Dialogue on Human Rights in Ontario

The Ontario Human Rights Code and the work of the Ontario Human Rights Commission: A great heritage in need of review and revision at appropriate intervals

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, it is a great pleasure to participate today in this Dialogue on human rights in Ontario.

I am particularly glad to reflect on the circumstances and processes that resulted in the publication of the 1977 report of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Life Together. As you will know, that report led to a substantial revision of the Ontario Human Rights Code as it then existed, and to many changes in the goals and operation of the Commission. I think we can learn much from an examination of the processes followed in that review, which will be helpful in moving forward now toward the changes and further reforms needed in the Code and in the priorities and operation of the Commission in order to meet today’s conditions.

The Ontario Human Rights Code came into effect on June 15, 1962. It was the first in Canada and, in fact, the first in North America and, indeed, among the first in the world. Twelve years later, the Ontario Human Rights Commission – responsible for administering the Code – was reconstituted as a public body of private citizens. By this time, the Commission had already investigated, settled, dismissed or referred over 69,000 complaints and inquiries. When I was appointed its Chairman in February 1975, the Commission was receiving complaints and inquiries at a rate of approximately 1,000 per month.

In the fiscal year 1975-76, the Commission received nearly 500 complaints to which it attempted to respond, but for which the Code provided no legal mandate to allow for effective investigation and conciliation. These complaints included, for example, single and divorced people being denied housing, physically disabled people being denied jobs for which they were qualified, and the arbitrary firing of individuals due to their sexual orientation. Evidence also suggested that a great many people were not bothering to bring their complaints to the Commission because they knew that their situation would not be covered by the Code’s then terms of reference.

During this period, social conditions in Ontario were changing rapidly. Incidents of racial discrimination were on the rise, including examples of wilful racism such as “dial-a-hate” messages, the defacing of a Sikh temple in Toronto, and the desecration of some Jewish cemeteries. The number and complexity of human rights cases brought before the Province was increasing.

After 12 years of operation, it was time to look carefully at the role of the Commission to see whether there were other areas of service it could be giving, whether the legislation for its activities should be updated, and whether there were different methods or approaches that might enhance its work. As Ontario continued to grow and change, it became obvious and essential that the human rights of the people of the province needed to be redefined and extended to ensure that life in Ontario continued to be marked by an atmosphere of mutual understanding and by respect for the dignity of every person.

This was not an easy, nor always a popular, task. There were some people in Ontario who were quite comfortable with the status quo, and who felt threatened by the suggestion that changing human rights needs in the province should be addressed. Indeed, there were clearly many people who resented and disapproved of the Code and the Commission. Some went so far as to bring verbal, written and physical threats against Commissioners, including the Chair, at their homes and places of business. Members of the Commission received dynamite through their mailbox and bricks through their windows. My wife and I were awakened one night at our home in Peterborough by a motorcycle gang that had come up from Toronto to demonstrate their contempt for the Code and the Commission by kicking open our front door and relieving themselves in the front hall.

Others had a more philosophical reservation about the fundamental concept of human rights, feeling that an extension of human rights in the province would curb their individual freedoms – that the greatest human right of all was the right to be left alone. It was the feeling of the Commissioners, however, and many others in the province that if there is not freedom for the community to develop in harmony and peace, then there cannot be secure freedom for the individual who lives within it, and that an act of discrimination represents “a rip in the fabric that binds society together.” The right to be left alone meant, for many unfortunate people, the right to be left behind, to be discriminated against and to be disadvantaged.

It was within this context that the Ontario Human Rights Commission undertook the first full-scale revision of the Ontario Human Rights Code since its enactment in 1962. The people of Ontario were invited to participate fully in every stage of the review. Advertisements were placed in every daily and weekly newspaper throughout the province – we did not have the benefit of social media at that time – and 17 public hearings were held, moving about the province, between May and September 1976.

The role of Commissioners and staff at these meetings was mainly to facilitate discussion and, most importantly, to listen. As a result, people felt directly connected to the process of designing legislation that would impact their lives and shape their communities. One meeting, in Kitchener, was attended by 250 people and lasted for over four hours. These meetings initiated public conversations about human rights that people had not had up to that point. The Commission also received more than 300 written briefs, coming from all across Ontario, which greatly contributed to the review process.

The Commissioners themselves took their role very seriously and the consideration of written drafts of Life Together was accompanied by vigorous and thorough discussion – and was always based on the premise that, as a legislative response to community consensus, the report had to be accessible in its language and style. It was not a top-down approach, but rather one that was very much informed by the role of the public.

The entire process took just over two years and the resulting report, Life Together, was released in July 1977. The report made 97 specific recommendations and provided a detailed proposal for a new Human Rights Code. It called for the allocation of greater resources for research, public education and community outreach, to enable the Commission to get out in front of issues, and to defuse potentially explosive situations before they became crises.

The report also made the progressive suggestions that record of offences, disability and sexual orientation be included as grounds on which discrimination is prohibited; that mandatory instruction in human rights be included as a part of all police training programs; that the Government of Ontario and all its agencies be bound by the Ontario Human Rights Code; and that the new Code include provision for a complaint to be filed by a “class of persons,” as well as by an individual.

As Commissioners, we were aware that we were testing boundaries, and that not all of our recommendations would initially be well received. Canada’s national newspaper, for example, denounced the report, describing its recommendations as 97 ways to waste public money. In the ensuing years, however, as these recommendations were nearly all gradually implemented, it welcomed many of them with favourable editorials, forgetting its own initial negative response.

We were also well aware that if the Code was expanded too greatly, there existed a real danger that the Commission would be required by law to handle complaints under so many categories of discrimination that it might not be able to deal effectively with even the most serious problem areas. It was a complex and delicate process, but one that was rooted in an obligation to the people of Ontario to ensure that their human rights concerns were captured and reflected in the report and, eventually, in the Code itself.

As the Honourable Justice Rosalie Abella has said, Life Together represented “probably 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, active approach to human rights that they exhibit today.

All of this did not occur in a political vacuum. It must be noted that the Province was, at that time, fortunate in the fact that its political leaders, transcending party lines, shared a thoughtful concern about the state of human rights and were mutually supportive in addressing the issues raised by the report. May I take this occasion to acknowledge and to thank them: Premier William Davis, Leader of the Opposition Robert Nixon and Leader of the New Democratic Party, Stephen Lewis.

Some other jurisdictions, including both the Provinces of Quebec and Alberta, also moved quickly to implement some of the report’s recommendations, and there was keen interest in the report in Washington and around the Commonwealth.

Public respect for human rights, however, is never something to be taken for granted. A “climate of understanding and mutual respect” will not continue to grow and evolve of its own initiative. It requires careful and constant nurturing through public education and continued legislative action. In this way, the work of the Commission is never truly complete, but rather is part of an ongoing process that responds to societal changes and public demands to ensure that the protection of human rights remains a relevant and significant part of the fabric of this province. The task is as invigorating as it is challenging and, if I may, I commend you all for your active role within it.

Human rights represent a vital part of our shared Canadian heritage. They constitute a legacy that we have received and are obligated to pass on and to improve over time. Human rights must be understood as a way of life – a mode of being – with natural acceptance of the habits of mutual respect and consideration. As Canadians, and as community members, we should not rest until this has been achieved.

The 97th and final recommendation of the report was perhaps its most important: “that the Ontario Human Rights Code be subject to a thorough and comprehensive review at regular intervals to ensure that it is effective in addressing new or changing human rights problems.”

Life Together was published in 1977. Thus, it is now 35 years since the last comprehensive public review of the state of human rights in Ontario was undertaken. May I respectfully suggest that it is time for another?

Thank you.