“Bill 114 – An Act to provide for Anti-Racism Measures” – A Starting Point to Address Systemic Racism in Ontario

May 16th, 2017 by Michael Hackl

Since 1962, the Ontario Human Rights Code has provided individuals who suffered discrimination or harassment because of a number of personal characteristics, including race or religion, with a way to assert their rights to equal treatment in certain sectors, such as housing and employment. Even prior to the passage of the Human Rights Code, there were laws such as the Fair Employment Practices Act, 1951 and the Fair Accommodation Practices Act, 1954, which provided some of the protections that were later incorporated into the Human Rights Code.

These measures have been important in providing Ontarians who have suffered from discrimination or harassment on the basis of a characteristic protected by the Code with an avenue to seek a remedy. Further, while the Human Rights Code focuses on providing individuals with remedies when they have a complaint, the Code has had an impact beyond just redressing the specific complaints brought to the Human Rights Tribunal. Organizations often seek advice from legal counsel and other professionals on their activities in advance to ensure that they are compliant with the Human Rights Code. In addition, decisions of the Human Rights Tribunal can impose remedies that go beyond simply providing relief to the complainant; for example, the Tribunal can require a respondent such as a housing provider or employer to change their practices to try to avoid further problems in the future.

In addition, the Human Rights Code establishes the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which functions to promote and advance human rights in Ontario by, among other things, promoting public information and education regarding human rights, initiating inquiries into situations that may create tension or conflict and making recommendations to reduce or prevent such situations, and making recommendations designed to prevent and eliminate discriminatory practices.

The provincial government has now turned its attention specifically to the issue of systemic racism, beginning with the establishment of the Anti Racism Directorate in February, 2016. This was followed by a series of community meetings that were held across the province by the Anti‑Racism Directorate. Then, last month, the government released “A Better Way Forward – Ontario’s 3‑Year Anti –Racism Strategic Plan,” (A Better Way Forward) and on March 29, 2017, introduced Bill 114 ‑ “An Act to provide for Anti‑Racism Measures” to the legislature.

Bill 114 does not respond to racism in the same way that the Human Rights Code does. It does not set out grounds that are prohibited, nor does it provide for an enforcement mechanism for persons who feel that they have been victims of racism. Instead, in light of its goal of taking a proactive approach to combating systemic racism, Bill 114 takes a different approach. If passed, Bill 114 will make it mandatory for the provincial government to maintain an anti‑racism strategy (initially, A Better Way Forward) with the aim of eliminating systemic racism and to review the strategy at least once every 5 years to ensure that the strategy remains relevant and effective. The Bill also provides for data collection to identify and monitor systemic racism and racial disparities and for consultation with affected individuals and groups. Further, Bill 114 requires the Minister Responsible for Anti‑Racism (a cabinet position that was itself only created last year) to provide progress reports on the anti‑racism strategy at least once a year.

Bill 114 and A Better Way Forward also recognize a number of points that will be of vital importance in combating systemic racism. For example, A Better Way Forward recognizes that to address systemic racism it is critical to involve representatives of racialized groups and individuals in a meaningful way, and that solutions will require a collective approach by many departments in the government. Elements of the strategy such as establishing a Minister’s anti‑racism consultation group, a commitment by the government to hold an annual anti‑racism conference, and setting policy labs, all with the involvement of those affected by systemic racism, together with the improved data collection mandated by Bill 114 are aimed at better understanding the causes and effects of systemic racism, in order to introduce and improve on concrete steps to address this problem.

These developments are only the start; as A Better Wa y Forward recognizes, “History that goes back hundreds of years resulted in systemic racism that impacts Indigenous and racialized people today, and change won’t happen overnight.” However, as the proverb says, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” By introducing a strategy, together with a commitment to monitor the progress of the strategy and the steps taken to advance it, Ontario now has a roadmap that will lead to a better understanding of the impact of systemic racism and how to combat it. Hopefully, we can all help to advance this effort and to maintain the resolve that it will take to make the changes necessary to advance this long overdue initiative.

At Iler Campbell LLP we provide advice on human rights issues to housing providers, employers and other organizations, including advice on the policies and measures to ensure that our clients are taking the proper steps to guard against racism and other discriminatory incidents, and the steps to take to address them appropriately if they should occur. We are excited about the prospect of significant effort and concrete steps being taken to address systemic racism on a proactive basis and hope that Bill 114 and A Better Way Forward help Ontario to move forward in addressing this issue, and we are ready to help our clients adapt to the changing environment. Please contact us for further information.

Filed in: Human Rights

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