Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person. They are based on values like equality, fairness, and respect. In Canada, human rights are protected by federal legislation such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act, as well as provincial and territorial human rights legislation such as the Ontario Human Rights Code. Listed below are some important terms related to human rights.

Terms commonly used in Canadian and Ontario human rights law


Accessibility refers to the ability of individuals with disabilities to interact with others and participate in society on an equal basis. This includes such things as the ability to get around, understand information, and use services. The Canadian and Ontario governments have both enacted accessibility legislation – the Accessible Canada Act and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act – in an attempt to become fully accessible by 2040 and 2025 respectively. 

Adverse impact discrimination

Adverse impact discrimination occurs when a seemingly neutral policy or practise disproportionately negatively impacts a particular group. Adverse impact discrimination can occur even if the policy or practice is not intended to be discriminatory.  It can occur in any area of life, including employment, education, housing, and access to services.

In order to prove adverse impact discrimination, it must be shown that the policy or practice in question negatively impacts members of a protected group and that this negative impact is not justified by a legitimate purpose. 

Affirmative action

Affirmative action means any measure, other than a special program, that is designed to correct an existing imbalance of identifiable groups, such as women or racialized persons, with respect to employment or advancement in employment.


Ageism is defined as discrimination on the basis of age. Discrimination on the basis of age is a protected grounds of discrimination under both the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act


An ally is someone who supports and respects the rights of others. They may not be a member of a minority group, but they are committed to fighting for equality in society.


The term anti-oppression is used to describe social justice efforts to end discrimination and oppression based on factors like race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. Anti-oppression work often challenges power structures and systems of privilege and exclusion. 


A barrier is an obstacle or impediment that prevents or limits access to an opportunity, benefit, or service available to others. To put it another way, barriers impede accessibility. For example, if someone has a disability and wants to apply for a job at a company that does not have wheelchair accessibility, they are facing a barrier.


Bias is a predisposition or generalization towards an identifiable group. A bias can be based on personal characteristics such as race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, age and other factors.

Competing rights

The term competing rights is used to describe the situation where two or more Charter rights come into conflict with each other. This can happen when one right cannot be fully exercised without infringing upon another right. For example, the right to freedom of expression might conflict with the right to a fair trial.

Coming out

The process of revealing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity to others.


Culture is the total of the characteristics, beliefs and practices, arts and beliefs, ideas, values and institutions that characterize a community or group. In this sense, culture includes heritage, religion, customs and morals.

Cultural competence

Cultural competence is the ability to understand, respect, and respond to the needs of people who come from different backgrounds. Cultural competence allows individuals to better understand the cultures and traditions of others.


Disability is a difficult term to define with precision because it can be used in reference to a broad range of conditions that vary in degree. The Human Rights Code defines disability as:

  1. any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical co-ordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device,
  2. a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability,
  3. a learning disability, or a dysfunction in one or more of the processes involved in understanding or using symbols or spoken language,
  4. a mental disorder, or
  5. an injury or disability for which benefits were claimed or received under the insurance plan established under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997.


Discrimination can be either direct or indirect. Direct discrimination happens when someone is treated differently because of a protected characteristic. Indirect discrimination happens when there is a rule, policy, or practice in place that seems neutral but disproportionately impacts a certain group of people. See also adverse impact discrimination


The definition of diversity encompasses the differences between people. In particular, it refers to the different ways that people look, behave, and live. Diversity includes differences in race, ethnicity, national origin, language, religion, age, sex (including pregnancy), gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability and more.

Duty to accommodate

Duty to accommodate is the obligation of an employer to make adjustments to the workplace to accommodate the needs of employees with disabilities. This includes making changes to things like work hours, job duties, and workplace equipment. Employers must make accommodations up to the point of undue hardship. This means that accommodations must not cause excessive financial or operational costs, or create health and safety risks. Employers must also consider the needs of other employees when making accommodations.

The goal of accommodation is to allow employees with disabilities to participate fully in the workplace.


Ethnicity is a concept that refers to the common, shared characteristics of a group based on such things as language, religion, traditions, and customs.


Gender is a person’s social classification as either male or female.

Gender identity

Gender identity is a person’s internal or individual experience of gender. Gender identity is separate from sexual orientation, which refers to a person’s emotional, romantic and sexual attraction to other people. Gender identity is not dependent on any medical diagnosis. A person may have a gender identity that does not match the sex assigned to them at birth.


Harassment is defined by the Ontario Human Rights Commission as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known as unwelcome.” This definition has been interpreted to mean that there must be a repeated pattern of behaviour over a period of time in order for the conduct to constitute harassment.

Hate speech

Hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display that incites or promotes hatred, discrimination or violence against a person or group based on certain characteristics. These characteristics can include race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Contact the Lawyers at Tierney Stauffer LLP to Understand If You Have a Human Rights Claim

Understanding human rights terminology helps employees identify discrimination in the workplace as soon as it happens. Stay tuned for Part II of Human Rights TerminologyIf you have been denied a promotion or benefit without good reason, it is possible that you have been the victim of discrimination. The experienced human rights lawyers at Tierney Stauffer LLP can help you navigate the process of filing a claim. We can help you to seek the relief you need and streamline the process to ensure your legal rights are protected. We give each claim the personalized attention needed to bring about the best possible resolution. Contact us at 1-888-799-8057 or reach out online to set up a consultation today.


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