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II. Introducing the Ontario Human Rights Code

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1. The context for interpreting the Code

a) Background and history

In 1962, many laws dealing with discrimination were brought together, along with additional protections, to create the Code. The Code has been amended at various times since then. The most recent amendments were passed in December 2006. The Ontario Code only provides protection against discrimination in Ontario. There are other pieces of human rights legislation in each of the other provinces and territories and federally.

b) Fundamental principles

When interpreting the Code or deciding what action to take in a specific circumstance, employers should always be guided by the fundamental principles of the Code:

  • dignity and worth of every person
  • understanding and mutual respect
  • equal opportunity to participate in and contribute fully to the community.

c) The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter)[2] is a constitutional document. It is described as the “supreme law” in Canada because it can be used in the courts to challenge or strike down unconstitutional laws or government practices. The Charter guarantees equal rights and treatment based on a number of grounds, including race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability.

The Charter only applies to the acts and conduct of government, and does not apply to the acts of, and conduct between, individuals. In comparison, the Ontario Human Rights Code applies to both private and public sectors, as well as to conduct between individuals within the listed social areas. Despite these differences, some of the general principles used to interpret the Charter can also be used in interpreting the Code, although it is not clear that the same legal tests used for the Charter should apply to the Code.[3]

d) International human rights documents

Canada has signed on to many international human rights Conventions, documents and treaties.
Examples include:

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

In Canada, international documents are not part of domestic law unless the government passes a statute to put them into action. However, the values reflected in international human rights law may help us interpret human rights laws. This means that international documents may play an important role in interpreting the Code.

[2] Constitution Act, 1982, Part I.
[3] See Reference Re Public Service Employee Relations Act, [1987] 1 S.C.R. 313 and Baker v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship & Immigration), [1999] 2 S.C.R. 817; but see Vancouver Rape Relief Society v. Nixon, 2005 BCCA 601, leave to appeal refused [2006] S.C.C.A. No. 365.

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