50th anniversary of the Ontario Human Rights Code

Unveiling of the provincial plaque to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Ontario Human Rights Code

Thomas H.B. Symons, C.C., O.Ont, FRSC, LL.D., D.Litt., D.U., D.Cn.L., FRGS, KSS – Chairman, Ontario Heritage Trust

As Chair of the Ontario Heritage Trust, and as a former chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, I am delighted to be here this afternoon to join in this special commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Respect for human rights is an old tradition in Ontario; one that has evolved considerably over many decades. It is one of our most important traditions – because a truly just and democratic society must be free from discrimination and inequity. Efforts by the inhabitants of what is now Ontario to define and assert rights and freedoms are at least as old as the province itself. From the early years of Upper Canada, inhabitants of present-day Ontario have viewed rights and freedoms as fundamental entitlements derived from political and legal traditions that are a vital part of our British inheritance.

Building on these traditions within a distinctly Canadian context, unique approaches to rights also emerged out of the customs and traditions of the First Nations, of French-speaking Canada and of the many other cultural components that make up and enrich this country. The exchanges and inter-relationships of these diverse elements also generated distinctive approaches to rights and freedom. Such approaches often emphasized group rights and were expressed in acts of parliament – such as the Quebec Act of 1774, the Constitutional Act of 1791, Upper Canada’s Act to Limit Slavery in 1793, and the British North America Act – all of which contained protections for minority groups. Although not without their limitations, these protections helped to create a foundation upon which a pluralistic, multicultural society could be established.

Nonetheless, as the province grew and evolved, there remained major shortcomings in Canadian and Ontario law that allowed for, and sometimes even fostered, oppression, discrimination and intolerance. Although by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a considerable record of progressive legislation in the province, the presence of systemic racism, sectarianism and injustice in Ontario society remained an unfortunate, and an often appalling, reality!

Concurrently, however, increased immigration to the province resulted in a steadily more diverse population, and in the formulation of a new understanding of equality, tolerance and citizenship.

In the first half of the 20th century, the First World War and the Great Depression were both catalysts for profound and lasting changes to the human rights landscape in Ontario. Anti-foreigner sentiment, discriminatory laws and practices and outright racist government policies were all realities, both perpetuated and faced by various segments of the Ontario citizenry. These realities gave rise to a struggle for human rights in the province that continued to gain strength and currency in the years following the Second World War.

In 1945 and 1946, the veterans returning to Canada from theatres of war in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Far East had a significant impact on reshaping public opinion about many aspects of human rights. What they had seen first-hand of discrimination and its results had a strong and lasting impact on them, as did their experience of the fellowship and comradeship involved in serving in the Forces with so many others of different backgrounds.

This struggle for human rights was bolstered and given definition when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was largely a Canadian initiative, was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, creating new international standards of human rights and contributing to the ongoing emergence of a new culture of rights that challenged existing racial hierarchies and led to significant legislative changes in Ontario.

In the early 1950s, following tireless campaigning by groups such as the National Unity Association of Chatham, Dresden and North Buxton – led by the seasoned Black Dresden activist Hugh Burnett – the Progressive Conservative government of Ontario, under the leadership of the Honourable Leslie Frost, passed what became collectively referred to as “fair practices” legislation, including the country’s first Fair Employment Practices Act and a Female Employees Fair Remuneration Act, both passed in 1951, and the Fair Accommodations Practices Act passed in 1954.

At the same time, in the courts, there was an acceleration of the broadening of liberty, case by case and precedent by precedent. In 1945, for example, Mr. Justice Keiller Mackay, who later became Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, rendered a notable judgement in the case of Re Drummond Wren, which struck down an invidious, discriminatory property covenant aimed at “Jews or persons of objectionable nationality.”

The efforts of individuals and groups to push for change and to mobilize against the discriminatory practices and beliefs of the state and society proved to be a powerful impetus for change. By the 1950s, civil liberties associations, ethno-cultural associations, religious groups and organized labour groups became useful allies for minority rights advocates. Collectively, they constituted a compelling force behind the human rights movement, which continued to gain strength in the 1960s and 1970s.

The province’s rights revolution made significant gains in March 1961 with the creation of the country’s first human rights commission. It was, indeed, one of the first in the world. The Ontario Human Rights Commission was tasked with administering what ultimately became Ontario’s first Human Rights Code. Bill 54 – An Act to establish the Ontario Code of Human Rights and provide for its administration – was an expansive statute prohibiting discrimination on numerous grounds in accommodations, services and employment. It consolidated and expanded previously separate fair practice laws into the Ontario Human Rights Code.

The Code came into effect 50 years ago this very day – the anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. It was one of the first pieces of legislation introduced by the Honourable John Robarts on assuming leadership of Ontario’s government.

The Ontario Human Rights Code widened justice and democracy in Ontario. Moving forward, it continued to evolve – giving legal meaning to the values of dignity, equality and respect. Dr. Daniel Hill, the distinguished first Chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, worked diligently to advocate for future protections under the Code. In 1969, he outlined how and where within the Code increases in its use by specific groups were occurring – for example, by Aboriginal people, recent immigrants and women – and suggested areas where it could be improved.

I had the distinct privilege of following Dr. Hill as Chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, serving from 1975 to 1978. During this period, the Commission undertook a substantive review of human rights in Ontario, which ultimately led to the complete revision of the Ontario Human Rights Code.

As Chair, I had the good fortune of working with a wonderful team of Commissioners who, through their unwavering commitment and tireless efforts, produced a report that changed the landscape of human rights in the province. One of this great team of Commissioners is here today – Mr. Bromley Armstrong – and I invite you to salute and thank him.

In recognizing that responsibility for human rights is shared by all members of society, we invited the people of Ontario to participate fully in every stage of this review. Between May and September 1976, the Commission held 17 public hearings across the province and received more than 300 written briefs. The process initiated public conversations about human rights that people hadn’t had up until that point.

Over the course of the review it became evident that for life in Ontario to be truly marked by an atmosphere of mutual understanding, and by respect for the dignity of every person, the application of the Ontario Human Rights Code needed to be widened significantly.

Together with the people of Ontario, the Human Rights Commission worked to broaden appropriately the scope of human rights in the province. The resulting report, Life Together, made nearly 100 recommendations, including the progressive suggestions that records of offence, disability and sexual orientation be included as grounds on which discrimination is prohibited. The report also called for a greater allocation of resources devoted to research and public education.

As the Honourable Madam Justice Rosalie Abella – one of the report’s authors – has said, it was “the most dramatic reconfiguration of human rights since the beginning of Human Rights Commissions in this country,” and it resulted in a new, more inclusive vision of human rights in Ontario. As recommendations were acted upon over subsequent decades, the Code and the Ontario Human Rights Commission adopted the modern, inclusive and active approach to human rights that they exhibit today.

And, indeed, the process and the tradition continue! All Ontarians must take pride and pleasure in the fact that, on Wednesday of this week, just two days ago, the Legislature of Ontario amended the Ontario Human Rights Code to extend its protections to transgendered people, a frequently marginalized and vulnerable community in the same need of protection from discrimination as everyone else.

Members of all three parties voted for the amendment to add to the Code the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression” in order to prevent discrimination against transgendered people as they, for example, look for work or a place to live. In fact, a whole host of things will be opened up for transgendered people because of this amendment.

This is the first substantive change to the Code since its major revisions following the public hearings and review in the 1970s, which added the words “sexual orientation” to protect gays and lesbians.

Fittingly, the amendment legislation is called Toby’s Act in honour of the late musician Toby Dancer, who led the choir at the church in Toronto where Cheri DiNovo, who campaigned so vigorously for this reform, was a minister before becoming a member of the provincial parliament.

Again, Ontario is the first provincial parliament to adopt this amendment. Manitoba did so the next day, and others are moving in the same direction. Ontario is, in fact, the first major jurisdiction in North America to provide human rights protection for transgendered people, though it must be acknowledged that we were preceded by the North West Territories!

In an address to the Canadian Caucus of Human Rights in the early 1980s, the Secretary of State at the time said, “One cannot escape the fact that rights are only as real and alive as an enlightened and educated citizenry permits them to be.” The continued efforts of organizations, advocacy groups and individual citizens have helped to ensure that the tradition of protecting and strengthening human rights in Ontario continues.

Today, the Code continues to respond to social change while remaining true to its core and defining values of justice and equality. In so doing, it continues both to shape, and to be shaped by, the ways in which Ontarians perceive themselves as a people. It is something of which the people of this province can be very proud.

It is a great and particular pleasure to be here today – 15 June 2012 – to commemorate with you the 50th anniversary of the Ontario Human Rights Code by the unveiling of a provincial plaque.

Thank you.