This explanation is offered for information purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice and should not be taken as such.

The central component of the human rights system in Ontario is the Human Rights Code, which first became law in 1960. The Code should not be confused with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of the Canadian Constitution and applies to government actions in relation to individual citizens. The Code takes priority over all other Provincial legislation. It applies both to policies and actions of government or government agencies, and to anything that might be done by private entities (companies, organizations or individuals), but only in the areas covered by the Code. These are:

Services, which include retail stores, restaurants, health care, social services, education, sports, clubs of all sorts, and municipal government services, among others;

Accommodation, which deals especially with rental housing, whether pubic or private, but can also include temporary accommodation, such as a hotel or a campsite;

Contracts, which can deal with anything from a sales transaction to a complex multi-party legal agreement;

Employment, which applies whether or not there is an employment contract or collective agreement, and relates to all forms of employment: full-time, part-time, temporary, casual or probationary, including employment through an employment agency, and even volunteer work. It covers all aspects of the employment process: placing an advertisement, interviewing, hiring, working, promotion, in-service training, disciplinary action, and termination. An employer is responsible for the actions of all managers and supervisors, and other employees, as well as customers and clients, in protecting the employee from discrimination and harassment. The majority of Applications received by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario fall under the category of employment; and

Vocational associations, which applies to membership in a trade union, a trade or occupational association or a self-governing profession.

Discrimination consists of three conditions, all of which must be present:

  • a distinction in the way a person is treated, differently from others in the same situation;

  • a disadvantage for the person or group as a result of the distinction; and

  • a false perception or stereotype about the characteristic that is the reason, or at least part of the reason, for the distinctive treatment.


The grounds on which discrimination is prohibited under the Code provide the only basis on which the Tribunal will accept an Application. These are:

  • Race, ancestry, place of origin, colour or ethnic origin;
  • Citizenship;
  • Creed;
  • Sex and sexual harassment (including pregnancy for women);
  • Sexual orientation;
  • Age (with certain exceptions for those below the age of 18, or, in the case of accommodation, the age of 16);
  • Family status (parent-child relationship) or marital status;
  • Handicap or disability;
  • Receipt of public assistance (for accommodation only); and
  • Record of offences (for employment only).

Harassment is defined as "engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome". With some exceptions, harassment must generally take the form of repeated unwelcome actions. However, if the action is really offensive and glaringly obvious, even one incident can be enough to demonstrate harassment. This is particularly true of sexual harassment. Not every incident of bullying or harassment falls under the Code. If the unwelcome or offensive conduct happens in the workplace and is based on such things as a person's appearance or competence on the job unconnected to a medical condition, it has to be dealt with under the provisions against bullying, harassment and workplace violence in the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

You do not have to be the direct victim of harassment and discrimination to experience their adverse effects. Even if the comments and actions are directed against someone else, if it makes you feel so uncomfortable that you experience the environment as toxic, you can still make an Application to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

You cannot make a claim in a civil court action based on discrimination and at the same time an Application to the Tribunal that deals with the same set of facts; you must choose one or the other.