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The professionalism series: The changing landscape of human rights in Ontario

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This two-part series brought a panel of human rights specialists and legal professionals together to explore the future of human rights law and policy, which appears to be moving toward granting every person the ability to enjoy equal rights and opportunities without discrimination as well as advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

In part 1, Patricia DeGuire, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) provided an overview of the history of human rights and the evolution of human rights protections in Ontario, and outlined the OHRC's strategic plan for fostering a human rights culture in Ontario and its impact on advancing DEI.

In part 2, Patricia returned alongside Marsha Lindsay, Vice President of Legal, Labour, Employment, and Human Rights at Loblaws Inc. and Harrison Brown, a senior associate in BLG’s Labour and Employment group. They discussed the ongoing progress in Ontario's human rights legislative landscape and provided valuable insights for professionals, highlighting the significance of transparency in achieving equitable outcomes within organizations.

Below is an overview of the two-part series. For more information, watch the full webinar or read the transcript*.

*Webinar and transcript are available in English only.

Part 1 – The evolution of human rights in Ontario

The history of human rights protections in Ontario is often entrenched in grassroots pressure that gradually evolves over time. These movements have helped expand human rights protections to include various grounds of discrimination, including race, nationality, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and more.

The Ontario Human Rights Code

In 2022, Ontario marked the 60th anniversary of the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code) which was the first legislation of its kind in Canada.

The primary goals of the Code are to protect the dignity and worth of every person, ensure equal rights and opportunities, and create a climate of respect and mutual understanding. The Code takes priority over other provincial legislation, is remedial (not penal), and considers the effect rather than the intent of actions.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission

The OHRC was established in 1961 and has since played a significant role in advancing human rights in Ontario. In 2008, Bill 107 reformed the Ontario human rights system, leading to the creation of the three pillars of the system: the OHRC, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, and the Human Rights Support Centre.

Today, the OHRC focuses on addressing systemic discrimination and advocating for systemic changes. Among other tools, it uses strategic litigation to intervene in cases before tribunals and courts to establish important precedents and advance the interpretation of the Human Rights Code.

The OHRC’s strategic plan for 2023-2025 aims to create a strong human rights culture in Ontario by working with various institutions to address the increase in hate expression, emphasizing the importance of countering hate with a multi-faceted approach.

DEI in the workplace

DEI initiatives should be carefully articulated and transparent, as well as integrated into business plans, strategic plans and key performance indicators. Patricia urged that DEI be used as a strategic tool to dismantle anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination in the workplace, and not merely as “window dressing”.

To follow DEI leading practices, workplaces must firstly recruit and retain employees from diverse backgrounds – including 2SLGBTQI+, Indigenous, Black and other racialized individuals – and actively develop and execute policies that promote diversity and inclusion. This requires cultural awareness, humility, mindfulness and taking intentional steps towards change.

The four pillars of a successful DEI strategy include:

  1. Fairly defined policies and processes.
  2. Data collection to inform decisions.
  3. Specific plans for hiring, onboarding, training and promoting inclusivity.
  4. Accountability and transparency, with leadership commitment.

Progress and challenges in DEI

There is growing demand for diversity in corporate governance, driven by investors and initiatives. Patricia acknowledged that progress has been made in terms of gender diversity on boards and in executive roles, and representation of racialized people has also increased. That being said, representation of 2SLGBTQI+ individuals remain low.

Part 2 – Panel discussion: Equitable outcomes

In part 2, the panel participated in a Q&A style conversation that touched on the importance of data-driven initiatives, transparency, and promoting DEI in the workplace. They also examined the significance of complying with the Human Rights Code and accommodating employees' needs.

Here are some key takeaways from the discussion:

  • Employers can use the Human Rights Code as a guide to introduce programs that promote diversity and inclusion. For example, Marsha outlines how Loblaws has developed a coaching program for Black colleagues to enhance their leadership skills and representation in management roles, using human rights legislation to support such initiatives.
  • DEI initiatives should be integrated into business plans, budgets and key performance indicators.
  • Collecting data is essential for understanding an organization's DEI landscape, identifying gaps and creating effective initiatives. Building trust in data collection requires transparency and demonstrating the positive impact of data-driven programs.
  • Organizations, such as Loblaws, are adopting hybrid work models with greater flexibility – balancing the need for accommodation with necessary business requirements. It is crucial that organizations assess individual accommodation needs and treats them with respect and empathy.
  • The Human Rights Code imposes a legal obligation on employers to accommodate Code-related needs, with the only limit being "undue hardship." Individual accommodations can benefit not only the individual but also promote a more inclusive design.
  • Organizations should have an accommodation process in place to ensure fairness and compliance. HR professionals are encouraged to document the steps taken in the accommodation process to demonstrate transparency and accountability.
  • Strategies for early resolution of discrimination issues include:
    • An integrity action line for anonymous reporting of complaints.
    • Data collection and analysis to identify trends and areas requiring attention.
    • Non-adversarial approaches to conflict resolution, such as mediation.
    • Prioritizing internal resolution over escalation to external bodies.

Key Contacts