I was always the new kid. I was always standing at the door of the school, the class, wondering would people accept me, all those things."Barbara Hall, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC)
By Neil Armstrong
Barbara Hall, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), was counting down the weeks to her retirement in September after being at the helm of the first human rights commission established in Canada, since November 2005.
Her term was to end in November but now she will have to add a few more months as her tenure has been extended until the end of February 2015.
She was appointed on November 28, 2005, after more than 30 years as a community worker, lawyer and municipal politician.
Hall says she loves her work and the issues that she deals with, but the extension also means that, “my husband and I are not talking quite as immediately about places we might go and when.”
She and her husband, Max, do not use the word, “retirement,” instead they use the “work without pay” expression.
“I guess we’ve both been lucky to work in areas that we felt passionately about and we were involved in those issues as individuals, as parts of community before we were in positions where that was part of our work.”
Hall was the keynote speaker at the 39th anniversary and awards dinner of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations (UARR) in Toronto in September where she spoke of some achievements of the human rights organization.
She says the UARR has an agenda to allow and make it possible for people of all communities and backgrounds to live well with equal rights and equal opportunities in the city.
“That’s the kind of place we want to live in and so we will continue to be involved on working with others to create equal opportunities for people.”
Hall lived in Halifax as a child in the early 1950s and saw racism there that bothered her.
When she was 12, she saw ships of immigrants leaving European ports, where her family was visiting cities, like Naples, Palermo and Lisbon. She was greatly impacted by the wailing on the ship jetties of families sending their young men off to America and Canada.
Ironically, many of them were coming to build the subway in Toronto. She didn’t know that at the time but her family was traveling on an Italia Line ship and when she was at City Hall, the Portuguese community celebrated the arrival of the early Portuguese immigrants to Toronto who had come on the same ship that her family had travelled on.
Her father was in the military and her family travelled a lot. She could not understand why people were upset about going on a ship and her parents explained. This was 1955, pre-television and pre-most technology, “where people left their families not ever knowing if they would see each other again,” she says.
“I became very concerned about what was going to happen to people when they got to Canada. So, when we returned to Canada, I kept asking so many questions and my parents got every book out of the Halifax library about the immigrant experience.”
The books were mostly about the immigrant experience in New York or Chicago, very little was written about Canada.
“But I became very interested and that’s something that has continued throughout my life – to be interested in marginalization,” she says.
Realizing that she was from a background of privilege – not necessarily financial – Hall says her family was very mid-middle class, not well off, and they were always moving.
“I was always the new kid. I was always standing at the door of the school, the class, wondering would people accept me, all those things. From that very early point, I was concerned about injustice, poverty and exclusion.”
Her career plans were social work and in her view, that was where she could do something about those things. She also became very interested in the civil rights movement of the late 50s.
When her family moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, it was the first time that she saw a black person. Victoria, British Columbia and Ottawa, where they had lived before moving to Halifax, were very white communities.
Hall leaves the commission being quite proud of the change in the role of the OHRC, from dealing with individual complaints to a mandate of addressing systemic issues.
A lot of the time that she has left at the commission will be used to promote the policies introduced under her watch.
She recently wrote a letter to the Toronto Police Services Board about some of the qualities and experience, from a human rights perspective, the commission thinks that the new Chief of Police should possess.
These include: an interest in and proven experience in advancing human rights within policing; knowledge of the systemic human rights issues in policing, like racial profiling, and a commitment to eliminating it within policing.
The OHRC also wants the next police chief to have a strong commitment to how people with mental health issues are dealt with in the criminal justice system and a commitment to partnerships with communities and major community policing.
When well-known lawyer, Julian Falconer, introduced Hall at the UARR event, he said she was the first big city mayor to march proudly in the Pride Parade when others refused and that she has been a champion of social justice, equity and healthy community.
Hall, who served as mayor from 1994-1997, says she had marched in the parade several years before she was mayor and she knew that the LGBT community was a significant one in Toronto that lacked human rights protection and had been subject to barriers and discrimination.
“I thought it was important for a mayor – the mayor – to march in the parade and send a message that your city values you and understands the barriers and discrimination that you’ve experienced and will work with you to eliminate those, and recognizes that you’re a community that contributes to the city in ways that should be celebrated.”
She says marching in the parade was an amazing experience and almost twenty years later; there are still people who stop her, when she is out and about, to tell her what that meant to them.
“What that experience taught me was the power of office. That wasn’t about Barbara Hall, although it was good that Barbara Hall was doing it. It was the chief magistrate – the mayor of the city – who was accepting and making it clear that a community was a part of it.”
She noted that her predecessors had refused to have a flag, or refused to go in the parade, or refused to do anything with the community.
She recalled that there was a large contingent of media from across the country. “It’s hard to believe that this was an issue,” she says, noting that there were many suggestions that her participation was problematic.
Having done it, very soon after it became the norm. “The bar had been tipped and very soon after that, people saw that the sky hadn’t fallen,” says Hall.
She says Mel Lastman, who followed her as mayor, was terrified at the time, but he went to the parade and was warmly greeted.
Regarding the October 27, 2014 municipal election in Toronto in which there were incidents of sexism, racism and homophobia towards certain candidates, Hall says there is a need to keep working on all those issues and more.
“We can never assume that human rights are there because the law says they are. The law can say something but that may not be a lived reality for the people who are impacted by that and I think as individuals, as a society, as institutions, we need to be eternally vigilant.”
She says sometimes the commission has been criticized and people have said it was needed in the 50s but those issues have been solved.
“Well, we know that issues like racism are very persistent and some of the overt racism has been eliminated but there’s a lot of systemic issues that remain and some people would prefer to focus on the positives that come with diversity – the food and dance – but there are too many people who aren’t able to contribute or reach their potential because of racism and sexism and homophobia and all those things.”
The chief commissioner says citizens can’t rely only on institutions like the OHRC to do that work, “all of us as individuals, as members of a community need to take leadership to learn to reach out to, to stand up and speak out when we see things happening that shouldn’t be happening or is contrary to the law. It’s something that we all have to play a role in. I call it nurturing human rights. It takes that from all of us.”
Under her tenure, the OHRC has developed policies to address discrimination regarding: mental health and mental illness, the first in Canada; the discriminatory nature of the demand of employers for Canadian Experience, gender identity and protection for trans people, pregnancy and breastfeeding, and racial profiling.
In 2002, the commission started to play a role in enforcing the issues of discrimination and racism around racial profiling. It developed a policy and subsequently started intervening in cases.
Hall served three terms as a city councillor from 1985 before being elected the chief magistrate of the City of Toronto. From 1998 to 2002 she headed the federal government's National Strategy on Community Safety and Crime Prevention.
The chief commissioner has also practised criminal and family law, been a member of the Ontario Health Ministry's Health Results Team, and lectured nationally and internationally on urban and social issues.
She has extensive experience on non-profit boards and committees, and has a strong record of bringing diverse groups together to build safe and strong communities.
Regarding her plans after she leaves the commission, she says she will not be moving from Toronto to British Columbia, where her daughter and grandson live, but will visit them.
“Toronto is my town. I visited for the very first, when I was 20 but it feels like my town and so we’ll be around. We want to be able to travel more but we also intend to be involved in our city. I sometimes say it’s for selfish reasons that I’m involved in all these things. It’s about making the kind of place I want to live in. I want to live in a place that’s safe and healthy and I know it can’t be safe and healthy if some people’s rights are denied. When we have equality and real inclusion, then it becomes safe for everyone so I’ll be around,” she says with a smile.