Olivia Bowden · CBC News · Posted: Nov 08, 2023 5:00 AM EST | Last Updated: November 8

Ontario’s human rights commission recognized caste-based discrimination for the first time last week and while many advocates applaud the move, there are also hopes it will lead to further action at provincial and federal levels.

On Oct. 26, the commission published an official policy position on how to address the issue under the province’s human rights code. It tells organizations covered by the Ontario Human Rights Code, including employers, housing providers, facilities and unions, trade or professional associations, that they have an obligation to investigate possible cases of caste-based discrimination.

“Organizations must respond to and investigate claims of caste-based discrimination, and remedy situations when discrimination is found. They should have a human rights complaint procedure in place and could also recognize caste-based discrimination in a corporate human rights policy,” the policy says.

The commission defines caste as a hierarchy that “determines a person or group’s social class or standing, rooted in their ancestry and underlying notions of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution.'”

The caste system is an ancient Indian social structure with roots in ancient Hindu texts. The system divides people into four main sub-communities based on ancestry — Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. The four main castes are further divided into 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes.

A person’s caste can often be identified by their last name, but the tradition transcends religion. Many Indians with Hindu lineage whose ancestors adopted Sikhism or Christianity retained their last names, and their caste designations.

According to the caste system, Dalits are outcasts and are either at the bottom of or do not belong to the social order.

Vijay Puli, the co-founder of the South Asian Dalit Adivasi Network, which campaigns for Dalit rights, says the move has been a long time coming and that he’s been campaigning for the commission to address caste discrimination for over six years.

“I feel very happy that our voice is being acknowledged in Canadian society,” said Puli.

“It’s the first time we’re seeing this kind of progressive step,” he said, adding he’d now like to see policies created by legislators across the country.

The OHRC’s policy comes after the Toronto District School Board passed a motion in March that called on the commission to create a framework to address such discrimination. According to the motion, there is concern about caste-based discrimination in Toronto and a framework would help empower the board to address it in school communities. Trustee Yalini Rajakulasingam told The Canadian Press students have contacted her recounting caste-based slurs hurled at them by other students.

The TDSB did not respond to a question from CBC Toronto about whether the board will now create its own policies following the commission’s policy position.

Puli, who first came to Toronto from India in 2006, identifies as Dalit. He said he often hears slurs from South Asian people toward Dalits, depicting them as “criminals.”

“It hurts me when I hear that,” he said.

Caste discrimination violates human rights code: OHRC

The OHRC says it aims to prevent that kind of discrimination from creeping into five protected “social areas” under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, such as are employment, housing, services, unions and vocational associations and contracts.

It says caste-based discrimination can be fought in those domains as violations of the code. If caste-based discrimination manifests as a hate crime, that would also be a violation of Canada’s Criminal Code, it says.

There are 17 different personal attributes under Ontario’s human rights code that a person cannot be discriminated against for, including race, sex, age and ethnic origin. While caste is not listed as one of those protected grounds, the existing grounds are enough to cover caste, the commission says.

It also says the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and courts must take a “liberal and progressive” interpretation of the code.

But the code does have limits, the OHRC says. It can only offer protection in the five social areas outlined and not beyond that.

Discrimination can be ‘subtle,’ says researcher

Shuhbam Kumar, a law student at the University of Windsor who researches caste-based discrimination in the private sphere in India and Canada, spoke to the OHRC about his findings ahead of the policy position.

Kumar grew up in India and was told he belonged to the Shudra, considered to be among the lowest, only above Dalits. He recalls being placed at the back of his classroom as a child with other students who were of a lower caste.

Kumar says caste discrimination can sometimes show up in subtle ways, for example through rental listings that request vegetarian roommates or occupants.

“These things are in subtle ways…in which a person is telling you that, ‘OK we’ll only limit our housing options to people from very upper castes who have been traditionally been vegetarians’,” he said.

With a policy framework in place in Ontario, Kumar hopes “more people will come forward” knowing there are protections in the province’s human rights code.

There has been pushback on the move to address caste discrimination.

The Canadian Organization for Hindu Heritage Education, which identifies itself as a group that advocates for Hindu heritage, was outspoken against the TDSB’s move toward addressing caste discrimination, claiming it does not exist in Canada.

In a statement following the OHRC’s policy being published, it said there is “no evidence” that caste discrimination is a problem in Canada and it has concerns policies could be xenophobic. It also sent a further statement to CBC Toronto, saying OHRC’s portrayal and description of caste is perpetuating stereotypes and is “deeply troubling.”

In response to the group’s claims, Kumar points to a B.C. tribunal that, in March, ordered a nearly $10,000 payout to a taxi driver after his caste was insulted during a physical altercation at a staff Christmas party.

He says tackling caste-based discrimination won’t just benefit those affected by caste.

“If I am preferring people from my community only, we are probably missing out on talent. So there’s a huge economic loss, there’s a representation loss… We have started a process towards having a better society.”