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How to file a human rights complaint

Federal and provincial laws forbid discrimination against any person on a variety of grounds including age, sex, religion, and ethnicity. If you believe you’ve been discriminated against, you can file a complaint with a federal or provincial human rights commission. Here’s how.

Is it discrimination?

Firstly, try to determine if your experience meets the definition of discrimination. The federal government and each province and territory have a human rights code which identifies grounds on which you cannot be discriminated against. The federal code lists the following:

  • race 
  • national or ethnic origin 
  • colour 
  • religion 
  • age 
  • sex (includes pregnancy)
  • sexual orientation 
  • marital status 
  • family status 
  • disability 
  • a conviction for which they were pardoned or had a record suspended.

Provincial and territorial codes are very similar, but there are occasional exceptions.

The law also outlines specific contexts in which you can’t be discriminated against.

Where do you file the complaint?

Federal, provincial and territorial human rights commissions oversee different workplaces, businesses, and agencies and your complaint should go to the body that governs them.

The Canada Human Rights Code oversees agencies governed by federal law, such as banks, railways, Canada Post, airlines and the federal government. Provincial codes apply to school boards, restaurants, and municipal governments. Employment, accommodations, property sale/lease, union memberships, and hate speech are covered by both federal and provincial codes.

Ensure your complaint is valid

To have a valid complaint, you must satisfy a simple formula:

discriminatory practice + grounds of discrimination = harm suffered by you

For example, if a landlord refused to rent to you because of your race, resulting in a loss of dignity and self-worth, you have a complaint. If you were fired from your job for being pregnant, you have a complaint.

There are obvious exceptions. For example, a minor can’t claim discrimination if a bar refuses to serve them.

Proving your case

Record details of the event as soon as possible. Note the time, date, location, and the specific person who discriminated against you, if applicable. Talk to witnesses and get their contact information in case you need statements from them later.

Also reflect on the impact the event had you. Human rights complaints weigh how the discrimination affected the victim’s feelings, dignity, and self-respect.

Filing the papers

Complaints typically must be submitted by mail. E-mail and phone complaints aren’t accepted. Each commission’s website has simple forms to fill out and send it in.

File the complaint within one year of the event. The time period may be different in your jurisdiction, but it applies to most codes.

There is no cost to file a complaint.

If you’re unsure of whether your complaint is valid, you can contact the appropriate commission. The federal commission also offers an online tool to help evaluate the strength of your complaint.

Be warned: if you file a malicious complaint, the respondent could have grounds to file one against you in return.

Read more:

On eligibility of potential complaints: Canadian Human Rights Commission

Guide to understanding the Canadian Human Rights Act