In October, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) issued a policy statement highlighting the issue of caste-based discrimination and its legal implications under province’s Human Rights Code.
This initiative aims to increase awareness about the rights of individuals and the obligations of organizations to prevent and address discrimination rooted in caste systems.
What are caste systems?
Caste systems, prevalent in some cultural and religious communities, create a social hierarchy based on ancestry, with notions of “purity” and “pollution.”
These systems often use various markers such as names, rituals, customs, and even skin color to identify and discriminate against individuals.
Such discrimination can significantly impact various aspects of life, including employment, housing, and education, leading to social and economic exclusion for those deemed to be of a “lower” caste.
Violation of human rights
The OHRC’s statement acknowledges that caste-based discrimination is a violation of human rights recognized internationally, including by the United Nations.
It’s seen as a form of “descent-based” discrimination that impairs equal enjoyment of human rights. This aligns with views from other human rights institutions, further solidifying its importance as a human rights issue.
In Ontario, the Human Rights Code offers protections that can be applied to caste-based discrimination, although caste itself is not a specific ground within the Code.
The OHRC emphasizes that discrimination related to a person’s caste can intersect with other grounds such as ancestry, creed, color, race, and ethnic origin. This intersectional system of discrimination can be addressed under the Code, which prohibits discrimination in services, housing, employment, and contracts.
However, the OHRC notes that the Code has its limits and does not cover all forms of differential treatment related to caste. It also allows certain exceptions for religious groups and organizations to limit membership or employment based on specific grounds.
Obligations for employers
Organizations are legally obligated to ensure their environments are free from discrimination and harassment based on caste and related grounds. They are required to respond to, investigate, and remedy situations of discrimination.
This includes having human rights complaint procedures and possibly incorporating caste-based discrimination into corporate human rights policies. Additional measures, like training and public awareness, are necessary to combat misinformation and prejudice.
The OHRC also highlights specific obligations under Ontario’s Education Act and the Provincial Code of Conduct for the education sector to protect students from such discrimination. Furthermore, hate activities targeting specific groups may be a violation of Canada’s Criminal Code.
For individuals who believe they have experienced caste-based discrimination, the Human Rights Legal Support Centre is available for advice, and claims can be filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. This proactive approach by the OHRC aims to ensure a more inclusive and equitable society, free from the constraints of ancestral-based discrimination.