Human rights partners

Community Opinion & Analysis Dec 20, 2013 at 4:29 pm
By Barbara Hall Chief Commissioner Ontario Human Rights Commission

By Barbara Hall
Chief Commissioner Ontario Human Rights Commission

The Ethnic Media:

(Speech delivered at the National Ethnic Press journalism seminar on Dec. 8, 2013 at Seneca College, Markham Campus)


• It is a pleasure to join you today to talk about human rights, and the role the Human Rights Commission plays in Ontario.

• I will also talk about the crucial role you play – and responsibility you bear – as members of the media.

• To begin, I’d like to acknowledge that we are in the traditional territory of the Missaugas of the New Credit First Nation.

• When you consider how Aboriginal Peoples were here before anyone else arrived, the rest of us are all immigrants to this great country.

• A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at an event that combined the experiences of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and various racialized communities.

• One member of the ethnic press asked why they needed to know about past wrongs like the discrimination and harm that has so deeply affected Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples.

• The answer is – you need to know because you are now part of Canada. When you adopt this country’s government, education, laws, etc., you also are adopting the elements of our history the country may not be so proud of.

• And we all need to understand Canada’s history to stop discrimination, racism and division from becoming the way of the future.

• Canada’s history is full of events where public policy – and public opinion – was built on a foundation of stereotypes and racism.

• In the early 1900s, racist laws kept out or penalized Chinese workers. The Chinese Head Tax is a sad example of using the law to discriminate.

• In 1914, the arrival of the Komagata Maru in Vancouver brought anti-Indian sentiments in Vancouver to a fever pitch.

• The ship was carrying 376 people from India, including: 12 Hindus, 24 Muslims and 340 Sikhs.

• Because the public feared the “Indian invasion” that was happening in Vancouver, the passengers were not allowed to leave the ship, and were basically stranded for two months before being forced at gunpoint to head back to India.

• All this happened with the full support of the government of Canada.

• In the 1940s, it was common practice to put up signs in front of businesses or housing saying “No Coloureds,” or “Gentiles only.”

• And also in the 1940s, Canada’s doors were slammed shut when Jewish refugees were trying to flee certain death in World War II Europe.

• At other times, Italians, Ukranians, not to mention people of Japanese ancestry have faced racism and exclusion because of stereotypes.

• Similar barriers are still happening today for some groups of people. For example, people of Roma heritage and Muslim newcomers have faced increased scrutiny – and increased exclusion.

Ontario Human Rights Commission head Barbara Hall with Ethnic Press President Thomas Saras at the Seneca College Ethnic Press journalism seminar Dec. 8, 2013.

Ontario Human Rights Commission head Barbara Hall with Ethnic Press President Thomas Saras at the Seneca College Ethnic Press journalism seminar Dec. 8, 2013.

Mobilizing for human rights

• Today, we often forget these periods in history, because of our short memories about negative legacies.

• But each of these events, and many more, also served as a starting point for people to speak up and demand change.

• The hurt caused by the signs saying “no Coloureds” and “Gentiles only” led Blacks and Jews and labour and faith communities to mobilize, and to demand a human rights system to protect immigrants and people from different backgrounds.

• This led to the creation of Ontario’s first – and Canada’s first – Human Rights Code in 1962.

• The creation of the Code reflects the efforts of generations of community activists and leaders who fought to make Canada a better country.

• It has changed in many ways over the years, but the goals have always been the same:

• To create an Ontario where everyone has the right to be treated with dignity and respect and reach their full potential.

• And where everyone feels part of the community and able to contribute to it.

Today’s Code

• The Code of today makes it illegal to discriminate or harass people based on 17 personal characteristics – called grounds.

• These include things like race, colour, country of origin, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity.

• The Code says no one should be discriminated against or harassed in five parts of society – called social areas.

• These are: Employment; Housing; Goods, services and facilities; Contracts

• Membership in trade unions and vocational associations

• The system set up to administer the Code has three parts:
a court. It looks at complaints from individuals and decides where there has been discrimination, and what to do to remedy it.

• The Human Rights Legal Support Centre helps people who need legal advice; and

• The Ontario Human Rights Commission – or the OHRC.

• The work we do at the OHRC is about preventing discrimination before it takes root and taking proactive steps to address and reverse the ongoing impact and legacy of historical disadvantage.

• We educate, empower and mobilize

• We work to develop and publicize leading edge human rights policy, clarify the law and find solutions

Examples: Housing, disability

• We hold public interest inquiries

Example: restaurant accessibility or rental housing licensing in Waterloo and North Bay

• We reduce or resolve tension and conflict

• We do outreach, publications and training

• We take legal action to clarify the law or enforce compliance with the Code

For example, we intervened in a case at the Supreme Court of Canada on a case between William Whatcott and the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, involving a person’s right, based on freedom of expression and religion, to publish posters that promote hatred based on sexual orientation.

• We also intervened at the Ontario Municipal Board in a case against the City of Hamilton, which had denied planning approval for a group home for 8 teenage girls with mental health issues.

• Research and monitor what’s happening – report on the state of human rights in Ontario

• There is a big “However” in all of this, though.

• Changes in laws don’t guarantee changes in society – people are slower than the laws to change their beliefs and actions.

• Even though it might be slower, there has been much positive change.

• As a Canadian, I was excited when Naheed Nenshi was elected Mayor of Calgary.

• I love to see him in a Stetson – that’s very Canadian.

• And I love to see a Black president in the United States – it shows there is positive change.

• But having a Muslim mayor or a Black president has not eliminated incidents of racial profiling, racism or stereotyping. We still have a lot of work to do.

• It will take much more than the work of the human rights system to overcome these problems.

Looking for leadership from the media

• In the past, racism and discrimination were considered big-city issues, since newcomers tended to settle in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

• But Statistics Canada reports that immigrants have begun to move beyond cities and to settle in some of the smaller outlying areas.

• So racism and discrimination are now Canadian issues.

• This poses some challenges for us at the OHRC, and some opportunities for you to help.

• A big challenge for us is to get our message to an audience that is more dispersed than ever before, in a format and language people can connect with.

• The internet and social media have been a big help, and we continue to expand our efforts in these areas.

• But there is another, equally important part of the solution – that’s you.

You are the leaders

• Your mission statement talks about your commitment to promote social, cultural and political involvement and participation in Canada’s democratic process.

• You also talk about defending the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the basic principles of human rights.

• Through your work reporting on promoting human rights, you can – and are – contributing in two key ways.

• First, you are the voices of your communities. You have the connections, the understanding and the profile in the ethnic communities you represent.

• And you are more likely to hear of human rights problems before we do.

• So you offer a voice for your community to talk with us. And you also can help us get messages back to your community.

• Human rights often begins with a conversation – and you can be the brokers of that conversation, both from and to your community.

• I’ll give you two examples of work we have done where this successful two-way conversation made the difference.
Asian Canadian Angler Inquiry

* The first issue involved racial profiling – not in policing or in education, the two areas we usually speak about, but in the community.

• In 2007 and 2008 we did an inquiry into assaults on Asian Canadian anglers in various resort areas in Ontario.

• The Chinese language media was the first to report on how Asian Canadian fishermen were being harassed and in some cases assaulted and pushed into the water.

• The issue moved into the mainstream media primarily because a man suffered life-threatening brain injuries as a result of one incident.

• In November 2007, the OHRC launched an inquiry in partnership with the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic and other community partners.

• You helped us to hear directly from people who had been assaulted or harassed, and also to hear from people who had witnessed this activity.

• And you helped us expand our relationship with the Asian Canadian community.

• Since the Inquiry, the number of reported incidents has decreased markedly.

• We have seen an increase in dialogue about hate activity and racial profiling and a heightened response to this issue by many organizations.

• There continue to be a small number of incidents, but communities are much quicker to step up and say “This is not acceptable in our community.”
Canadian experience

• The next issue is happening right now – that’s our work to eliminate the requirement for “Canadian experience” in our workplaces.

• I’m talking about rules, regulations and expectations that are closing doors to people who gained their education and skills in countries other than Canada.

• As you all know – and have often reported on – newcomers too often face barriers when employers insist on Canadian experience before considering them for a job.

• This does not make sense.

• On the one hand, Canada encourages people to come here because of the skills they have.

• But when people arrive, employers won’t hire them because they don’t have Canadian experience. Of course they don’t if they’re new to Canada.

• We did an online survey last October and heard many stories of people trapped in this vicious circle.

• Many ethnic media outlets helped us get the word out to hard-to-reach audiences, and your efforts are reflected in the large numbers of people who responded.

• More than a thousand people, including job-seekers and over 130 employers, filled out the survey.

• One person said:

“People at times say you are over qualified. Fact is that as soon as a person does not give a name of organization from Toronto or within Canada, the resume goes directly in the bin.”

• Another person said:

Somehow employers think that my country is out-of-date in technology, or the way we do things in my country is dramatically different from the way it is done here in Canada.

• In some cases, employers seemed to genuinely believe that Canadian experience was needed – that somehow having Canadian experience would minimize risk.

• There were other cases, where we suspect that stereotypes and discrimination are behind the requirements.

• One employer told us, and I quote:

“Newcomers without ‘Canadian Experience’ are an absolute risk as in many cases a newcomer individual does not adapt well to the new workplace environment, and can make it awkward and uncomfortable for themselves and co-workers…’

• Another employer said:

It seems that other countries don’t follow rules, they find ways around them. In Canada we have strict and specific rules to avoid fraud, risk, etc.

• Doesn’t sound like risk management to me – it sounds more like stereotyping.

• In fact, we believe that some employers are using a Canadian experience requirement as a proxy for discrimination, which they know is illegal.

• But even when hidden, discrimination in employment is still against the law.

• So we’re trying to do something about it. We’re working with many community partners who have already been mobilizing to teach employers and regulators this is not the way to go.

The policy

• The words in the Human Rights Code tell us that discrimination is against the law, but they don’t tell us how to put this knowledge into practice where we work, where we live, where we go to school or in the other areas the Code covers.

• The Code provides the vision, and our policies provide the details for identifying, dealing with and removing different kinds of discrimination.

• Our new Policy on removing the “Canadian experience” barrier offers job-seekers, employers, service providers, regulatory bodies, tribunals and the courts with a consistent message – that there is no place for Canadian experience barriers – and the discrimination hidden in them – here in Ontario.

• The starting point for the Policy is a simple one – insisting on Canadian experience is discrimination under the Human Rights Code.

• There may be a few exceptions – although we have not found any yet –but the Code tells us that it is against the law to discriminate in employment based on race, ancestry, colour, place of origin and ethnic origin – which can all be at play when Canadian experience requirements exist.

• We have also produced some support materials that can help bring down the barriers.

• Our guide for employers and regulatory bodies talks about what legitimate job requirements are, and the responsibility to make sure policies, programs and practices respect human rights.

• This guide also includes best practices for removing the barriers caused by asking for “Canadian experience.”
• We have also produced a brochure that offers information for people who may face discrimination because of Canadian experience requirements.

• The brochure also has information on where to go to make a human rights complaint or to get more information.
We need your help

• Canadian experience is one of many human rights issues that are of special interest to people of different ethnic backgrounds who may be newcomers to Ontario.

• Which means they are also of special interest to the media who represent those communities.

• Your role in getting the message out is growing.

• Data shows that the ways people get their news is changing.

• The traditional avenues, like the so-called “mainstream” newspapers, television and radio, are becoming less and less the media of choice for many Canadians.

• Instead, they are turning to online options, specialty media outlets, and to you, members of the ethnic press.

• So more than ever before, we need your help to get our human rights message out to the people who need it the most.

• You can help us by educating your audiences about their human rights – and their responsibilities.

• You can help us by getting the word out when positive changes happen, and by being the first people to report when problems arise.

• And you can help by shining the light on the people who refuse to learn, who continue to stereotype and to discriminate.

Keep the conversation going

• There are many ways you can keep the conversation with us going.

• When you’re reporting on things, feel free to contact us for interviews, background information, and anything else that can help your human rights story.

• Second, use our website – – as a go-to human rights resource. You will find all kinds of information, including all of the materials on removing the Canadian experience barrier.

• Our website has many brochures and other materials in up to 16 different languages.

• We also have an eLearning program called Human Rights 101, which offers a basic primer on human rights and the Code in Ontario.

• We currently offer modules in English, French, Arabic, Spanish, Simplified Chinese, Italian, Korean, Portuguese and Vietnamese.

• And we’ll be launching HR101 in more languages in the coming months.

Social media

• We are also active on social media, and invite you to connect with us to get the latest news.

• You can like our Facebook page. It’s the-dot-ohrc.

• Or follow us on Twitter at OntHumanRights.


• Assaults on Asian Canadian anglers, racial profiling, and the Canadian experience barrier…

• These are just a few of many human rights challenges you have helped us to deal with over the past few years.
• I urge you to continue to be our partners, to show people the opportunities they have to make changes so we can all be proud and call ourselves Canadians.

• You can play a major role in building a healty, vibrant Canada that we all can call home.