How Daniel G. Hill fought racism and discrimination in Ontario

Sociologist. Historian. First full-time director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Throughout his career, Daniel G. Hill blazed trails — and helped shape the province
By Genelle Levy - Published on Feb 26, 2021
Daniel G. Hill, shown here in 1980, was a co-founder of the Ontario Black History Society. (Daniel G. Hill fonds; reference code F 2130-9-2-13; Archives of Ontario, I0027959)



In 1946, a restaurant manager in Dresden, Ontario, demanded that six Black Canadians vacate the premises immediately. He didn’t want Black people in his restaurant, and they would not be served. This used to be commonplace in Ontario. In fact, it was legal until 1962 — the same year that Daniel G. Hill, a Black civil-rights activist and sociologist, became the first chairman of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Hill had spent most of his life trying to live free from limitations. Born in Independence, Missouri, he came to Canada in order to pursue a life free from the brutality of Jim Crow laws. According to his son Daniel Jr.’s memoir, I Am My Father’s Son, Hill said that “people were not so aggressively racist in [Toronto] ... [Canada] was a country that practised discrimination of a more subtle, insidious nature than I’ve seen in the U.S.”

three girls and a boy
Daniel G. Hill and his three sisters when they were teenagers, ca. 1937-1939. (Daniel G. Hill fonds; reference code F 2130-9-2-6.1; Archives of Ontario, I0027968)

For his doctoral thesis in sociology at the University of Toronto, Hill wrote a landmark study about Black people living in Toronto during the 1950s, titled “Negroes in Toronto: A Sociological Study.” As part of his qualitative research, Hill spent time in bars and pool halls where working-class Black people socialized. He interviewed them, built relationships with them to get a sense of what their daily struggles were, and even at one point cohabitated with Black families living in poverty.

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When he and his wife, Donna, a white woman, moved to Toronto in the early 1950s, they often had trouble securing housing. Some refused to rent to Black people, let alone an interracial couple. According to Daniel Jr., Hill said that the white landlords didn’t use offensive language or hurl insults — instead, in a courteous voice, they’d say that they had just rented the apartment to someone else. Donna once came back with a white friend in tow masquerading as her husband, and the same apartment was suddenly available.

As noted in the University of Toronto Law Journal, Ontario had one of the first enforceable human-rights statutes in Canada. The ideology of human rights is a relatively contemporary concept, one that did not gain ground until after World War II. The Canadian Encyclopedia states that Ontario’s human-rights laws were directly influenced by the UN Declaration of Human Rights, a document created to prevent many of the atrocities that occurred during World War II from ever happening again.

Historian and author Adrienne Shadd says that Black people have always been at the forefront of the fight for human rights: “It was Black people and Jewish people and working-class people who got the ball rolling with legislation like employment equity, fair accommodations, and the Fair Accommodation Practices Act. Hill was very much a part of that.”

two men and a woman sitting on a blanket
Daniel G. Hill (middle) with friends, 1941. (Daniel G. Hill fonds; reference code F 2130-9-2-5; Archives of Ontario, I0027969)

In 1962, Hill was named the first full-time director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which had been founded the year before. One of the early cases that Hill took on was about a boathouse owner in Chatham who refused to rent fishing boats to Black people. Rather than dealing with the racist fisherman individually, Hill came up with a plan. He decided to hold a public hearing in Chatham; unbeknownst to the fisherman, he ensured that all the people in attendance were Black. “The boathouse owner had no way of knowing that Hill had a special gift for transforming public hearings into community events,” Daniel Jr. writes. “During an especially withering cross-examination, the boathouse owner folded.” When Hill noticed that the fisherman looked fatigued, he called for a brief recess, during which he encouraged every Black person in the room to put down a deposit on a fishing boat for the summer, much to the fisherman’s surprise.

Hill became a noteworthy figure in the media for his work at the OHRC. Hundreds of news stories were written about the work he did. In 1964, he followed up on a complaint from Thomas David, a young Indian student in Windsor who said that a local white barber had refused to cut his hair. Once Hill had investigated the case, the barber not only abided by the commission’s compliance notice but also issued an apology to the student and gave him a haircut to foster goodwill.

Hill wasn’t the kind of government official who just shuffled paper in a grey-coloured office. He was beloved by community members. He often left his office to take to the road so that he could personally meet the people who filed complaints and build connections within the community. In 1965, he went to Amherstburg to explore complaints regarding the KKK having allegedly defaced a Black Baptist church. According to Daniel Jr., Hill encouraged the mayor to create more opportunities for young Black people to boost the town’s morale, and a committee that assisted young Black people in finding jobs was established as a result.

a man with a woman and three young children
Daniel G. Hill at home with family, ca. 1958. (Daniel G. Hill fonds; reference code F 2130-9-2-11; Archives of Ontario, I0027965)

“We rarely encounter hate-filled bigots with uncontrollable desires to maintain discrimination,” Hill said during a 1968 lecture at Scarboro College, according to the Globe and Mail. “Ontario bigotry is more polite and passive in nature. At least in their overt manifestations, Ontario residents charged with discrimination react favorably to reason, facts and firmness.”

Unfortunately, Hill’s time at the OHRC didn’t end on a positive note. In 1971, he investigated a case about a Toronto landlord who refused to rent the apartment in his house to a Black man. The case went to the Supreme Court. Most of the judges voted in favor of the landlord, who won on a technicality; the only way to access the apartment rental in the multi-story house was by way of the staircase in the landlord’s main house. While the Human Rights Code didn’t allow landlords to discriminate in terms of who they rented to, there also wasn’t anything in the law that required a landlord to allow a tenant to access their home (or in this case, their front entrance).

Hill was deeply frustrated. According to Daniel Jr., he believed that the Ontario government had purposefully aided the loss. He suspected that the Progressive Conservatives were worried about their re-election chances if they got involved in a case that dictated the sanctity of personal property.

headline from a newspaper
Headline from a December 24, 1971, Globe and Mail article.

In 1973, he decided to end his time at the OHRC. In his resignation letter, he wrote, “I left the Ontario Human Rights Commission after 11 ½ faithful years ... it’s time to do something else. I stayed with it longer than I had expected to...Ontario’s human rights laws are the best in the country.”

In a September 15, 1973, article for the Toronto Star, Hill wrote that “during the decade of full-time administration, the commission opened eight regional offices, investigated over 4,000 formal complaints and dealt with close to 30,000 miscellaneous and informal cases not covered by law.” But, he added, “While we have made measurable strides in obtaining social justice for some minorities in our urban areas, the struggles have just begun for greater effectiveness in rural sections, better coverage in the North, against sex discrimination and for opportunities for older workers.”

Hill went on to start his own human-rights consulting firm, Daniel G. Hill & Associates and to co-found the Ontario Black History Society, in 1978. In 1981, he published The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada, which the Globe and Mail in 2003 termed a “groundbreaking popular work.” Three years later, he was appointed the ombudsman of Ontario.

During his acceptance speech at Queen’s Park, the Star reported on March 22, 1984, Hill said that “in our strong moments [Ontarians have] welcomed the many and diverse peoples and let them be who they were” but that “in our weak moments, in our ignorance, in our apathy, we witnessed the corrosive forces of racism, discrimination and prejudice sapping the strength of our bonds as brothers, sisters and fellow citizens.”

two men in suits
Daniel G. Hill (left) and Attorney General Roy McMurtry (right) at a reception for the Ontario Black History Society on February 16, 1981. (Daniel G. Hill fonds; reference code F 2130-9-1-1; Archives of Ontario, I0027977)

But seeing justice served proved to be challenging. Government agencies must act on the ombudsman’s recommendations and monitor their progress in order to create long-term change. Daniel Jr. notes that Hill faced difficulties getting agencies to respond to recommendations and that he did not take well to bureaucracy. He also felt distant from the people he was aiming to help.

So, after a couple of years, he changed his approach. He took to the road, setting up ombudsman field offices in Thunder Bay, Sudbury, and Owen Sound and in other smaller towns. The travel and pressures of his career, though, ended up taking a toll on his health. He had a bout with pneumonia that nearly killed him and suffered a life-long battle with ill-managed diabetes, which he died of in 2003. 

Ontario has yet to achieve Hill’s vision of human rights, says Lorne Foster, a public-policy and human-rights professor at York University.  “For Hill, human rights was about not only preventing discrimination but also community engagement and public education,” says Foster. “What we have now is simply a system that has been legalized, a system that is based on legalistic values and mandates.”

Current OBHS president Natasha Henry says that the historical society continues to execute the work started by Hill. “In one way, it’s good that we continue to do this work ... on the other hand, it also speaks to the persistent marginalization and exclusion of Black experiences and voices.”

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