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Under suspicion: Research and consultation report on racial profiling in Ontario

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Executive summary

I'm frequently followed by police while driving, to the point that I expect it to happen and I am surprised when it doesn't (Black male, age 25-34).

For many years, racialized and Indigenous communities have spoken out about their deep mistrust of public institutions – such as police, corrections, child welfare agencies and others. These are the very institutions we have entrusted to protect us and help us with highly sensitive issues, and which often respond to the needs of the most vulnerable people in our society. Yet, for racialized and Indigenous peoples, too often the trust they should feel is overridden by the lived experience of racial profiling, such as being unfairly singled out for surveillance, scrutiny, investigation and disproportionately harsh treatment. 

Racial profiling is an insidious and particularly damaging type of racial discrimination that relates to notions of safety and security. Racial profiling violates people’s rights under the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code). People from many different communities experience racial profiling. However, it is often directed at Indigenous peoples, Muslims, Arabs, West Asians and Black people, and is often influenced by the distinctly negative stereotypes that people in these communities face.

Racial profiling has profound effects

Racial profiling can have profound personal impacts. Racial profiling has a harmful effect on dignity. Victims may also lose their sense of being safe and secure, their liberty, their connection with their families and communities, and in the most tragic cases, their lives. Racial profiling also has harmful impacts on the social fabric of society.

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. For example… calling social workers or child protection agencies because parents are young and native – massive profiling in the selection of who has that involvement.

Then, once that involvement starts, Aboriginal women are much more likely to have their babies removed for much more dubious reasons (Mixed race – White and Aboriginal female, age 35-44).

Ontario is at a critical juncture

In terms of addressing racial profiling, we are at a critical juncture in Ontario. Ontario is becoming more racially, ethnically and religiously diverse and yet increasingly economically stratified. Many institutions in society are becoming more focused on assessing potential threats to safety, citing concerns about terrorism and violence. Concerns about racial profiling take place against this backdrop of heightened security.

Societal recognition of the phenomenon of racial profiling and its corrosive effects has grown in recent years. Today, many community leaders in Ontario, including several in the policing community, and many members of the general public more readily acknowledge that racial profiling exists. A growing body of decisions by Canadian human rights tribunals and courts have affirmed that racial profiling happens in policing and other areas, such as retail settings. Decisions and settlements arising from these claims have led some institutions to take steps to address racial profiling. Nevertheless, many still deny the reality of racial profiling. Some people and institutions see racial profiling as a normal, even effective tool for gathering information, assessing risk and ensuring safety.

I used to be a police officer, I saw this kind of thing literally EVERY SINGLE DAY. I saw the criminalization of racialized youth over time, and have witnessed racial profiling more times than I can count. I know that active officers (in general) don't see what they do as racial profiling. They are provided with an approved language to articulate what they are doing and why (White female, age 35-44).

A core part of the OHRC’s work

Combatting racial discrimination, including racial profiling, has been a core part of the ongoing work of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). In 2003, we released the results of a year-long public interest inquiry on the personal and social impacts of racial profiling. Through detailed first-person narratives, our report, Paying the price: The human cost of racial profiling, showed the severe and widespread impacts of profiling on racialized and Indigenous individuals and communities.

In the years since, we have helped to advance the law before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) and the courts, initiated partnerships with law enforcement institutions in an effort to effect large-scale organizational change, conducted training and public education, launched public interest inquiries, made submissions to government, and worked with community and advocacy groups.

In our 2017-2022 strategic plan, we committed to being a leadership voice on human rights issues and making sure that people’s lived experiences are at the centre of our work. We will use our enforcement powers under the Code to work towards non-discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system, including ending racial profiling in policing.

As part of this ongoing work, we decided to provide more detailed policy guidance on racial profiling. The aim is to give specific information to organizations, individuals and communities on how to identify, address and prevent racial profiling. To do this, we reviewed the case law and undertook a year-long consultation. This report presents what we heard from the consultation. 

The consultation

To gather information for the consultation, we connected with people and organizations representing diverse perspectives, including affected people from Indigenous, racialized and Muslim communities, legal and academic researchers, educators, human rights practitioners and police, among others. We conducted an online survey, analyzed applications made to the HRTO that alleged racial profiling, held a policy dialogue consultation, conducted focus groups with Indigenous peoples and received written submissions. Overall, almost 1,650 individuals and organizations told us about their experiences or understanding of racial profiling in Ontario.

We call it the Brown Guy room at the airport for a reason. I even have my "regular seat” (South Asian Hindu male, age 45-54).

When we started this consultation, the aim was to highlight perspectives and reports of racial profiling. However, along the way we learned that to do justice to people’s experiences, we had to talk about racial profiling alongside other forms of racial discrimination and racism, such as inequitable treatment, harassment, systemic discrimination, everyday racism and hate activity. These experiences are persistent in the lives of racialized and Indigenous peoples and are often hard to parse out from individual experiences of racial profiling.  Although the focus of this report remains on racial profiling, by presenting these other experiences as well, we hope to more holistically portray how multiple forms of racial discrimination create barriers to equally accessing employment, housing and services in Ontario.

I was at my workplace and we have swipe cards to get into rooms. I went into my office and immediately security knocked at the door. They said they wanted to check who had gone in. I am pretty sure they got alarmed because all they could see was someone wearing hijab walking into an office (South Asian Muslim female, age 25-34).

What we heard

During the consultation, we heard many perspectives and experiences. We heard concerns about racialized and Indigenous peoples being subjected to unwarranted surveillance, investigation and other forms of scrutiny, punitive actions and heavy-handed treatment. We also tried to explore other, less well-understood forms of racial profiling, such as institutional policies, practices, assessment tools and decision-making processes, which may seem neutral but may nonetheless amount to systemic racial profiling. We also heard about potential solutions.

Some of the key findings from our consultation are:

  • The widespread nature of incidents of racial profiling, along with a growing body of case law and social science and legal research, confirm not only that racial profiling exists, but also that it is a broad concern shared by many Ontarians. Alarmingly, the experiences we heard were similar to the ones we heard when we did our racial profiling inquiry back in 2003.
  • Racial profiling causes considerable harm to individuals, families and the social fabric of communities. We heard how dealing with experiences of racial profiling and other forms of racial discrimination is exhausting because they are so pervasive. Racial profiling is associated with negative effects, including effects on individuals’ mental and physical health. It contributes to barriers that prevent racialized and Indigenous peoples from being able to achieve equal opportunity. Significantly, racial profiling – and the perception of racial profiling – severely diminishes people’s sense of trust in public institutions. This eroded trust undermines the effectiveness and authority of these institutions.
  • Although racial profiling in policing continues to be a major issue, racial profiling occurs in many other sectors beyond policing. Many participants told us they regularly experienced racial profiling in retail and private businesses, for example. People reported being racially profiled by various systems, organizations and institutions – education, retail, child welfare, transportation, private security, national security and other areas. Consultation participants commonly named multiple experiences of racial profiling and racial discrimination in more than one sector.
  • Racial profiling is not just about individual incidents perpetrated by individuals in authority based on conscious or unconscious bias. In fact, racial profiling can be more subtle. It can become part of the “normal” way an organization operates. We heard how many individual incidents of racial profiling may arise because of policies, procedures, decision-making practices or culture embedded throughout the organization or sector. Collectively, we must start looking at racial profiling as institutional or systemic in nature.

We are encouraged that there appears to be growing consensus on what is needed to eliminate racial profiling. Racial profiling is entrenched in society, is complex, and can be challenging for all involved in addressing it. Preventing and addressing racial profiling is a shared responsibility. Government, public institutions and other responsible organizations must take concrete action and decisive steps to prevent, identify and respond to racial profiling. Only then can trust begin to be rebuilt between racialized and Indigenous communities and the organizations that serve them. And only then can organizations make sure they are meeting their obligations to uphold people’s rights, under the Ontario Human Rights Code, to be free from racial profiling. 

Next steps

To act on what we learned through our research and consultation, the OHRC will undertake a series of next steps to address and prevent racial profiling:

  • The OHRC will develop specific policy guidance in the area of services to help individuals, community groups and organizations understand how racial profiling can be prevented and addressed. This policy guidance will focus on policing and law enforcement, child welfare, court and corrections and other sectors as needed.
  • The OHRC will collaborate with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities and groups to better understand Indigenous perspectives. We will work towards collaboratively developing resources and tools to address Indigenous peoples’ human rights.
  • Where appropriate, the OHRC will continue to launch public interest inquiries, intervene in cases and/or launch Commission-initiated applications to the HRTO to actively challenge cases of alleged racial profiling, with a focus on combatting racial profiling in the criminal justice system.
  • The OHRC will continue to work with community stakeholders to enhance public education on racial profiling.
  • The OHRC will continue to call for the collection of race-based data and data on other Code grounds to better understand if racial disparities exist in sectors such as policing, child welfare and education.
  • The OHRC will consider modifying its racial profiling definition based on participant perspectives, bearing in mind its historical usage and how the term has been discussed in the case law.

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