Human Rights Commission urges colleges, universities to ensure equitable, inclusive environments

OHRC's letter addresses media reports of discrimination, xenophobia, targeting in academic settings

Human Rights Commission urges colleges, universities to ensure equitable, inclusive environments

The Ontario Human Rights Commission has called on the presidents and principals of the province’s public colleges and universities to implement strong, effective and fair complaint procedures to fight against discrimination and harassment in their academic communities.

In the wake of recent media reports of discrimination, xenophobia, targeting and toxic learning environments across Ontario’s campuses and academic settings, the OHRC is worried that inadequate institutional action will allow human rights violations, including anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, to repeatedly happen in such environments, wrote Ena Chadha, chief commissioner of the human rights commission, in a public letter dated Dec. 18.

The OHRC noted that media sources have claimed that, in most instances, school administrators have inadequately dealt with, if at all, reports of faculty microaggressions against students, gratuitous mentions of the “N-word” in classrooms, racist posts and images in chat rooms, the “Zoom-bombing” of online meetings organized by racialized students and threats of violence.

Student groups and individual students have reached out to OHRC to lament institutional apathy or inadequate internal institutional mechanisms and to request that the OHRC utilize its powers under the Ontario Human Rights Code, such as its power to initiate a public interest inquiry.

Senior administrators and human rights advisors in colleges and universities have the primary legal and practical responsibility to deal with human rights concerns, so it is troubling that students have felt compelled to independently ask for the OHRC’s support, wrote Chadha in the letter.

The OHRC urged senior administrators to embark upon meaningful action to understand the experiences of these students and to cooperate with stakeholders in their communities to better protect human rights in their schools. Senior administrators can also consider consulting the OHRC’s products which offer guidance on how institutions can accomplish their human rights obligations.

The Ontario Human Rights Code mandates academic institutions, as service providers, to fulfill human rights obligations to their students, which include positive duties to proactively assess and investigate signs of systemic discrimination and racism and to prevent future occurrences of human rights violations. These academic institutions should put in place robust, transparent and accessible policies, protocols and complaint mechanisms to ensure compliance with human rights law and to encourage a culture of accountability.

The complaint process should, according to the provincial human rights jurisprudence, involve a prompt and serious response, organizational awareness that the alleged actions are banned, an implemented complaint mechanism, organizational action to foster a healthy environment and communication of the organization’s steps to the complainant. Failure to promptly and effectively address and investigate the reported human rights violations may cause or exacerbate the harm of discrimination when assessing liability.

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