A private member’s bill that adds four grounds of discrimination to Ontario’s Human Rights Code still has some “holes” that need to be filled, but these changes are necessary because they are addressing real harms, Hamilton employment and human rights lawyer Jennifer Zdriluk, tells AdvocateDaily.com.
The bill, the Human Rights Code Amendment Act, was introduced in October 2017 and, after receiving second reading, was sent to the Standing Committee on Regulations and Private Bills, where it currently sits.
The legislation adds police records, immigration status, genetic characteristics and social condition to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Code, and has the backing of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Toronto Star reports.
The current grounds of discrimination include race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, record of offences, marital status, family status and disability.
Zdriluk explains that police records would replace the current ground of record of offences, providing a much-improved definition.
“It's an important change that has to be made no matter what,” she says. “Our current system says it’s a human rights ground to not hire someone or offer them housing if they’ve been convicted of a crime that they’ve been pardoned for. But what that leaves open with no Code protection are people who have been charged with a crime but have not been proven guilty.”
At the same time, Zdriluk says, “There are other things that show up on criminal record checks — for example, if a person had a mental health apprehension. Maybe they were disorderly, but there was a finding it was due to mental health issues and they were then institutionalized or placed on a hold in a hospital. All of those things currently show up when a police check is done and can, as the Code stands now, be used to as a basis to deny employment, housing or a service.”
If the bill is passed, she says, “You won't be able to discriminate on the basis of a police record, which includes charges and convictions, with or without a record suspension. It’s huge.”
Immigration status is also a significant addition, Zdriluk says, because although such things as race and place of origin are already prohibited grounds of discrimination, they don’t account for the discrimination we see based on how long someone has been in the country.
“What immigration status is designed to deal with, in part, is what we call the 'Canadian experience' requirement,” she says. For example, some employers will stipulate that they want a prospective employee to have a certain number of years of Canadian experience to be considered for a job.
“They’re basically saying, ‘We’re not going to consider your 10 years of experience somewhere else.’ So you’re discriminating against someone, in part, on the basis that they recently immigrated to Canada."
By adding immigration status to the Code, she says, “You wouldn’t be able to deny someone employment, for example, because they’ve only been in Canada for 60 days.”
Social condition is the proposed new ground of discrimination “that has people really nervous,” Zdriluk says.
It’s defined in the bill as “social or economic disadvantage resulting from employment status; source or level of income; housing status, including homelessness; level of education; or any other circumstance similar to those [already] mentioned.”
Critics say the definition is extremely broad, but Zdriluk says, as a human rights advocate, she supports the intent of the change.
“My personal belief is that we have a problem here. It’s an age-old story. For example, people can’t get a job because they don’t have an address to put down on the application, and they can’t get an address because they can’t get a job to pay for it. They’re homeless and people aren’t going to hire someone who is homeless,” she says. "It’s a perpetuating cycle."
“I think these changes are necessary for the human rights landscape because they are addressing real harms and injustices that are out there,” she says. “I’m hopeful that we can get this bill to a place that satisfies the concerns that need to be satisfied, so it moves forward and can become law.”