Fifty years ago, the newly-created Ontario Human Rights Commission knew what it was up against. Discrimination was as blatant as the signs that advised “No Jews or Blacks need apply.” But it was clear to the government of the day that dealing with discrimination needed more than just laws. The Commission’s first Director, Daniel G. Hill, said the objective was “to challenge popular myths and stereotypes about people” and described human rights legislation as “the skilful blending of educational and legal techniques in the pursuit of social justice.”
Over the years, our collective sense of what are myths and what is reality has grown sharper and more focused. The ‘70s saw a better understanding of gender discrimination, the need for equal pay for equal work, and ensuring the right to be free from sexual harassment.
In 1981, the revised Human Rights Code included the grounds of marital and family status and disability. Five years later, sexual orientation was added.
We talk about adding ”grounds” to the Code, but, in fact, we have added people. Ontarians have come to recognize that it is fundamentally wrong to treat individuals and groups differently because they seem “different” from a traditional view of what people in Ontario look like, or act or pray or play.
Fifty years on, direct discrimination is less obvious, but subtle barriers to progress and success continue to hold back many of Ontario’s most vulnerable people. Those “popular myths” are often built into the structures of the places we work or live – systemic discrimination.
In response to those changing circumstances, the Government of Ontario revamped the human rights system in Ontario three years ago. Now, the OHRC has the mandate to concentrate on educating, empowering and acting to make sure everyone is included and has the opportunity to succeed. We are also, as you will see in the pages that follow, developing new tools to help workers and their employers, service providers and other institutions to look at their structures through a human rights lens and remove the barriers to equity.
Along the way, perhaps inevitably, there have been concerns about the way our society has changed. For some, change has been uncomfortable, or even threatening. But with each new ground in the Code, each acknowledgement that discrimination exists, each new group of people protected, there has come a growing acceptance that inclusion works for us all.
Again this past year, I have been privileged to work with a bright, hard-working and passionate group of Commissioners and staff. Their dedication to the task inspires me, and I thank them all.
In the words of Daniel G. Hill, human rights work presents us with “a tough challenge, but a magnificent opportunity.” Fifty years later, the challenge is no less tough and the opportunities continue to be magnificent.