The move last week by the Ontario’s Human Rights Commission (OHRC) to lay out a definition of caste discrimination in Canada is a huge step forward for civil rights, advocates say.
In its ruling, the OHRC said while caste is not specified as a protected category under Canadian law, it is covered by international human rights law and hence, can be protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code.
“Caste is not a prescribed Code ground, and only the legislature can recognize a new ground,” the OHRC noted.
“However, the OHRC, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and the courts must take a liberal and progressive interpretation of the Code. Human rights tribunals have found that caste-based discrimination is covered by human rights laws and can be challenged under one or more existing grounds.”
Vijay Puli, executive director of the Canada-based South Asian Dalit Adivasi Network (SADAN), told Global News just the acknowledgment of caste discrimination from the OHRC is a huge leap forward.
“People from oppressed castes can now finally go to court if they face discrimination. This is huge,” he said.
For many Canadians without close ties to communities where caste discrimination occurs, the phrase may be unfamiliar. Here is what you need to know.
What is caste discrimination?
Caste is a form of hierarchical social stratification that originates from the Indian subcontinent.
While caste has existed in South Asia for centuries, some discriminatory attitudes made their way outside the subcontinent as the size of the Indian diaspora has grown worldwide.
Members of oppressed castes have historically faced prejudice, in the form of social ostracization, employment discrimination and outright violence.
The OHRC in its release on Thursday said, “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 continued: “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.”
The commission noted that a person’s caste can be identified through many different ways, including 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.
A person’s skin colour can often sometimes to be used to identify caste.
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At the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy are the Dalits, who were once pejoratively referred to as “untouchables.”
When India gained independence from British rule in 1947, its new constitution, which came into effect in 1950 and was written by Dalit civil rights icon Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, outlawed untouchability, explicitly banned caste discrimination and established affirmative action for oppressed castes, including Dalits.
Dalit rights advocates have been calling for similar protections in Canada, which has a significant South Asian diaspora.
Caste discrimination in Canada?
OHRC on Thursday said a person from an oppressed caste “may experience discrimination in employment if they are denied promotions, assigned less desirable job duties, restricted from certain occupations, or harassed because of perceptions about caste.”
It added, “Individuals may face discrimination in housing if caste factors into a landlord’s decision about whether to rent them an apartment or treat them differently as tenants. Students might experience discrimination if schools fail to address harassment and bullying or other forms of negative treatment based on caste.”
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As well, the OHRC noted that “people may refuse to enter into a contract with someone of a different or ‘lower’ caste.”
The matter has been gaining increasing attention in Canada over recent months.
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In March this year, a vote before the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) sought to include caste as a protected category alongside race, gender, sexuality and other identities. While the motion did not pass in its original form, it referred the matter to the OHRC to define caste discrimination in Canada.
The motion was introduced by TDSB trustee Yalini Rajakulasingam. The trustee from Scarborough North, whose parents came to Canada from Sri Lanka in 1986 and who identifies as a member of an oppressed caste, welcomed the OHRC’s definition of caste discrimination.
“I am so overjoyed to hear the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s position on caste-based discrimination. This is a historic win for Dalit and caste-oppressed voices everywhere. There is no question our ancestors are rejoicing with us,” she said in a statement.
While the OHRC did not specifically create a new protected category, it said that caste discrimination can be addressed under the existing Ontario Human Rights Code.
For example, caste discrimination may fall under grounds of creed, race, skin colour or all of the above. The OHRC said the Ontario Human Rights Code recognizes intersectional discrimination.
Puli said the work of Dalit activists in Canada is far from over.
He said they now planned to launch awareness campaigns for members of oppressed castes in Canada and their allies, so that they are aware of their rights. He also said he hopes the Canadian Human Rights Commission will take notice and implement a definition federally.
“Educational institutions must also protect people from oppressed castes,” he said.
South of the border, several educational institutions have addressed caste discrimination.
In January 2022, California State University made caste a protected category. Brown University later became the first Ivy League University to do so.
In February this year, Seattle made history when a city council resolution made it the first U.S. jurisdiction to ban caste discrimination.