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Appendix 2 – Human rights: the historical context

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Much of Canada's human rights legislation was developed in the 20th century. The Constitution of the United States deals in large part with human rights; however, the British North America (BNA) Act did not address the issue at all. It focused instead on the division of powers between the federal government and the provinces and territories.

In the early 1900s, Canadian women were not legally defined as “persons” under the BNA Act and therefore could not sit in government or in the Senate. In 1929, after years of court battles by Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung and others, the British Privy Council decided that women were in fact “persons” under the Act. In 1930, Cairine Wilson became Canada's first female senator.

One of Canada's most famous human rights cases, Christie v. York (1940), clearly emphasized the lack of human rights laws in this country. Mr. Christie and several friends went to the Montreal Forum to see a hockey game. In the bar at intermission, Mr. Christie was refused service because he was Black. He went to court over the issue and the judge awarded him $200 for loss of dignity and worth. However, the business community appealed the ruling on the basis that under current legislation they were allowed the freedom to serve anyone they chose. The higher court agreed and overturned the original judgement, making it clear that there was no law to protect Mr. Christie's rights.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Following World War II, and as a direct result of the human rights atrocities that resulted, the United Nations was formed to protect human rights and stabilize international relations between countries. Its Charter made specific reference to protecting human rights. This was later expanded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed by U.N. member states on December 10, 1948. Note that Professor John P. Humphrey, a Canadian, was a key player in drafting this
historic document.

The Declaration is a common standard of conduct for all people and nations. It rises above differing ideologies and philosophies to ensure certain fundamental human rights. It recognizes that:

  • “the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”
  • “human rights should be protected by the rule of law”
  • “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

The Declaration has influenced the development of human rights in Canada. It is referred to in several of the provincial human rights acts (including Ontario’s) that were passed within 30 years of the U.N. Declaration.

At the federal level, the government enshrined the principle of equality in the Bill of Rights in 1964. This was followed by the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1976, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

Human rights In Ontario

It was not until near the end of the Second World War that modern human rights legislation developed. The Ontario Racial Discrimination Act was proclaimed in 1944.
It prohibited publishing or displaying symbols that expressed racial or religious discrimination.

Life in the 1940s/early 1950s

Restaurants, barbershops, hotels and stores in many Canadian towns continued to refuse service to Black people well into the 1950s.

Consider Viola Desmond, who was often called Canada’s Rosa Parks. Desmond, who was Black, was visiting New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in November 1946 when her car broke down. While her car was being fixed, she decided to go the movies at Roseland Theatre.

The segregated theatre restricted seating for Black people to the balcony, so even though she asked for seating on the main floor, she was sold a balcony ticket. She
took a seat downstairs and was told to go upstairs. After she refused, police were summoned and dragged her out of the theatre and drove her to the downtown lock-up.

She spent 12 hours in jail and at trial the next day paid a fine of $26 including court costs for failing to pay the one cent difference in the provincial tax between an upstairs ticket and a downstairs ticket.

She was given a full pardon in 2010 – 45 years after she died.

“Real estate covenants” were another common form of discrimination. Until the Supreme Court abolished them in 1951, somebody wanting to buy a house often had
to agree that their property “shall never be sold, assigned, transferred, leased to, and shall never be occupied by any person of the Jewish, Hebrew, Semitic, Negro or coloured race or blood.”

The Covenants didn’t try to cover anything up. They made it clear their aim was to “restrict the ownership, use, occupation and enjoyment to persons of the White or Caucasian race not excluded by this clause.”

Challenging and changing the laws

A number of individual laws were passed in the 1950s as racial and ethnic groups began to challenge restrictive social practices. Developments included:

  • (1951) – Fair Employment Practices Act which prohibited discrimination based on race and religion in employment
  • (1954) – Fair Accommodation Practices Act which prohibited discrimination in public places on racial, religious or ethnic grounds
  • (1958) – Ontario Anti-Discrimination Commission Act which created a commission to administer the above acts and develop educational programs
  • (1961) – amendment to the Fair Accommodation Practices Act which prohibited discrimination in rental accommodation
  • (1961) – amendment to the Ontario Anti-Discrimination Commission Act, to change the name of the province’s human rights body to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Both the development of these laws and increasing social pressure led politicians to realize that comprehensive human rights legislation needed to be put into place to protect the rights of individuals.

The Ontario Human Rights Code is born

On June 15, 1962, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in Canada to formally recognize the moral, social and economic consequences of discrimination by enacting a Human Rights Code and establishing a human rights commission.

That first Human Rights Code reflected the thinking of the time. It prohibited discrimination in signs and notices, public accommodation, services and facilities, employment and trade union membership on the grounds of race, creed, colour, nationality, ancestry and place of origin.

In the years since then, our society has changed, and human rights grounds have changed as well. Disability, sex, sexual orientation and family status are just a few of the grounds that have been added to the Code over the years.

Another important advancement in human rights law was recognizing systemic discrimination. Systemic discrimination involves rules and practices that may seem fair, but actually have a negative impact on certain groups protected under the Code. In 1982, the Code was amended to tackle systemic discrimination and to try to deal with the impact of many years of disadvantage and inequality.

Bill 107 – the latest reform

On June 30, 2008, Bill 107 came into force. This major reform of Ontario’s human rights system included:

  • Changing the role of the Ontario Human Rights Commission to not have carriage of individual human rights complaints, focusing instead on working on systemic or root causes of discrimination
  • Having people make complaints – called applications – directly to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario
  • Creating a new organization – the Human Rights Legal Support Centre – to provide legal advice to people making complaints.

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