12/12/2016 08:19 EST | Updated 12/12/2016 08:19 EST

A Turning Point For Human Rights

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International Human Rights Day, the 68th anniversary of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), gives us an opportunity to look back and learn from the past. We also have an obligation to look to the future. Over the past year, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has done both, and launched a new Strategic Plan to guide us in making human rights a lived reality for

people across Ontario.

People continue to be personally invested in our work and to care deeply about our success. Extensive conversations with nearly 300 people representing over 80 organizations have strengthened our resolve to promote and enforce human rights, build relationships that embody dignity and respect, and create a culture of human rights compliance and accountability.

We need to rethink how the OHRC engages with Indigenous peoples to realize the rights protected in the Human Rights Code but also in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The process will be as important as the outcome. Listening, understanding, and building trusting relationships are necessary first steps in our journey, as we move beyond "helping" or "educating" Indigenous peoples, towards working together to realize their own vision of a just, fair and free society.

We also heard about strained relationships between the police and many communities, including Indigenous peoples, African Canadians, Muslim and Arab people, other racialized peoples, Trans persons and people with mental health disabilities.

Beyond policing, we heard how we must focus on the entire criminal justice system to address the over-representation of vulnerable and marginalized people. We must consider "pipelines" to criminalization, court proceedings (including bail and remand), and corrections and conditional release.

We firmly believe that public safety and protecting Ontario's most marginalized groups are interdependent, and require a bold and progressive approach to criminal justice that is grounded in human rights. We commit to enforcing these rights and reducing systemic discrimination by seeking transparency and accountability in the criminal justice system.

Many people also noted the widening gap between rich and poor as a key concern. We believe poverty is often a manifestation, consequence, and product of systemic discrimination. For example, systemic discrimination in education or employment increases one's chances of being hungry or homeless, and can limit access to essential services such as healthcare. We commit to advancing the field of human rights law by making clear how systemic discrimination causes and sustains poverty, and to addressing poverty within a human rights framework.

We also heard repeatedly that we must be forward-thinking in creating and sustaining a culture of human rights. We believe that the most effective way to affect culture change is to focus on teaching children and youth. We will promote and strengthen a human rights culture in Ontario that encompasses both rights and responsibilities, with a special focus on educating children and youth and addressing systemic discrimination in education.

We are at a crossroads, a point where our society must make crucial decisions that will have far-reaching consequences for the human rights landscape going forward. As our society becomes even more diverse, the lived reality of people with privilege and power is easily contrasted with people who find themselves on the margins. In 2016, the voices of people who were once silent (or silenced) have grown louder in their demands for a more just society - not sometime in the future, but today.

The central question is whether human rights are the starting point to inform all public policy choices, or are they dispensable when they conflict with the majority's will or competing priorities? The answer is at the heart of broader social movements focused on anti-Black racism, Indigenous reconciliation, Trans rights, workers' rights, rights for people with disabilities, and sexual violence and women's equality.

Our new Strategic Plan positions the OHRC in this crossroads moment: as a leadership voice on critical and emerging human rights issues, and as an institution that will use its functions and powers to make sure that people and their human rights are at the very centre of the decisions our society makes.

By focusing on reconciliation, the criminal justice system, poverty and education, we will address the discriminatory impacts of broader systems of colonialism, state power, resource allocation, and enculturation -- which marginalize nearly all Code-protected groups, and extend or exacerbate their disadvantage.

We will focus on our people, our community, developing evidence-informed approaches, and delivering practical advice. And we will continue to be a leadership voice across the full range of issues across all Code grounds and social areas.

Our society has come to a fork in the road: we must decide the core values that will drive social policy in the future. Ontarians have big ideas and want bold approaches to address persistent human rights problems, and we agree. Our work has the most impact when we amplify the voices of the most marginalized people, and when the public echoes our human rights message and demands action.

Together we can create a society where promoting, protecting and being accountable for human rights is everyone's responsibility.

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