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Letter to universities and colleges on racism and other human rights concerns

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December 18, 2020

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Dear Presidents and Principals:

I am writing to all public colleges and universities in Ontario after recent events have exposed that Indigenous, Black and racialized students are experiencing significant concerns of discrimination, xenophobia and targeting on campuses and in academic environments across Ontario. As service providers, all academic institutions have legally mandated human rights obligations to their students under the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code).

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) is seeking your commitment to take action to create and sustain equitable and inclusive education environments.

There have been an increasing number of media accounts that have detailed a constellation of actions that sustain concerns of toxic learning environments ranging from frequent faculty microaggressions toward students, gratuitous use of the “N-word” in classrooms, to posting racist comments and images in chat rooms, to infiltrations (e.g. “Zoom-bombing”) of online meetings organized by racialized students, to threats of violence.

The media also alleges that many of these actions have either not been addressed, or have been improperly addressed, by school administrators. If these reports are accurate, the OHRC is concerned that inadequate institutional action can further embed the potential for anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and other forms of racism, along with other human rights violations, to persistently reoccur.

The OHRC has also gained troubling insights from students and student groups that have called on us through social media and/or written directly to the OHRC to convey their fears and frustrations about institutional apathy and/or internal institutional mechanisms used to handle their concerns. Some have requested the OHRC exercise its range of powers under the Code, including launching a public interest inquiry into toxic academic environments.

It is problematic that students have felt the need to independently seek OHRC support, when the primary responsibility for addressing human rights issues at their institutions does not rest with them (many of these students are just a few years out of high school). Instead, the legal and practical responsibility to examine the conditions, challenges and impediments to a respectful learning environment is in the hands of the “directing minds” of universities, namely senior administrators and their human rights advisors.

Beyond an obligation to refrain from engaging in Code violations, human rights responsibility also entails positive obligations, such as implementing robust policies, protocols and complaint mechanisms to ensure human rights are fully recognized and respected. As discussed in the OHRC’s Policy primer: Guide to developing human rights policies and procedures, whether or not a formal complaint has been made, organizations must acknowledge and address potential human rights issues when the organization ought reasonably to be aware of discrimination and/or harassment.

This includes the positive duty to proactively assess and investigate the indicia of systemic discrimination and racism within the institution’s operations, especially where patterns or repeated allegations are raised, and to prevent future occurrences. This also involves monitoring organizational systems to examine and track for adverse impacts of policies and practices and taking positive measures to eliminate any such discriminatory elements.

All colleges and universities must ensure they institute transparent, accessible and formal structures to promote compliance with human rights law and principles, including comprehensive complaint mechanisms to foster a culture of human rights accountability. The OHRC calls on colleges and universities in Ontario to make certain discrimination and harassment does not occur, and is not tolerated in their academic communities, by ensuring strong, effective and fair complaint procedures.

Academic service providers are subject to a duty to investigate and ensure that prompt steps are taken to prevent any further harm or discrimination to their community members, see Wall v. University of Waterloo (1995) 27 C.H.R.R. D/44 (Ont. Bd. of Inq.). Ontario human rights jurisprudence has long established that organizational complaint processes must satisfy the following six criteria:

  1. The response must be prompt
  2. There must be organizational awareness that the conduct complained of is prohibited
  3. The matter must be dealt with seriously
  4. There must be a complaint mechanism in place
  5. The organization must act so as to provide a healthy environment
  6. The organization must communicate its actions to the complainant.

Ontario human rights jurisprudence has also established that a duty holder’s failure to investigate and address allegations of discrimination and harassment in a timely and effective manner can cause and/or exacerbate the harm of discrimination in the assessment of liability.

In keeping with the OHRC’s mandate to identify, prevent, and eliminate discrimination, and to promote human rights in Ontario, I encourage you to consult OHRC products that provide guidance on how to understand and fulfill human rights obligations. For example, the OHRC recommends its Policy and guidelines on racism and racial discrimination; the Policy on eliminating racial profiling in law enforcement; the Policy Primer: Guide to developing human rights policies and procedures; and Human rights and policing: Creating and sustaining organizational change.

While some of these documents were developed in the context of the law enforcement sector, they contain foundational principles and useful advice for all organizations seeking to fulfill their legal requirements related to human rights. They are especially relevant to considerations about academic integrity investigations and campus security practices.

I believe that by working collaboratively with stakeholders within your academic communities, the goal of protecting human rights can be advanced. I also urge you to take meaningful steps to better understand the experiences of students who are calling for more respectful, equitable and inclusive academic environments.

To support the OHRC’s commitment to public accountability and responsibility to serve the people of Ontario, this letter will be made public.


Ena Chadha, LL.B., LL.M.
Chief Commissioner

cc:        Hon. Ross Romano, Minister of Colleges and Universities
            Hon. Doug Downey, Attorney General
            OHRC Commissioners