On December 8, 2017, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (the “Commission”) released a report entitled, “Taking the pulse: People’s opinions on human rights in Ontario”. The report examined the results of a public opinion survey of 1,501 people aged 18 and older. The survey sample was generally proportionate to Ontario’s population in terms of gender, age group, ethnic and racial identities, disability status, foreign-born populations, education and income levels, and regional distribution.
The purpose of the survey was to gauge and give a voice to attitudes relating to human rights in Ontario, both positive and negative. The survey asked respondents about their human rights awareness, attitudes towards certain groups, and personal experiences of discrimination. The survey questions covered a broad range of the prohibited grounds of discrimination in employment, housing and services under the Ontario Human Rights Code (the “Code”).
The survey reportedly revealed that discrimination mainly occurs at work. In fact, 45 per cent of respondents who experienced discrimination or harassment in the past five years reported that the prohibited conduct occurred in the workplace.
The survey also revealed that discrimination remains grossly underreported. According to the survey results, 48 per cent of respondents who reported experiencing discrimination did not report it.
The Commission’s report highlights the significance of the issue of workplace discrimination and harassment and the prevalence of such claims. The number of new applications filed at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario each year continues to increase. It is anticipated that we will see an even greater increase should proposed legislative changes become law. The Human Rights Code Amendment Act, 2017 proposes to amend the Code to include four new prohibited grounds of discrimination: immigration status, genetic characteristics, police records, and social conditions. Should the proposed amendments become law, applicants will be able to file human rights applications with the Tribunal on the basis of these four prohibited grounds in addition to the grounds currently prescribed.
The Commission’s report serves as a timely reminder of the obligations of employers in the human rights context. Every person who is an employee has a right to freedom from discrimination and harassment on the basis of the prohibited grounds in the workplace. Employers have a corresponding duty to provide a workplace that is free from such discrimination and harassment, which includes a duty to investigate complaints of discrimination and harassment.
In the ever-evolving area of human rights law, employers are advised to review and ensure that policies and practices are fair and equitable. Complaints of discrimination and harassment must be taken seriously and investigated in a manner that is appropriate in the circumstances. Employers should be mindful of possible human rights issues in the workplace, and contact legal counsel for clarification when in doubt.