Discriminating against the poor is legal. That must change
Published on 12/01/2018
In Ontario, we think it is okay to discriminate against poor people. That doesn’t sound right, does it? But it’s true.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Ontario Human Rights Commission on discriminatory attitudes toward particular groups, people experiencing poverty received more negative evaluations than any other group. Only 39 per cent of those surveyed had “somewhat positive” feelings towards those receiving social assistance.
The problem isn’t just a matter of privately held beliefs; it is also legal to discriminate against someone because they’re experiencing poverty or homelessness.
If you are refused a job in this province because you look poor, denied service at a shop or restaurant because you are experiencing homelessness or face barriers in accessing housing because you are unemployed, you have no recourse under the law. The Ontario Human Rights Code does not offer protection against discrimination on the basis of social condition, i.e. housing status, level of income, level of education or employment status.
We should hold ourselves to higher standards when it comes to protecting human rights.
A private member’s bill recently introduced by Member of Provincial Parliament Nathalie Des Rosiers is an important step in this direction. The bill calls for the addition of four new prohibited grounds of discrimination to the Ontario Human Rights Code.
If passed, the new amendments would make it illegal for employers and other service providers covered by the Code to turn people away because they are poor or homeless; have a particular genetic history or refuse testing to determine genetic history; have precarious immigration status; or have a police record of any kind, unless that record is related to a bona fide occupational requirement.
Passing the bill would send a strong message that discriminating against people just because they are poor is wrong. A rigorous debate of the bill would force us to consider the underlying question: why do we continue to accept discrimination against poor people, thereby failing to protect their human rights?
One of the more persistent misconceptions we face today is the idea that poverty is the result of individual choices, and not a failure of the systems that should protect our fundamental social and economic rights.
Even as we affirm civil and political rights in this country, and even as we build robust systems for some social and economic rights like universal public education and healthcare, we are uncomfortable with the idea that all people have a right to safe, adequate and affordable housing, decent work, fair pay, and food and water. We are uncomfortable with the idea that these things must be guaranteed by the systems we build, for all people, regardless of any status.
In the absence of an affirmation of social and economic rights for all people, we create and allow the persistence of serious gaps in our social safety net. We underfund policies that would guarantee, for instance, affordable housing and adequate income security. We also see a stigma attached to those receiving social assistance, or those experiencing homelessness or underemployment; we see them as the undeserving poor rather than as individuals with a rightful claim to housing, work, health care and education. Furthermore, this stigma creates barriers to accessing jobs or education or health care, which keeps people in poverty.
The proposed amendments to the Ontario Human Rights Code offer a systemic change as well as a cultural shift with respect to social and economic rights. Our laws are one expression of the principle that people have certain inalienable rights, as well as a way to provide mechanisms to redress the violation of those rights.
By strengthening the Ontario Human Rights Code, we offer protection to those most affected by the gaps in our systems, and ensure that more of us don’t fall through those very gaps. We also challenge the societal values and attitudes that perpetuate discrimination against some of the most vulnerable members of our communities.
We might not all agree on the best way to eliminate poverty. But we must recognize that we all have a right to live free of poverty. We must see each other as individuals with a rightful claim to a life with dignity, well-being and opportunity.
Amending the Ontario Human Rights Code is an important step in the right direction.
This opinion was originally posted on Huffington Post.