Ontario, Canada Human Rights Commission Publishes Policy on Caste-based Discrimination

The Ontario Human Rights Commission recently published a policy statement (Policy) pertaining to “caste-based discrimination” under Ontario’s Human Rights Code (Code). The Policy advises organizations that they have a legal obligation under the Code to ensure that “their environments are free from discrimination and harassment, bullying or a poisoned environment based on caste and the related grounds”; to investigate claims of caste-based discrimination; and to remedy situations when such discrimination is found.

What is a caste system?

The Policy provides the following definition of a “caste system”:

A caste system is a social stratification or hierarchy that determines a person or group’s social class or standing, rooted in their ancestry and underlying notions of “purity” and “pollution.” It is a traditional practice based in the political, social, cultural and economic structures of some cultural or religious communities and the societies in which it is practised.

What are “caste markers” and how may they be used to identify and discriminate?

The Policy also explains how “caste markers” may be used to identify and discriminate based on caste:

Caste-markers can include first and last names, family deities, rituals, wedding bands, customs and ceremonies, belief systems, food habits or diet, accent, dialect, area of origin, ancestry, and descent. Skin colour or “colourism” can also be a marker of social status that overlaps or intersects with other markers. Different castes or sub-castes may take up different positions in the social hierarchy, while other groups may not be assigned a caste at all. These groups may be deemed “untouchable” and assigned a position at the bottom of the social hierarchy including local Indigenous peoples. A person’s caste is seen as immutable and determined at birth.

How may individuals experience caste discrimination in employment?

The Policy notes that individuals may experience caste discrimination in employment if they are:

  • denied promotions;
  • assigned less-desirable job duties;
  • restricted from certain occupations; or
  • harassed because of perceptions about caste.

How can caste-based discrimination be covered under the Code?

Although the Policy acknowledges that “caste” is not a prescribed ground under the Code, it emphasizes that caste-based discrimination is an “intersectional system of discrimination” that can be covered under any combination of the following Code grounds:

  • colour;
  • race;
  • ethnic origin;
  • place of origin;
  • family status; or
  • possibly other grounds.

The Policy warns, however, that a religious group and other organizations can, among other things, limit the employment of individuals “based on  a Code ground as long as they primarily serve the interests of people from the group and meet other requirements of the Code.

How can an employer satisfy its legal obligation to address caste-based discrimination?

The Policy lists the following steps organizations can take to help satisfy their legal obligation to address caste-based discrimination:

  • have a human rights complaint procedure in place;
  • recognize caste-based discrimination in a corporate human rights policy; and
  • train staff “to help prevent and address misinformation, prejudice and other barriers that contribute to caste-based discrimination, especially when caste-based discrimination is or ought to be a known problem within the organization or sector.”

Although the  Policy does not have the force of law, such a policy can be useful and informative for employers and others that wish to ensure they are complying with their obligations under the Code.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.