By Garima Karia
During my time at the Yukon Human Rights Commission (the “Commission”), I drafted legal memos for the Legal Counsel and Director. The subject matters of these legal memos often arose out of ongoing Commission investigations, or live matters before the Director, which made them both timely and interesting. The memos also often dealt with interpreting and potentially expanding the scope of the Yukon Human Rights Act. In this blog, I will highlight my findings from my largest undertaking during the internship: a memo I drafted on section 12 of the Yukon Human Rights Act. Currently, section 12 of the Act reads as follows:
Systemic discrimination: “Any conduct that results in discrimination is discrimination.”
My colleagues at the Commission and I thought that this definition of systemic discrimination could use some work as it lacks clarity and specificity. Therefore, my task was to do a deep dive into how the term should be defined, and to propose a series of reforms to this section of to the Act that could clarify the definition of systemic racism/discrimination. To ensure that I proposed a comprehensive set of recommendations, I surveyed all Canadian human rights legislation (provincial, territorial, federal) and jurisprudence to assess if and how other jurisdictions drafted provisions relating to systemic discrimination, and how these provisions were interpreted by tribunals and courts. I also looked broadly at academic commentary on the matter.
I found that, currently, no exemplary definition of systemic discrimination exists in Canadian legislation. However, upon surveying different definitions and interpretations of the term, I identified six key characteristics that, if combined, could make up a comprehensive definition of systemic discrimination. These key elements are the following:
- The effect or impact of a policy or act, rather than its intention, is at the crux of systemic discrimination. In other words, if a well-intentioned policy or act has the effect or impact of disadvantageous treatment of a particular protected group, it may be considered to perpetuate systemic discrimination despite its intent.
- Facially neutral policies or acts may cause systemic discrimination.
- Systemic discrimination is often subtle or “hidden.”
- Systemic discrimination is rooted in long-standing social and cultural attitudes and norms.
- Systemic discrimination may be embedded or detected in patterns/series/continuing phenomena that have significant cumulative effects. In other words, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” when it comes to the collective effect of various instances of discrimination or differential treatment that result in systemic discrimination.
- Systemic discrimination often contains an element of intersectionality.
In addition to the Yukon, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are the only other jurisdictions that define or include systemic discrimination in a meaningful way in their human rights legislation. While Saskatchewan’s Code does not include a definition, it empowers its Commission to prevent and address systemic patterns of discrimination. Manitoba’s definition is more specific than Yukon’s in that it includes elements of “effect/impact over intent” and “pattern/series/continuing phenomena resulting in significant cumulative effects,” but is still missing other key elements from the list above. As such, I proposed that a re-formulation of section 12 include all six key elements, as well as a provision that empowers the Commission to tackle the issue of systemic discrimination specifically.
Amending the systemic discrimination provision of the Act is important because manifestations of systemic discrimination undoubtedly make their way into human rights complaints. Even in cases of more “overt” systemic discrimination (e.g. if a pattern of behaviour is apparent or a complainant has been able to track acts of discrimination and their cumulative effect over time), a clear definition of the term and all that it may entail will empower complainants as well as Commissions and Tribunals to better interpret and deal with the impacts of systemic discrimination. Moreover, giving Commissions the agency to address and combat systemic discrimination as part of their mandates may produce creative and productive results.
Through my in-depth research and broad survey of how systemic discrimination has been conceptualized by courts, legislatures, human rights commissions, and academics across Canada, I have identified a list of key features that I argue should be integrated into any legislation or body’s definition of the term. In so doing, these bodies will give courts, complainants, and the public a clearer idea of what systemic discrimination entails, and how we can go about dismantling it.