August 12, 2022
The Government of Canada is presently beginning preparations for Canada's combined 24th and 25th periodic report to the United Nations on its implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and is seeking the views of civil society organizations, Indigenous representatives, and human rights commissions. Canada’s report aims to respond to the Concluding Observations (COs) issued by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UN CERD) at Canada’s last appearance in 2017. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has prepared this submission in response.
About the OHRC
The OHRC was established in 1961 as an arm’s-length provincial government agency to oversee Ontario’s Human Rights Code (Code). The OHRC has a mandate to promote and enforce the Code through research, policy development, public education, public inquires and legal interventions before tribunals and courts. The OHRC is one pillar of Ontario’s human rights system, alongside the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) and the Human Rights Legal Support Centre (HRLSC).
Ontario’s Code provides for the protection of Indigenous, Black and other racialized people, among other groups, from discrimination in employment, housing, services and other areas, based on ancestry, race, colour, ethnic origin, place of origin, citizenship, creed, sex and other grounds. The Code applies to provincial and municipal government and the private sector. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as international human rights instruments like the ICERD and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, help inform how Ontario’s Code is interpreted and applied. The Code generally has primacy over other Ontario laws.
The OHRC provides periodic input to government and to UN human rights treaty bodies on Canada’s reporting obligations under various human rights instruments. The OHRC last made a submission in 2015 on Canada’s 21st and 22nd reports to the UN CERD.
In this submission on Canada’s upcoming report, the OHRC focuses on the four areas for addressing discrimination identified in its 2017–22 Strategic Plan: reconciliation with Indigenous communities, the criminal justice system, poverty and the education system. The submission also focuses on COVID-19 and the pandemic of racism, particularly against Indigenous peoples, Black, Asian and religious communities. These circumstances, including a rise in hate crimes, have heightened the urgency to embed human rights into the fabric of our society and our institutions.
1. Indigenous reconciliation
Responding to CERD Concluding Observations:
- Socio-economic issues for Indigenous peoples on- and off-reserve (CO26, 28, and 18)
- Consultations with Indigenous peoples (CO20)
- Consultations with civil society and Indigenous organizations (CO38)
- Federal/provincial/territorial mechanisms to combat racial discrimination (CO10)
Over-representation of Indigenous and Black children in Ontario’s child welfare system
For decades, Indigenous, Black and other racialized families and communities have raised the alarm that their children are over-represented in the child welfare system. The number of Indigenous children in care is staggering, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has called the situation a “growing crisis.”
In 2016, to respond to these concerns, the OHRC launched a public interest inquiry using its powers to examine the involvement of Indigenous and racialized children and youth in Ontario’s child welfare system. The OHRC requested information from children’s aid societies (CASs) on their race-based data collection practices and how they track children and families receiving their services. In April 2018, the OHRC released its Interrupted Childhoods report, which found overall that race-based data collection processes and practices are a patchwork across the sector, and that Indigenous and Black children and youth are over-represented in admissions into care at many agencies in Ontario.
Identifying and addressing potential systemic racial discrimination in the child welfare sector is just one part of the picture. The broader social and economic issues that contribute to the over-representation of Indigenous and Black children in child welfare also need to be addressed. These issues require a multi-pronged response from government, CASs and civil society to create truly equitable outcomes for Indigenous and racialized children and families.
Indigenous peoples and human rights dialogue report
In November 2018, the OHRC released To dream together: Indigenous peoples and human rights dialogue report. The report summarizes themes and recommendations from the OHRC’s three-day dialogue event which brought together First Nations, Métis and Inuit Elders and traditional knowledge keepers, along with academics, leaders, artists, advocates, lawyers, policy makers and human rights institutions to discuss a vision of human rights that reflects Indigenous perspectives, world views and issues.
Some of the major themes in the report include the qualities of meaningful engagement and reconciliation, Indigenous perspectives on human rights, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN Declaration) and Indigenous peoples’ contribution to the evolution of human rights law.
Key Indigenous human rights concerns discussed centred on: language and culture; basic needs – land, food, water, housing; education; child welfare; the criminal justice system; and health. Recommendations for governments at all levels included using the UN Declaration as the organizing framework for understanding, interpreting and implementing Indigenous peoples’ human rights in Canada, including but not limited to “Aboriginal rights” under the Constitution.
Discriminatory display of names, words and images in municipalities
Words and images can negatively affect the ability of individuals and groups to take part and benefit equally in their community. Indigenous peoples and racialized communities, among other groups, have called for the removal of statues of historic figures who are perceived as colonizers, slave owners, or who advanced racist policies. Similar calls have been made to rename roads, schools, government buildings and other institutions for the same reasons.
The OHRC helped settle the case of Gallant v Mississauga in 2018, requiring the City of Mississauga to remove from its sports facilities all Indigenous-themed mascots, symbols, names and images related to non-Indigenous sports organizations. The OHRC wrote to other municipalities encouraging them to bring their policies and practices in line with the Gallant terms of settlement.
In September 2021, the OHRC launched a public consultation survey to receive feedback on proposed content for a new policy statement on the discriminatory display of names, words and images. Approximately 550 survey respondents shared their views and experiences with discriminatory displays in Ontario. Examples include: Vaughan, Ontario, where Black students and community organizations successfully campaigned to rename Vaughan Secondary School because the school’s namesake was a slaveholder in the 18thcentury. Members of Nipissing First Nation have called on the nearby Township of McKellar, Ontario, to change the name of Squaw Lake Road, as the word “squaw” is considered to be a racist and sexually derogatory word adopted in English for Indigenous women. Fort Frances, Ontario, is in the process of joining neighbouring Dryden in renaming Colonization Road to advance Indigenous reconciliation.
The OHRC heard that discriminatory displays of names, words and images can be degrading and harmful, particularly when individuals must engage with these displays every day to take part in their communities. Respondents strongly supported the OHRC’s positions that education is essential to any change process, and that a collaborative approach is important to promote social inclusion.
The OHRC aims to release the policy statement in the coming year to clarify the scope of people’s rights and responsibilities in situations that involve the display of names, words and images.
OHRC human rights application related to deaths of Joey Knapaysweet, Agnes Sutherland
In February 2020, on the second anniversary of the deaths of Joey Knapaysweet and Agnes Sutherland, the OHRC filed an application with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) alleging discrimination based on Indigenous ancestry by public service providers in Timmins, Ontario. The OHRC initiated the application using its powers under s. 35 of the Code. The OHRC’s application will support those applications made on behalf of families of both individuals.
The February 2018 deaths of Joey Knapaysweet and Agnes Sutherland highlight the serious and sometimes tragic result of systemic discrimination against First Nations peoples in Northern Ontario. Both traveled to Timmins from Fort Albany First Nation, more than 400 km away, to access health services that were not available in their community. These circumstances left them particularly vulnerable to discrimination.
This issue is still before the HRTO.
Addressing anti-Indigenous racism in lacrosse
In December 2020, in recognition of the importance of lacrosse to Indigenous cultures, and after troubling reports of racial slurs and mistreatment of lacrosse players from Six Nations of the Grand First Nation (Six Nations), the OHRC announced it would coordinate a conciliation process involving representatives of Six Nations lacrosse teams, the Ontario Lacrosse Association (OLA) and Lacrosse Canada (LC) to address concerns of systemic racism against Indigenous lacrosse players in OLA leagues. The conciliation process is ongoing.
Discrimination while shopping
A growing body of decisions by Canadian human rights tribunals and courts have affirmed that racial profiling also happens in other areas, such as retail settings. In its 2017 Under Suspicion report, many people told the OHRC they regularly experienced racial profiling in retail and private businesses.
In 2021, the OHRC began a collaboration with Pro Bono Students Canada’s (PBSC) Indigenous Human Rights Program (IHRP) and the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC) to support the development of a fact sheet and podcast on racial profiling and other issues related to discrimination faced by First Nations, Inuit and Métis people while shopping.
The OHRC is also a member of the IHRP Advisory Council and delivers training on Ontario’s human rights legislation and system. The IHRP involves launching free human rights legal clinics housed in Indigenous Friendship Centres staffed by law students and pro bono human rights lawyers.
2. Criminal justice sector
Responding to CERD Concluding Observations:
- Prevention of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system (CO16)
- Indigenous peoples, members of minorities, especially Black Canadians, in the criminal justice system (CO16)
- Access to justice (CO22)
Nearly three decades ago, the 1995 Report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System confirmed what Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities had been saying for several years – that racist policies, processes and practices were embedded within the system. The most high-profile part of the criminal justice system, policing, has remained stubbornly resistant to meaningful change.
Many OHRC and other reports in recent years continue to show that Indigenous peoples and racialized communities (especially Black Canadians) are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.
Under Suspicion: Research and consultation report on racial profiling in Ontario, 2017
In 2017, the OHRC released, Under Suspicion: Research and consultation report on racial profiling in Ontario. The report provides personal accounts that show the harmful impact racial profiling has on the everyday lives of Indigenous, Black, Muslim and other racialized individuals, their families, their communities, and society. It draws on information from an online survey, applications to the HRTO, and extensive provincewide engagement with affected communities, legal and academic experts, educators, human rights practitioners and police, among others.
Policy on eliminating racial profiling in law enforcement
Following the release of Under Suspicion, in September 2019, the OHRC issued its new Policy on eliminating racial profiling in law enforcement. This policy, the first of its kind in Canada, outlines seven key principles for eliminating racial profiling and includes recommendations to law enforcement agencies, private security organizations, oversight bodies and government. The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) committed to the principles outlined in the policy, and more than 20 community and advocacy groups have added their support or endorsement.
Independent police oversight
The OHRC’s research, and other reports such as Justice Michael Tulloch’s Report of the Independent Police Oversight Review, and the Office of the Independent Review Director’s (OIPRD) report, Broken Trust: Indigenous People and the Thunder Bay Police Service have documented concerns about the mistrust that exists between Indigenous and racialized communities and the public police complaint process. A primary concern is that most public complaints about an officer’s conduct are investigated by the same service that received the complaint.
In its 2016 submission to Ontario’s Independent Review of Police Oversight Bodies, the OHRC remarked that there have been far too many instances of racial profiling, discriminatory use of force on people with mental health disabilities and/or addictions, and racism and sexism in investigations of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Ontario to ignore. These incidents and related concerns have sparked multiple coroner’s inquests, recommendations, reviews and reports, stretching back for decades. Yet they all have failed to eliminate systemic discrimination in policing.
Framework for change: 10 key steps to reimagine policing
Building on the principles in its racial profiling policy, in July 2021, the OHRC released a Framework for change to address systemic racism in policing (Framework), calling on Ontario to make legislative and regulatory changes to directly address systemic racial discrimination in policing across the province.
The Framework sets out 10 essential steps for eliminating discriminatory policing practices including, among other things, implementing Crown pre-charge screening, mandatory data collection and analysis of officer activities, reviewing use of School Resource Officers, greater transparency on police discipline, investigating discrimination allegations as police misconduct carried out by an independent body, and that misconduct be determined on the civil standard of a balance of probabilities.
The Framework also calls on government to require de-escalation techniques in conflict situations before police use force. At a press conference in August 2022, Ontario’s Ombudsman commented that “progress has been painfully slow" on implementing his 2016 recommendation for new standardized, mandatory de-escalation training for police across the province.
The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police and the Toronto Police Services Board supported the OHRC’s desire to work collaboratively with the province to discuss key tenets of the Framework.
Toronto Police Service inquiry
The Framework is based on the decades of work the OHRC has undertaken on policing, including its inquiry launched in December 2017 into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto Police Service (TPS). In December 2018, the OHRC released its first interim report, A Collective Impact, which reported findings from data received from the Special Investigations Unit (SIU). In August 2020, the OHRC released its second interim report, A Disparate Impact. This report confirmed that Black people were more likely than others to be arrested, charged, over-charged, struck, shot or killed by Toronto police.
That same summer, the OHRC made a related written deputation to the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) on the board’s report, Police Reform in Toronto: Systemic Racism, Alternative Community Safety and Crisis Response Models and Building New Confidence in Public Safety, 2020.
The OHRC’s inquiry work is ongoing, and includes analyzing TPS and TPSB policies, procedures and practices, training and education, as well as existing and proposed accountability and enforcement mechanisms, through engagements with Black community members, experts and police. The OHRC, TPS and TPSB are working collaboratively to identify additional relevant stakeholders for interviews or other forms of feedback.
The OHRC anticipates releasing its final report into the TPS inquiry in the coming year.
Responding to concerns over a DNA sweep: Logan v Ontario Provincial Police
In 2015, the OHRC intervened in Logan v Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), an application to the HRTO, which alleged that an overly broad DNA sweep amounted to racial profiling. While investigating a sexual assault in 2013, the OPP conducted DNA testing on many racialized migrant workers of various ethnic backgrounds, heights, weights and ages. In 2014, the OHRC made a related submission to the OIPRD’s review of the OPP’s DNA sampling practices.
In March 2022, the HRTO heard final arguments on liability and damages. A decision on the merits and any further hearings on public interest remedies are pending.
Organizational change project with the Peel Regional Police
Motivated by the aim of moving beyond the “much talk and little action” status quo, the OHRC, the Peel Regional Police (PRP) and its Board (PPSB) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in October 2020, committing to develop and implement legally binding remedies to identify and eliminate systemic racism in its policing operations and services, while promoting transparency and enhancing accountability.
This Human Rights Project is founded on a set of seven principles featured in the OHRC’s Policy on eliminating racial profiling in law enforcement and involves close collaboration between all parties to the MOU as well as residents of Peel Region who have keen interest in policing issues.
A report titled 2021 Community Survey Results on Perception of and Experiences with Peel Regional Police was released in December 2021. Based on 1,102 surveys completed by people who live and/or work in Peel Region, the report’s overarching finding is that almost half (48%) of people surveyed agreed that systemic racism is a problem in policing in Peel. The report also highlighted community perspectives on topics such as body-worn cameras, race-based data collection, de-tasking/defunding, police responses to persons in crisis and related matters.
Ongoing work includes forming an independent Anti-Racism Advisory Committee (ARAC) made up of Peel Region community members who will play critical advisory roles for the project. As well, community engagement sessions will canvass for community views about options for recommendations pertaining to policy guidance, data collection, monitoring and accountability, and other principles outlined in the MOU.
The OHRC’s Policy on eliminating racial profiling in law enforcement supports the use of body-worn cameras for front-line officers across the province. In an October 2020 letter to the Toronto Police Service and Toronto Police Services Board on their policy and procedure on body-worn cameras, the OHRC cautioned, however, that procedures around their use must be robust to support accountability for officer misconduct.
Body-worn camera implementation projects must be situated within robust accountability and monitoring systems which include, but are not limited to, criteria for when officers must record, and require officers to provide concrete, contemporaneous on camera justifications for failing to record required events.
The use of artificial intelligence (AI), automated decision-making and algorithmic systems is rapidly expanding and has already become an integral part of everyday life. Both public- and private-sector organizations, including policing services, are increasingly relying on using these technologies to solve challenges, make key decisions, provide important services, and shape the lives of individuals and communities.
AI presents extraordinary potential to improve the quality of services and make them accessible to more people. However, early applications of AI systems have shown many risks to human rights, including data discrimination, racial profiling and a failure to ensure community participation and oversight of systems. AI systems that are flawed in their development can compound existing disparities and/or create new discriminatory conditions. Such conditions could have a profound and ongoing impact on marginalized and vulnerable communities and erode public trust in institutions. It is critical that these systems are not biased and do not create or perpetuate systemic discrimination.
In 2021, the OHRC began to examine the unique implications artificial intelligence presents to human rights in Ontario. In June 2021, the OHRC made a submission to the Ontario government’s consultation on guidelines for its use of AI, highlighting specific areas of concern with past and ongoing use of AI in policing, health care and education. The OHRC recommended actions for the government to strengthen human rights protections, accountability and oversight, and called on it to make sure AI use advances positive human rights changes.
In September 2021, the OHRC made a submission to the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) consultation on its Use of Artificial Intelligence Technologies Policy. OHRC recommendations centred on equity, privacy, transparency and accountability to address concerns about the unique implications that AI presents in policing, particularly for marginalized and vulnerable communities.
In November 2021, the OHRC made a submission to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario on its draft privacy guidance on facial recognition technology for police agencies. The OHRC called for a regulatory framework that sets clear and robust limitations on law enforcement’s use of the technology, and assigns legal responsibility and liability for the potential adverse consequences.
In December 2021, the OHRC, Canadian Human Rights Commission and Law Commission of Ontario announced a joint research and policy initiative to examine human rights issues in developing, using and governing artificial intelligence and algorithms in Canada and specifically in Ontario. Over the coming years, our organizations will collaborate to research and co-develop resources to help identify and consider discrimination and other human rights issues in the use of AI.
Segregation in correctional institutions
For years, the OHRC has raised serious concerns about the extent of the reliance on segregation and violation of inmates’ right to be free from discrimination under the Code. In particular, the OHRC is concerned that segregation is disproportionately used on and has particularly harmful effects on Code-protected groups such as Black and Indigenous prisoners, prisoners with mental health disabilities, and women.
In 2013, the OHRC reached a settlement in the case of Jahn v Community Safety and Correctional Services at the HRTO, which included barring segregation for people with mental illness except as a last resort.
In 2016, the OHRC made a submission calling for an end to segregation, and recommended interim measures, such as external oversight and strict time limits, to reduce the harm of the practice. In a 2017 report, Ontario’s Independent Advisor on Corrections Reform, Howard Sapers, confirmed that there is systemic overuse of segregation, and supported the OHRC’s position that prisoners’ rights under the Code are being violated.
By April 2020, seven years after the Jahn settlement, a report by Justice Cole found Ontario had still not complied with earlier agreements and orders. In August 2020, the OHRC filed a motion asking the HRTO to order a full prohibition on segregation for anyone with a mental health disability, a strict limit on any segregation placement beyond 15 continuous days and 60 total days in a year, and the creation of an independent monitor role to provide oversight of Ontario’s correctional system.
In June 2021, the OHRC made a related submission to the Ministry of the Solicitor General on the proposed amendments to Regulation 778 under the Ministry of Correctional Services Act dealing with segregation and other matters.
After recent decisions in Francis v Ontario from the Ontario Superior Court (2020) and Court of Appeal for Ontario (2021), the law in Ontario is now clear: using segregation for any prisoner for longer than 15 days – or for any prisoner with serious mental illness at all – is cruel and unusual treatment, contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Data from the Ministry of the Solicitor General reported in the OHRC’s 2021–22 annual report shows that 8,219 prisoners were in administrative segregation in 2020–21.
3. Reimagining poverty as a human rights issue
Responding to CERD Concluding Observations:
- Consultations with civil society and Indigenous organizations (CO38)
In its Strategic Plan (2017–2022), the OHRC committed to working towards explicit human rights protection for people who experience poverty.
Poverty, understood as social and economic disadvantage, is a human rights issue disproportionately experienced by groups protected under the Code and exacerbated by systemic situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Ontario, research shows that the pandemic has further entrenched and deepened levels of poverty, especially for Black and other racialized groups. Statistics Canada’s 2016 Census shows that 14.1% of people in Ontario have low incomes (defined as half or less of the median adjusted after-tax household income). Groups typically vulnerable to discrimination are even worse off. Higher poverty rates are found for groups such as people living with disabilities (23.5%), First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples (23.7%), Black people (24.1%), female-led families (29.8%) immigrants arriving between 2001 and 2016 (35.6%), and Arab people (40.6%).
Interrelated issues that are deeply entwined with causing or sustaining poverty include the lack of affordable, adequate and accessible housing and the experience of mental health and addiction disabilities.
In January 2021, the OHRC wrote to government about Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy 2020–25, raising concerns that the strategy does not take an explicit human rights-based approach to poverty reduction and does not recognize the right to an adequate standard of living. Among other things, the OHRC called on the Ontario government to set a specific target for poverty reduction that aligns with or exceeds the federal poverty reduction target. The OHRC also called for reporting data on chronic homelessness, unmet health needs, food insecurity, lack of literacy, minimum-wage and low-paid work, broken down by the groups identified in Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Act that are at higher risk of poverty, including Indigenous peoples and racialized groups.
In July 2022, the OHRC launched a provincewide consultation to hear from First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities and organizations, service organizations, researchers, and people with lived experience of discrimination in the areas of affordable/accessible housing and mental health and addictions and their relationship with poverty. The OHRC is also releasing a background paper to support the consultation and aims to publish a consultation report with findings and recommendations in the coming year.
4. Education system
Responding to CERD Concluding Observations:
- Education (CO30)
Over the past several years, the OHRC has prepared and received concerning reports showing that Indigenous, Black and other racialized students are experiencing significant discrimination, xenophobia and targeting in academic environments across Ontario. Parents, students and other groups describe in detail how school administrators and institutional mechanisms for handling formal and informal complaints have failed to effect change at all levels of education.
The OHRC’s 2017 consultation report, Under suspicion, showed that Indigenous and racialized students continue to experience discrimination in Ontario’s education system. Racialized students reported facing low academic expectations from teachers, lack of recognition of their academic achievements, and being discouraged from fulfilling their educational potential. One submission to the OHRC described how Black students are routinely streamed to the lowest academic-level classes. A 2017 York University study documented similar findings.
In its 2018 submission to the government consultation on the education system in Ontario, the OHRC commented that many individuals and groups who experience discrimination do not benefit equally from education, especially Indigenous peoples and racialized persons, including racialized creed communities. Among its recommendations, the OHRC called for promoting reconciliation with Indigenous communities, peoples and students; student-centered decision-making; inclusive, accessible school environments free from discrimination; equitable student learning opportunities, assessments and outcomes; equipping educators to teach human rights and meet their legal obligations; and enhancing curriculum to reflect Ontario’s diversity and include human rights content.
The OHRC repeated its concerns in a 2021 submission to government calling for the school curriculum to have specific learning expectations on the rights and responsibilities set out in the Code. The Ministry of Education released new curriculum for its Grade 10 Civics course in April 2022 and the OHRC is troubled to see that there are still no objectives for learning about the Code and Ontario’s human rights system.
In March 2022, Parents of Black Children (PoBC), an advocacy group working to support families and facilitate equitable outcomes for Black children, released a report, A Call to Action: Systems abuse of Black students within Ontario’s education system. This important report documents Black educators’ and Black families’ experiences of anti-Black racism, systems abuse, anti-Blackness and trauma in the classroom, collecting anti-Black racism data, as well as a systems navigation tool for supporting students.
In February 2022, the OHRC released its Right to Read inquiry report on human rights issues affecting students with reading disabilities. The report recognized that because of marginalization and structural inequality, Indigenous, Black and other racialized students, as well as students with other disabilities, are at increased risk for reading difficulties. The report calls for critical changes to Ontario’s approach to early reading, in areas such as curriculum and instruction, screening, reading interventions, accommodations and professional assessments. The Ministry of Education’s initial response represents positive steps, which are aligned with key OHRC recommendations.
At the post-secondary level, in 2020 and again in 2021, the OHRC wrote to all colleges and universities in Ontario asking them to identify what actions their administrations were taking to address systemic discrimination, including anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, and what steps they were taking to prevent future occurrences and provide equitable and inclusive learning environments. Only a dozen institutions responded, detailing their institutional structures and ongoing efforts. In November 2021, 18 of Ontario’s 47 postsecondary institutions made a positive commitment by signing onto the Canada-wide Scarborough Charter on anti-Black racism and Black inclusion.
The OHRC will continue to monitor these obligation and long-standing systemic issues and seek meaningful and practical ways to find solutions.
5. Responding to COVID-19
Since January 2020, the OHRC has provided human rights guidance to government, other duty-holders and the public on a range of issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Without a deliberate human rights-based approach, the OHRC was very concerned the pandemic would make existing inequalities worse for vulnerable groups, both in the short and long term, especially for older persons, Indigenous peoples, racialized communities and persons with disabilities.
Throughout 2020, the OHRC issued policy guidance and wrote to health authorities about the need for government to collect health and other human rights data on the response to the pandemic, disaggregated by the grounds of Indigenous ancestry, race, ethnic origin, place of origin, citizenship status, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, social condition, etc.
In June 2020, 11 of Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial human rights commissions, including the OHRC, wrote an open letter calling for a nation-wide strategy for the collection and publication of disaggregated health data focused on race and Indigeneity. The commissions commented that traditional health data collection approaches reveal limited information about the severity of the impact of the virus on vulnerable and marginalized Canadians, including African Canadians, other racialized groups and Indigenous peoples.
In 2021, the Wellesley Institute and Ontario Health released a report examining race-based data collected between June 26, 2020 and April 21, 2021, by Ontario public health units. The data showed that COVID-19’s impact has been highly racialized. The report commented: “The racialized and inequitable health outcomes generated by the pandemic are not products of the pandemic alone – they are the result of systems that produce marginalization of racialized communities.”
The OHRC has also written to government about the need for a longer-term solution to collect human rights information through the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) registration form.
In May 2021, the OHRC issued a statement calling on Ontario’s criminal justice sector to fight COVID-19 by keeping prison custody numbers low. Early in the pandemic, the OHRC had written to the government sounding the alarm about the potential for COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario’s correctional institutions – already burdened by extreme overcrowding – and the grave risk this posed for people both inside and outside these facilities. The OHRC and many others appealed to Ontario to do everything possible to decrease the number of people in custody.
Later in 2021, the OHRC issued two key policy statements. In September, the OHRC released the Policy statement on COVID-19 vaccine mandates and proof of vaccine certificates. This statement provided guidance that vaccine mandates are generally permissible under the Code if people are reasonably accommodated for Code-related reasons, and highlighted that personal preference and singular beliefs are not protected under the Code.
The statement also urged governments and organizations to take proactive steps to make sure any enforcement of vaccine mandates or proof of vaccination policies does not disproportionately target or criminalize Indigenous peoples, Black and other racialized communities, people who are experiencing homelessness, or people with mental health disabilities and/or addictions.
In November 2021, the OHRC released a Policy statement on human rights in COVID-19 recovery planning. This statement provides government, service providers and other duty-holders with principles and obligations for a human rights-focused recovery from the pandemic, with a specific focus on the people most affected by the pandemic, including Black, Indigenous and other racialized groups, people with low incomes, women and people with disabilities.
 See City of Toronto. “COVID-19: Ethno-racial identity & income” (2021). And, Government of Canada. “A labour market snapshot of Black Canadians during the pandemic” (2021).
 Right to Read, the OHRC’s 2022 report on its public inquiry on reading disabilities in Ontario’s public education system, notes that students with reading disabilities are more likely to drop out of school, less likely to go on to post-secondary education, and tend to take longer to finish programs they enroll in. The effects can continue past their schooling and can have a negative impact on employment, and lead to lower incomes, poverty and homelessness and higher rates of involvement in the criminal justice system. Adults with dyslexia told the inquiry about long-term effects of not learning to read, such as mental health and substance abuse issues and negative impacts on their employment.