‘A necessity for the well-being and progress of society’: Ontario’s Racial Discrimination Act turns 75

It didn’t take on bigoted employment practices or crack down on discrimination against “enemy aliens” — but some Ontarians still thought it went too far. TVO.org looks at the history of the act that paved the way for the Ontario Human Rights Code
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on March 14, 2019
an archival newspaper ad
Ad from the July 25, 1935, issue of the Toronto Daily Star for a “restricted clientele” resort in Muskoka.

At first glance, the Racial Discrimination Act may not seem like a sweeping piece of human-rights legislation. While it outlawed the posting of discriminatory public signage, newspaper notices, and radio broadcasts, it didn’t touch on major issues such as bigoted employment or housing practices. And it allowed both “free speech” and discrimination against such groups as Japanese-Canadians, who were considered enemy aliens during the Second World War. Yet when it was passed by the Ontario legislature on March 14, 1944, it became the first in a series of acts that ultimately led to the creation of the Ontario Human Rights Code two decades later.

By the early 1940s, discrimination against Ontarians of non-Anglo-Saxon stock was rising, especially against Jews. Visitors to beaches and resort properties were frequently greeted with Gentiles Only signs. “A landlord has the right to say who shall occupy the house he owns,” Windsor Star columnist R.M. Harrison observed in March 1944, “but blackballing an entire race was carrying prejudice to extremes.”

While there were efforts, especially among the Jewish community, to outlaw these actions during the 1930s, they gained traction when the Progressive Conservatives won a minority government in the 1943 provincial election. Two of the opposition parties, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (which later became the New Democratic Party) and Labor-Progressive Party (the name the Communist Party legally operated under), supported human-rights causes. As Premier George Drew needed their support to stay in power, he listened to Toronto LPP MPPs Joe Salsberg and A.A. MacLeod when they proposed anti-discrimination legislation in advance of the winter 1944 legislative session.

“History is filled with evidence that the fight against such forms of discrimination and persecution is not merely a requirement of the persecuted,” Salsberg wrote in a letter to Drew, “but a necessity for the well-being and progress of society as a whole.” He cited 10 recent examples of anti-Semitic and anti-Black actions, including a proposed bylaw in Port Elgin banning Jews from local hotels and tourist properties. Drew cautioned in a response letter that compelling people to be tolerant might not be practical.

Salsberg was invited to draft a bill covering discriminatory practices in employment, housing, and recreational accommodations and properties. It was briefly mentioned in the February 22, 1944, throne speech, but by the time it had been introduced for first reading by Attorney General Leslie Blackwell on March 3, it covered only public signage. Salsberg’s attempt to introduce amendments to bring it closer to his vision was rejected. A Toronto Evening Telegram editorial felt that Salsberg’s amendment “would be adding cargo to a leaky ship” and create conditions that forced religious organizations to hire people who didn’t belong to their faith or prevent municipalities from barring enemy aliens.

On March 8, the Grand Orange Lodge of Ontario West sent a telegram to every MPP in which it charged that the bill was “an insult to the intelligence of Ontario citizens.” Claiming that they had always stood for civil and religious liberties, the Orangemen said that the act would prevent any Protestant publications from discussing or spreading their faith and that “to suppress such discussion is a violation of a basic principle of British freedom of speech, the pulpit, and the press.”

In short, the Orangemen feared that they wouldn’t be able to display the anti-Catholic bigotry that had sustained them for over a century. As the Windsor Star observed in a March 10 editorial, “Any organization which so hysterically opposes such a measure plainly labels itself as one that is founded and depends for its very existence on the sort of intolerance that had much to do with bringing on the present world conflict.”

The telegram was signed by the organization’s secretary, Toronto city councillor Leslie Saunders, a staunch defender of Orange Lodge ideals. The previous year, he had declared that “the Jews of this country are not doing their duty” in signing up to serve in the Second World War, even though statistics showed that the number of Jews fighting was proportionate to their national population. Saunders was not re-elected in the January 1945 municipal election. Following a brief, disastrous stint as Toronto’s mayor in 1954, he was defeated by the man who then became the city’s first Jewish mayor, Nathan Phillips. 

Press reaction to the telegram was mixed. The Globe and Mail worried that the legislation would prevent criticism of subversive organizations and outlaw ethnic jokes. The Criminal Code already offered many protections against anti-Semitism, it said. Although the paper appreciated the bill’s intent, the editorial concluded that “the rights of the few will never be maintained by restricting the rights of the whole.” The Toronto Daily Star, though, stated that those complaining about the bill were “scoffing at a fundamental principle of democracy” and that racial discrimination had grown worse.

When the bill reached second reading on March 10, Premier Drew denied that it limited free speech and defended the banning of offensive signs. He introduced an amendment that preserved free expression of opinions on any subject and exempted enemy aliens from the bill’s protections. He said that areas such as employment were already covered by existing laws and that additional protections would be ineffective. “I know that we will not end prejudices and animosities by passing bills in this legislature,” Drew observed. “Prejudice and animosity are limited to no one group or groups. They can only be cured by education.”

Drew’s amendments had the support of all members of the legislature — except one of his own MPPs. Thomas A. Murphy, an Orangeman who represented the Beaches riding in Toronto, stated that the bill was “inopportune and too far-reaching.” Claiming that it would harm religious publications and prevent politicians from criticizing opponents at public meetings, Murphy demanded that the bill be withdrawn. “The people of Ontario are not ready for a bill of this kind,” he claimed. “While I wish to be tolerant to all new Canadians, yet the minority must bow to the majority.” On March 13, Murphy introduced an amendment to remove radio stations from the bill, but it was rejected.

The bill, which contained the following wording, passed the next day: “No person shall publish or display or cause to be published or displayed, or permit to be published or displayed on lands or premises or in a newspaper, through a radio broadcasting station, or by means of any other medium which he owns or controls, any notice, sign, symbol. Emblem, or other representation indicating discrimination or an intention to discriminate against any person or any class of persons for any purpose because of the race or creed of such person or class of persons. This Act does not interfere with the free expression of opinions on any subject by speech or in writing nor does it offer any protection to enemy aliens.”

Penalties were set at $100 for the first violation and $200 for subsequent offences. Over the next few years, the act was cited in several Supreme Court of Ontario rulings against discriminatory land covenants.

After winning a majority government in 1945, Drew put further human-rights legislation on the back burner, instead emphasizing the importance of educating youth about equality. Discriminatory practices remained a reality in the province — businesses in Dresden, for example, barred Black people during the late 1940s and early 1950s — and during Leslie Frost’s premiership, further acts were passed that covered accessibility, employment, and housing. These included the establishment of the Anti-Discrimination Commission (1958), which became the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 1961. In June 1962, these laws culminated in the implementation of the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Sources: Toronto by Allan Levine (Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2014); Joe Salsberg: A Life of Commitment by Gerald Tulchinsky (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2013); Canadian Ethnic Studies Volume 34 Number 1 (2002); University of Toronto Law Journal Volume 6 Number 1 (1945); the March 7, 1944, and March 10, 1944, editions of the Globe and Mail; the March 10, 1944, March 11, 1944, and March 14, 1944, editions of the Toronto Daily Star; the March 9, 1944, and March 11, 1944, editions of the Evening Telegram; and the March 8, 1944, and March 10, 1944, editions of the Windsor Star.

Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer/researcher specializing in historical and contemporary civic matters.

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