The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has become the first in North America to officially incorporate caste as a discriminatory policy.
The provincial regulatory authority that advocates for equality and combats discrimination published its policy position on Oct. 26.
“Discriminatory treatment based on xenophobia, that is, dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries, is also contrary to the Code,” said the OHRC statement. So is discrimination based on a stereotype or perception that an individual or group practices a religion or comes from a community associated with the caste system.”
Many jurisdictions in Ontario and Canada have already passed a motion to add caste as a discriminatory category. Toronto District School Board, approved a motion to address casteism on March 8. Toronto was the first Canadian jurisdiction to create a formal mechanism to acknowledge and address caste issues.
Burnaby, B.C. and Brampton, Ont. have added caste as a protected category in their city policies. All these motions had referred it to their provincial human rights commissions to create further policy guidelines.
“It is a landmark position,” said Vasanthi Venkatesh, associate professor of law, land, and local economies at the University of Windsor.
“The Ontario Human Rights Commission, historically, has always been at the forefront of pushing the definitions of discrimination to include all sorts of marginalization. It (the position) also says that it’s intersectional. So that means that caste is not just captured singularly by race or singularly by descent or similarly by ancestry, it is all these grounds together and it’s complex.”
Vijay Puli, founder of the South Asian Dalit Adivasi Network, said the OHRC position will have a direct impact on the school board motion and Brampton. The Toronto-based activist organization has been at the forefront of anti-caste activities in Ontario.
“As a parent, this is the best protection gift I can give to my children and future generations here,” Puli said.
Said Yalini Rajakulasingam, the Toronto District School Board trustee who introduced the caste motion: “I look forward to all continuing to advocate for caste equity and building more inclusive spaces where we celebrate and empower all identities.”
Hindu groups nationwide have long resisted caste motions. They cite a lack of caste data, concerns about linking casteism to Hinduism, and believe current laws already address the caste system.
The OHRC statement cites caste-based oppression as an internationally recognized violation of human rights and that it is a global problem.
“A United Nations report states that discrimination based on caste and similar systems of inherited status is a global problem.”
Shilpashree Jagannathan is a journalist from India. She now lives in Toronto and has worked as a business reporter for leading newspapers in India. She has tracked telecom, infrastructure, and real estate news developments and has produced podcast series. She currently focuses on human rights, feminist movements, and other related issues in Canada and India. Her weekends are spent bird watching in one of the Toronto birding hotspots; she loves trails, biking, and a lot of sun.