Who is Responsible for Preventing Workplace Discrimination in Canada?

Rebecca Dyck

Canadians are fortunate to have laws in place that protect them from discrimination in the workplace. However, even with these laws, discrimination exists in many workplaces across the country.

In 2015, the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) – an organization mandated to promote and protect human rights in Canada – received 1,207 complaints of discrimination, accepted 603 of these complaints, and settled only 226. Since the CHRC handles all complaints of discrimination from the 800,000 employees working in federally regulated industries in Canada, and one in five Canadians have experienced gender-based discrimination at work, these numbers suggest that most instances of discrimination go unreported and unresolved.


Understanding what discrimination is, who is responsible for change, and what actions we can take to prevent and respond to discrimination, is important to ending workplace discrimination.

What is Workplace Discrimination?

Discrimination is “an action or decision that treats a person or group negatively”.  Protected grounds of discrimination in Canada include race, ethnic origin, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital or family status, and disability. Such discriminatory practices can take place in the workplace. Examples include treating someone unfairly, paying men and women differently for doing the same work, and abiding by policies or practices that prevent people from accessing employment.

Federal Legislation – Roles and Responsibilities

Canada has legislation in place that is meant to protect Canadians from discrimination. Since Canada is a federation and governance responsibilities are divided between the federal and provincial governments, both levels of government have their own anti-discrimination legislation.

In broad terms, the federal legislation applies to the federal government and all federally regulated businesses and industries, while the provincial legislation fills in the gaps that federal legislation leaves.

There are three main federal anti-discrimination laws that outline specific roles and responsibilities:

  • Canadian Human Rights Act, 1977 (CHRA): Prohibits discrimination under areas of federal jurisdiction.
    • CHRC: Ensure employers promote workplace equality
    • Employers: Duty to accommodate an employee’s individual circumstances that relate to protected grounds of discrimination
    • Employees: File complaints with the CHRC
  • Employment Equity Act, 1986: Ensures all Canadians have the same access to the labour market.
    • CHRC: Conduct compliance audits
    • Employers: Develop and implement an employment equity program

Ontario Legislation – Roles and Responsibilities

As previously mentioned, Canadian provinces have legislated their own anti-discrimination laws. Provincial laws apply to workplaces, such as restaurants, which do not fall under federal jurisdiction. In Ontario, there are two main anti-discrimination laws that outline specific roles and responsibilities:

  • Ontario Human Rights Code, 1962: Prohibits actions that discriminate against people based on a protected ground in a protected area (for example employment)
    • Employers: Ensure human rights are respected
    • Employees: File complaints with the Ontario Human Rights Commission
  • Pay Equity Act, 1988: Identifies and corrects gender discrimination in compensation practices
    • Pay Equity Office: Monitor employers for compliance (resolved 128 monitoring files in 2014-15)
    • Employers: Achieve and maintain pay equity
    • Employees: File complaints with the Pay Equity Commission

So, who is Responsible for Preventing Workplace Discrimination?

meetingFederal and provincial anti-discrimination legislation in Canada largely places the onus on employers to create equitable workplaces free from discrimination. The CHRC and Pay Equity Office monitor employers’ compliance with these laws. Considering that the federal jurisdiction covers approximately 12,000 employers and the CHRC only conducted 41 compliance audits in 2015, much workplace discrimination likely goes unchecked.

It is also possible for employers to have the required equity policies in place and still have discrimination in the workplace. Cultures of discrimination in workplaces can be deeply engrained and difficult to change.

How Can We Create Equitable Workplaces?

Legislation provides the means to enforce the respect of human rights in Canada, but its existence is not enough to prevent discrimination. In order to create equitable work environments, employers and employees must uproot systemic discrimination. This requires actively working to recognize and address the challenges faced by disadvantaged groups. The HR Council has tools you can use to create an inclusive and supportive workplace.

If you experience discrimination in your workplace, the CHRC has created Your Guide to Understanding the Canadian Human Rights Act , which outlines the agencies or organizations that you can contact for help, and whether federal or provincial laws are applicable.

Rebecca Dyck is a 2018 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo. Rebecca completed an international leadership fellowship program in Pittsburgh, PA where she explored issues of urban design. Her policy interests include social policy, equity, and immigration.

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