The Origin of Human Rights Law in Ontario

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The Origin of Human Rights Law in Ontario

Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.

By Alan L. Brown

The plaque for the Ontario Human Rights Code at Queen’s Park Crescent and Wellesley Street. Photo by Alan L. Brown of torontoplaques.com.

On December 10, the United Nations celebrates Human Rights Day to commemorate the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948. In 1962, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in Canada to legislate protections for human rights with the Ontario Human Rights Code. In what the Globe and Mail called a “rare accord” in a report on February 23, 1962, the legislature gave the code unanimous approval.

Premier John Robarts said the legislation was to:

make secure in the law the inalienable rights of every person, and to create at the local community level a climate of understanding and mutual respect among all our people so that every person—new Canadian no less than native born—will be offered the unhampered opportunity to contribute his maximum to the enrichment of our province and our nation.

In May, the Globe reported that the secretary of the Human Rights Commission had sent a letter to 4,000 business presidents asking them to respect the code when hiring. The secretary, T.M. Eberlee, said he had started receiving replies and that they mostly had “a very positive attitude toward the code…”

In June, the Globe reported on a study from Albert Rose, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto. The study surveyed more than 150 employers in the Toronto area and found “substantial” discrimination in hiring. Rose’s survey found racist attitudes towards Black people to be especially strong, but prejudices existed for many other groups as well. New Canadians, Rose said, were often stereotyped based on their country of origin—so Italians were seen to be unskilled labourers and immigrants from Britain and Australia were thought to have moved to Canada believing it owed them a comfortable living.

Rose also wrote that newspapers hadn’t done enough to consider their role in distributing employment ads and that they had refused to speak with his research team.

The code became law later that month—on June 15, the 747th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, the Globe noted. In an editorial a few days later, the newspaper wrote that the real success of the code depended on the private attitudes of Ontarians. If they were educated to respect human rights, the legislation was working, but the Globe feared that “active enforcement of human rights legislation is liable to have the opposite effect to that intended—to deepen prejudices rather than eliminate them.”

Now, the Ontario Human Rights Commission works to inform people of their rights under the code and to end discrimination in the province. Under the code, it is required to submit annual reports on its activity. In the most recent report, the commission highlighted work on carding and on building relationships with Indigenous communities in Ontario.

For the 50th anniversary of the code, in 2012, Ontario Heritage Trust unveiled a plaque celebrating the signing of the code. It stands at the southeast corner of Queen’s Park Crescent and Wellesley Street.

By Alan L. Brown

The Ontario Heritage Trust plaque for the Ontario Human Rights Code. Photo by Alan L. Brown of torontoplaques.com.


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