Activity #1: Exploring the concept of discrimination

In this activity, students explore the concept of discrimination and gain an appreciation of its complexity.

Break the class into small groups, and have each group develop its own definition of discrimination. At this point, they should not have seen the definition in the Glossary.

Remind them to think about the points raised in the Preamble.

Ask them to consider questions like:

  • What are stereotyping and prejudice and what are the differences between these concepts and the concept of discrimination?
  • What does “fairness” mean?
  • What is the effect of discrimination on a person?

Have the students record their ideas on chart paper. Each group then presents their definition to the class. When all groups have presented, identify those ideas that are common and use them to develop a shared definition of the term. Compare their definition to the one in the Glossary.

Introduce or highlight the concept that “discrimination” can sometimes result from treating people the same and that occasionally we are required to treat people differently to achieve equal results. For more information about this, refer to the definitions of “equal treatment” and “adverse impact” in the Glossary.

With this exercise, the charts show that many, many people are subjected to different types of discrimination. Based on the lists generated, how does the information answer this question: Who is not discriminated against?”

Next, have students discuss in their groups some specific ways that discrimination occurs (see Fact sheets 2-6). As before, have them record their ideas on chart paper and then compare their lists with the other students. Build a class list with input from each group.

Summarize this activity before moving on to another topic.

Background information: What is equality?

The notion of a legal right to equality and how we create a society in which all have equal rights requires that we challenge our ways of thinking about “equality.” First, it is important to understand that “equality” does not stay the same – it is an evolving concept that the courts continue to define and reinterpret.

The traditional approach to understanding equality is based on the idea that it can be achieved by providing identical treatment to all individuals, regardless of their actual circumstances. With this approach, if people are similar and you treat them the same, you cannot be said to have discriminated even though the result may in fact add to the disadvantage experienced by members of particular groups.

This notion of equality has many shortcomings. People have different needs because of their physical or mental abilities, race, ethnicity, creed, gender, sexual orientation, etc. However, when these needs are not recognized, the unequal effects that identical treatment can sometimes produce are ignored. Treating everyone the same may result in inequities, because this does not consider without considering their histories of exclusion or restricted access to resources and opportunities. This, in turn, perpetuates group-based inequalities and compounds the experience of disadvantage.

For example, if a business requires that all its employees be available to work Monday to Saturday, people whose faith requires that they do not work on Saturdays may be excluded from employment. A residence or business that is only accessible by stairs denies entry to people with certain physical disabilities. Also, an organization that provides information solely in print form excludes people who are blind or who have some types of learning disabilities from access to that information. 

Current approaches to the idea of equality stress the need to look beyond the forms of treatment to the context of people's circumstances, including their historical experiences. Important aspects of this context are the social, economic, political and legal realities affecting the individual or group – realities that have both historical and contemporary components. Differences in the context could mean that, in some cases, same treatment will lead to unequal results while different treatment will sometimes be required to accomplish an equality of results. Achieving a more substantive or meaningful equality of results requires that the “different-ness” of their realities be acknowledged, as well as accommodated, in our laws and in the policies and practices of our social and business institutions.

Achieving true equality may require us to change rules and practices that appear to be neutral but, in fact, when applied have a disproportionately negative effect on groups of people protected by the Code (see adverse impact in the Glossary). In fact, the Code requires changing these rules and practices unless it can be shown that the cost of the change would be too great (having also considered external sources of funding that may be available), or that there will be a substantial health or safety risk involved.

It doesn’t matter if the organization didn’t intend to discriminate. In the case of the business mentioned earlier, the employer must make alternative arrangements for the person who cannot work on Saturday for religious reasons, unless to do so would cause undue hardship.

Owners of public buildings with elevated entrances or multiple stories must build ramps or install elevators to allow persons with a physical disability the same access available to others, unless to do so would cause undue hardship. As well, publications must be provided in an electronic version that can be read out loud by a computer equipped with special screen-reading software, in Braille, large print or on audiotape depending on the needs of the reader.

The Code recognizes that to achieve equality of results, it is sometimes necessary to adopt special programs to assist historically disadvantaged individuals and groups to overcome discriminatory practices that have become ingrained in our institutions and organizations. Section 14 of the Code allows special programs that are designed to relieve hardship and economic disadvantage or to achieve equality of results in society, as envisioned in the Preamble to the Code.