A half-century of human rights

June 15, 2012 was the 50th anniversary of Ontario’s Human Rights Code – the first such code in Canada. To mark this important event, we worked with partners across Ontario to look back at how human rights had progressed over the 50 years, and to look ahead to the human rights of tomorrow. Highlights include a commemorative plaque and the “proclamation project” with municipalities across Ontario.

Proclaimed in 1962, the first Code prohibited discrimination in signs, services, facilities, public accommodation, employment and trade union membership because of race, creed, colour, nationality, ancestry and place of origin. In the following half-century, many communities and individuals advocated and fought to have more prohibited grounds of discrimination added, such as sex, age, disability and sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. Systemic discrimination is also included now.

I am both a psychologist and a lawyer. In the early 1960s when I told the Deans of both the Psychology Department and the Law School that I was planning to apply, their response was: “Why would we want to waste a graduate school position on a woman – you will just get married, have babies and stay home?” or “Why do you want to go to Law School – you would be the only woman?” or “Even if we accepted you – no one would give you a job – except possibly to make coffee in the back room.”

- Barbara Landau, Co-Chair, Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims

Putting it on a plaque

The OHRC worked with the Ontario Heritage Trust to create a commemorative plaque, which was unveiled at a special celebration at Hart House, University of Toronto on June 15. Featured speakers included human rights visionaries such as Bromley Armstrong, Alan Borovoy, the Hon. Jean Augustine and Tom Symons. The plaque will be erected outside of the Whitney Block at Queen’s Park, between the Premier’s Office and the Cabinet Office.

Now a landlord cannot say this openly, that a human resource person cannot say this openly, because what happened after that point, one was always questioning as to whether it was my fault, whether it was – that individual was allowed to say, “I don’t give you this job because of who you are,” because it was quite clear when she said I was not the right fit that she was really saying that my race, my colour, my gender I’m not too sure, but was not in keeping with that organization’s plan.

- Hon. Jean Augustine, Ontario Fairness Commissioner
A job, a home but not to you

We looked back, and then looked forward

We continued the celebration at a day-long event in October 2012, again with the Ontario Heritage Trust. Several hundred people looked at human rights history with panel discussions on where we need to go “for the next 50 years.” The day, which also featured an exhibit hall for community organizations to share their human rights work, provided interaction between the “seasoned veterans” and the next generation of human rights leaders.

Well the lack of information that these young people are getting to know, it’s – it’s something like psychic torture. When you don’t know about people that could be your heroes, you look at the people that are on TV that you now emulate, and those are the people that you really shouldn’t be emulating.

- Delorean Klien, Marketing Coordinator, Ontario Black History Society
We need to hear about Black heroes

The proclamation project

Municipalities often play a critical role in nurturing human rights and creating equitable environments where everyone is included in work and services, and can enjoy the benefits of their community. That’s why we invited every municipality in Ontario to proclaim June 11 – 15 as Ontario Human Rights Code Week, or June 15 as Ontario Human Rights Code Day. Proclaiming the day or the week gave them an opportunity to encourage all residents to think about how far we have come in 50 years, and where we still need to go.

The response was overwhelming, with more than 80 municipalities proclaiming either the day or week. Several municipalities also discussed the anniversary at council meetings.

“Municipalities provide direct services that affect people’s lives in their homes and communities, so they are often the first level of government to see barriers or discrimination,” said OHRC Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall. “By marking this anniversary, they all celebrate the important role they have played along this historic road.”

So we really were trailblazers in Toronto. You know, we pushed the provincial government which then forced the federal government. And at a lower level, we’ve been able to influence the way that we look after the elders in our community and make sure that they don’t have to go back into the closet when they need help, when they need housing. They’re safe and they’re vibrant.

- Kyle Rae, Principal of PQR Solutions
Trailblazers in long-term care