Ontario must combat racism, says outgoing human rights commissioner

Barbara Hall leaves her post with a challenge to defeat the discrimination touches everyone

TORONTO — Ontario has made progress in combating the scourge of racism and other forms of discrimination but the fight is far from over, the outgoing head of the province’s human rights commission says.

In an interview at commission headquarters, Barbara Hall said she strongly believes the very success of our society depends on ensuring the disadvantaged or marginalized are able to contribute fully.

“The most discouraging part of this work is the persistence of racism, particularly as it impacts black Ontarians and aboriginal people,” said Hall, whose 10 years as chief commissioner ends Friday.

“We see progress on issues but we need to — as a commission, as a society — be vigilant about these issues. It requires constant pushing.”

Discrimination, Hall said, is something that can touch everyone. As examples, she cited women returning from maternity leave to find their jobs have “mysteriously” disappeared or those sexually harassed at work.

During her tenure, the former councillor and three-year mayor of Toronto has overseen a huge internal change — the splitting of the commission in 2008 into a tribunal that deals with individual complaints and the commission, which focuses on systemic and policy issues related to discrimination.

The split made sense, Hall, 68, told The Canadian Press.

“If we have to change society…on the basis of one individual complaint after the other, it would take many lifetimes,” she said.

“Most people who care about the kind of society we live in aren’t prepared to wait that long.”

Looking back over her term, Hall is particularly proud of an initiative that uncovered huge issues — including the “terrifying” stigma people with mental-health problems were facing. Until the commission started asking questions, discrimination against them was “in the closet in the human rights system,” she said.

The response to the initiative was overwhelming, and helped propel Ontario into the forefront of tackling the problem. The mentally ill, she said, learned they have rights.

“We see change in people’s confidence to raise the issues,” Hall said.

The commission, with a budget of $5 million and a staff of about 50 people, was also instrumental in sparking improvement in the way the mentally ill are treated in the province’s jails — in particular avoiding their placement in segregation.

The transgender form another group who have benefited recently from a commission that pushed for changes in the human rights code to ensure their protection, Hall said.

They were, she said, among the most marginalized and most subject to violence — often unknown to much of society.

For now, however, Hall said she is looking forward to enjoying more travel time with her husband Max, who is retiring from his position as head of the National Easter Seals charity.

Nevertheless, the couple have always played some kind of activist role and Hall, who is keenly interested in aboriginal issues, said that won’t change.

“We’re not going away,” she said.

The provincial government has named another commissioner — lawyer Ruth Goba — as interim head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Hall urged her successor not to listen only to the loudest voices but to seek out the truly marginalized.

“Unless we’re able to eliminate discrimination and create a situation where all people are respected, all our lives are diminished.”

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