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On May 3rd, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released its report on Racial Profiling in Ontario. A year in the making, this report is the first time in nearly 15 years that there has been a systematic review of racial profiling in Ontario and the impact it has on people and communities.
The Commission takes a ‘no-holds-barred’ approach to the issue and does not avoid controversy in calling out racial profiling and its prevalence. The report begins with an unequivocal statement addressing the importance of addressing racial profiling.
For many years, racialized and Indigenous communities have spoken out about their deep mistrust of public institutions – such as police, corrections, child welfare agencies and others. These are the very institutions we have entrusted to protect us and help us with highly sensitive issues, and which often respond to the needs of the most vulnerable people in our society. Yet, for racialized and Indigenous peoples, too often the trust they should feel is overridden by the lived experience of racial profiling, such as being unfairly singled out for surveillance, scrutiny, investigation and disproportionately harsh treatment.
Racial profiling is an insidious and particularly damaging type of racial discrimination that relates to notions of safety and security. Racial profiling violates people’s rights under the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code).
The report looked at the system-wide impacts of racial profiling, noting that although racial profiling is mostly commonly talked about in the context of policing, it is present in other important aspects of life, notably education, child protection, transportation and healthcare.
While the entire report sheds a bright light on this important issue, perhaps the most telling comment made is that very little seems to have changed since racial profiling was last examined in 2003. Despite society’s attention to issues of racism, reconciliation and colonialism, Indigenous and other racialized people continue to be targeted.
The Commission dedicated a section of the report to the experiences of Indigenous people and conducted focus groups in Toronto and Thunder Bay. The Commission observed that “racism against Indigenous peoples in cities and towns through the province… is persistent and widespread.” In some communities, they observe, “racial discrimination against Indigenous peoples is normalized.”
The Commission also noted specific areas where racial profiling has most impacted Indigenous peoples. They described how just 3.4% of children in Ontario are Indigenous, but Indigenous children make up 25.5% of the children in foster care. Participants in the study also reported how they were profiled when seeking health care. The Commission recounted one story of an Indigenous woman in a northern emergency room being dismissed as a “narcotics seeker”. When she was finally examined by a doctor, it was confirmed that she in fact had a legitimate medical concern.
Unfortunately, while the Commission has clearly recognized the problem, the report offers little in the way of solutions. The attitudes which lead to racial profiling continue to exist, many institutions continue to hold the incorrect impression that it is effective, and pressure from government and institutions can discourage people who are impacted from raising the issue with authorities.
The only concrete next steps mentioned in the report were a commitment to “collaborate” with Indigenous peoples “to better understand Indigenous perspectives”. The Commission also committed to developing policy guidance to reduce incidents of racial profiling and will take a proactive approach to addressing it in the courts.
What this means for you
For First Nations, Indigenous organizations and Indigenous people generally, the report is a positive, but very preliminary, step towards justice.
The Commission identifies in the report that one of the obstacles to change is that people who aren’t subject to racial profiling often either deny it exists, or they defend it. The directness of this report will hopefully start to change that.
If you, one of your members or someone you know has been a victim of racial profiling, a complaint can be brought to the Human Rights Commission. Racial profiling is a violation of Ontario’s Human Rights Code. By bringing a complaint to the commission, the perpetrator, whether it is a police officer, health care worker, salesperson, security guard or teacher, can be held accountable.
The complaint resolution process under the Human Rights Code is designed to be faster and less complicated than normal litigation. While you don’t need a lawyer to make a complaint to the Commission, having one can often make the process easier.