Renu Mandhane is the chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
In a welcome and unequivocal statement, Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently told the National Observer that his government would never introduce a law such as Quebec’s Bill 21. He said: “Our government is for the people, all the people. As Premier, I will always protect an individual’s fundamental rights – including religious freedom and freedom of expression. A similar law has no place in Ontario.”
The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) agrees with the Premier that laws such as Bill 21 have no place anywhere in our province. The message behind Bill 21 is that certain racialized and religious minorities are not qualified to serve the public, which is entirely inconsistent with the strong equality protections in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in provincial human-rights codes.
These protections are an enduring promise: that people will be free to make choices core to their inherent dignity without public or private interference, and that they will be free to go about their daily lives without discrimination or harassment based on ignorance, stereotypes, xenophobia or hate.
In a modern constitutional democracy, efforts to legislate around Charter protections – by invoking the notwithstanding clause – are rightly viewed with suspicion and even alarm. This is especially true in Ontario, where millions of people rely on protection against discrimination – whether based on disability, sex, race or religion.
Beyond human-rights laws, however, there are also very good public-policy reasons to eschew such a law. Prohibiting Jewish, Sikh and Muslim people – those most associated with wearing articles of faith – from the public service is an insurmountable barrier to creating a government that effectively serves the entire community. For government to serve “all the people” – to use the Premier’s words – the public service must reflect the full diversity of the population. Ministers and other elected officials must be provided with impartial and objective advice that reflects the lived realities and unique needs of diverse communities, including religious minorities. One of the best ways to do that is to make sure the public service includes people from all walks of life.
I understand the value of a diverse public service first hand. As chief commissioner of the OHRC, I am supported by a strong team that collectively enrich my understanding of the human-rights issues facing diverse communities, connect me with leaders and grassroots advocates, and hold me accountable to meeting these communities’ needs. I simply could not do my job without staff, management and part-time commissioners who reflect and understand the challenges, hopes and fears of the communities the OHRC protects.
Ontario’s public service falls short of reflecting population demographics, especially in senior leadership positions. Racialized employees make up approximately 25 per cent of Ontario’s labour force, but only 11 per cent of senior executives in the provincial public service and 9 per cent of deputy ministers. Canadians should have access to similar information regarding the federal public service, but that data is limited to gender and age.
While the Ontario public service has acknowledged that systemic discrimination exists, the statistics speak to the intractability of the problem and the ineffectiveness of more than 10 years of diversity policies and plans.
That’s why the OHRC wrote the Secretary of Cabinet last month to call upon the government to do more to effectively address systemic discrimination and harassment in the provincial public service.
There is an inherent inconsistency when governments denounce Bill 21 while tolerating systemic discrimination in the public service.
This inconsistency is mirrored by the public. There is sustained public outrage when elected officials espouse racist views in other places, but relative silence in the face of more insidious, invisible systemic discrimination right here in Canada. All forms of discrimination – whether direct or systemic – maintain the status quo. Such discrimination deprives individuals from historically disadvantaged groups and their families of the benefits of being employed by the public service.
While welcoming Mr. Ford’s commitment to not enact a law such as Bill 21 in Ontario, the public should also call on governments to dismantle systemic discrimination in the public service. This action would demonstrate that governments are truly for “all the people.”
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