News / Ottawa

Ontario human rights watchdog aims to curb discrimination against Syrian refugees

Initiative to ensure newly-settled refugees treated fairly by landlords, employers.

Newly-arrived Syrian refugees meet sponsors and relatives at the Armenian Community Centre in Toronto on Wednesday, December 16, 2015.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Newly-arrived Syrian refugees meet sponsors and relatives at the Armenian Community Centre in Toronto on Wednesday, December 16, 2015.

With thousands more Syrian refugees due to arrive in Canada in the next few weeks, Ontario’s human rights watchdog is teaming up with other groups to curb discrimination against the new arrivals as they search for homes and jobs.

Friday night’s pepper spray attack on more than a dozen Syrian refugees in Vancouver was an overt reminder of some of the discrimination Syrian refugees are facing. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other leaders swiftly condemned the attack, and Vancouver police are investigating it as a hate crime.

But discrimination against refugees can also take on more subtle forms.

Renu Mandhane, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, said she’s heard that some community-sponsored refugees—including some in Ottawa—are having trouble finding housing.

“The ones being sponsored by community groups are having challenges when they go to landlords to try and rent apartments for the families they’re sponsoring, with landlords saying, ‘We don’t really want to rent to those people,’” she said in an interview.

“We want to really remind landlords and employers that when eventually these people come knocking on your door for jobs and for places to rent, that they can’t discriminate.”

The commission is teaming up with groups including the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), Canadian Arab Institute and Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants on a campaign to inform employers and service providers of their obligation not to discriminate.

The province’s human rights code prohibits discrimination or harassment based on 17 different personal characteristics such as religion, race, sex, and gender.

The campaign is in the planning stages, but its timing is deliberate, Mandhane said. The positive attention and focus on the refugees’ arrival will eventually wane.

“Our hope is that when that dies down and we’re actually to the nitty-gritty of finding a job and finding a place to live, that then this campaign can remind people: look, we welcomed these people here, and employers, service providers and landlords now have a responsibility to make sure that they don’t discriminate,” she said.

The human rights code applies to residents regardless of whether they’re Canadian citizens. Mandhane said the refugees, who have fled a brutal dictatorship and spent time in camps, may not be aware that the code applies to them.

“There’s a lot of fear to standing up to authority when you live under an authoritarian regime,” she said. “I think it’s going to be really important for them to understand that there’s a system they can access to protect them.”

Amira Elghawaby, the NCCM’s communications director, said there are several layers to the discrimination Syrian refugees can face, including Islamophobia.

“Even refugees who are not Muslim may be perceived to be,” she said, “so issues around potential for discrimination really impact across the board, whether a refugee is Muslim or not.”

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