities. These types of actions are consistent with the values of Canadians and the Charter.

Ontario action

Indeed, the Government of Ontario has recently taken steps to do this, by establishing an Anti-Racism Directorate, to “apply an anti-racism lens in developing, implementing and evaluating government policies, programs and services.”

Ontario has also introduced legislation that makes it possible to require the collection of human rights-based data in key areas – like policing, education and child welfare. This data will help to identify systemic discrimination that is often hidden, and to chart progress in terms of eradicating it.

Call to action – Government of Canada

We call on the Government of Canada to take similar steps. First – the Government must continue to unequivocally call out Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Black racism, and anti-Indigenous racism.

Second, it needs to establish and appropriately fund anti-hate and anti-racism initiatives and programs. There are many options for doing this, such as adding an anti-racism stream to the Canadian Heritage grants programs, or updating the Government’s action plan on racism.

Third, the Government must take concrete steps to identify and eliminate systemic discrimination, including mandating the collection of human rights-based data across government services. For over 20 years the Government has required federal departments to conduct gender-based impact analysis. It’s time to follow the same path here – to require impact analysis based on race.


Just over a year ago, while visiting Ottawa, then-President Obama proclaimed: “The world needs more Canada.” There is much work to be done before we can rightfully hold ourselves out as a model for other nations to emulate.

Let's give the world more of the Canada that we all aspire to, one where everyone's human rights are a lived reality.

And let us not be hobbled in our efforts by those who are more concerned with defining racism than ending it.

Thank you.