A Strategic Plan for the Implementation of Human Rights

The Ontario Human Rights Commission has produced a new strategic plan for its work over the next five years (Putting People and Their Rights at the Centre –  http://www.ohrc.on.ca/sites/default/files/Strategic%20Plan_
2017-2022_accessible_EN.pdf). This is an excellent development. The plan makes the mandate and work of the Commission transparent and comprehensible to the public and to the media, who are often still confused about the difference between a Human Rights Tribunal and a Human Rights Commission. Since Ontario is the jurisdiction in which the difference in roles is most marked, it is helpful to have the Commission articulate clearly that its focus is on tackling systemic discrimination, not through adjudication of cases, which is what the Tribunal does, but through the use of powerful and different tools – a public voice, research and inquiry, interventions in cases before the Tribunal and courts, and connection with a network of informed community organizations.

The Commission has chosen four strategic areas to focus on: reconciliation with Indigenous peoples; rights in the criminal justice system; advancing human rights by addressing poverty; and promoting a human rights culture through education.

Promoting a human rights culture through education is work that is needed and expected from human rights commissions. The other three areas are new. First, following the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the OHRC sets itself the goals of developing its own new relationship with Indigenous peoples and Indigenous organizations in Ontario, building a greater understanding of the enduring impact of colonialism, and enhancing accountability for systemic racism and discrimination against Indigenous peoples. 

On the issue of human rights in the criminal justice system, accountability is also the theme. The OHRC has already made its mark in this area by bringing to public attention the facts of the shocking solitary confinement of Adam Capay in a Thunder Bay prison for four years. In this case, Chief Commissioner Renu Mendhane demonstrated a much-needed willingness to uncover rights abuses, speak out, and seek change. In its strategic plan, the OHRC states it will work for the establishment of strong and transparent human rights accountability systems within the criminal justice system, and for non-discriminatory practices in policing and corrections, including ending the police use of racial profiling and solitary confinement in provincial jails.

Regarding poverty, the OHRC says it will work to make it clear how interconnected poverty and systemic discrimination are. The Commission says: “Poverty exacerbates marginalization and undermines peoples' ability to redress discrimination … Code-protected communities disproportionately experience poverty, with particular dynamics of marginalization facing persons living with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, women, older persons, children and youth, transgender people and racialized communities”.

The Commission plans to seek explicit Human Rights Code protection from discrimination for people who experience poverty, hunger and homelessness. It also plans to ensure that proposed strategies to address poverty take human rights into account.

This is an ambitious agenda, moving the Commission into a key role in addressing the historical and current discrimination against Indigenous peoples, the resistance of the criminal justice system to discharging its human rights obligations, and the harmful and obvious connection between systemic discrimination and poverty.

The Commission is showing what its role can, and should, be: a leader, a critical commentator, an innovator, and an advocate for honest and thorough implementation of human rights.

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