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Despite equality progress, race and sex discrimination persist: Ontario rights chief

Barbara Hall was one of four former Toronto mayors gathered at the Globe and Mail to discuss the upcoming Toronto municipal elections.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Despite progress in advancing equality over the past decades, there is also much to be discouraged about, the head of Ontario's rights agency said Tuesday.

In releasing the Ontario Human Rights Commission's annual report, chief commissioner Barbara Hall said some of the problems even feel personal.

"There's some really persistent issues: anti-black racism and discrimination towards aboriginal peoples," Ms. Hall said in an interview.

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"As a woman I find it discouraging the persistence of sexual harassment."

Ms. Hall said barriers to equality also include discrimination based on religion, disability and sexual orientation.

There's still a "clear need" to prevent discrimination against individuals and to eliminate systemic barriers, she said.

"Some long-identified human rights issues have been very slow to change," the annual report states.

"The discrimination faced by aboriginal peoples continues, and is hugely damaging."

The annual report highlights the commission's work over the past year, including its legal interventions and policy development.

The past year also saw the commission hold its largest-ever public consultation into discrimination faced by people with mental-health disabilities — a problem only now moving to the forefront as a human rights issue even though about one-in-five Canadians will suffer some form of mental illness during their lives.

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More than 1,000 people with mental-health issues sent lengthy submissions about their experiences of discrimination in health-care system, housing, education and the workforce.

"We were amazed, I think it's fair to say, at the response," Ms. Hall said of the response to the consultations. "There are many issues there."

Now that the consultations are out of the way, the commission will spend the coming year developing a policy and advice on how to apply the human rights code in cases of mental illness.

Society and institutions simply don't have the skills to deal with the problem, so areas will include practical advice on how to accommodate people in the workplace and the various options and steps.

"It is a tough one," Ms. Hall said. "It's been hidden in the closet."

The commissioner also said she was pleased the sexually transgendered — a group that has suffered discrimination and even violence — are now explicitly protected by the rights code.

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The agency also released a blueprint to follow when conflicts arise between competing rights.

It is looking to come up with a new definition of "creed," which the commission last defined in 1996 as a professed system and confession of faith — a definition that may be "outdated," the report states.

The human rights commission spent a total of $5.5 million in the past fiscal year, according to the report.

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