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What is discrimination?

Discrimination is any conduct that treats a person or people negatively based on characteristics like race, religion, or ethnicity. Those characteristics are also called grounds of discrimination, and the Canada Human Rights Act identifies 11 protected grounds.

This means it is illegal to discriminate against someone based on:

  • 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.

The act also specifically prohibits seven discriminatory practices:

  • Denying goods, services, facilities, or accommodation. 
  • Providing goods, services, facilities, or accommodation in a way that treats someone adversely and differently.
  • Refusing to employ or continue to employ someone, or treating them unfairly in the workplace. 
  • Adhering to policies or practices that deny employment opportunities. 
  • Paying men and women differently for doing work of the same value. 
  • Retaliating against a person who has filed a complaint with a human rights commission or against someone who has filed a complaint for them. 
  • Harassment.

Each province and territory also has its own human rights code. They are all similar, but there are occasional differences. For example, Alberta’s code does not identify age as a protected ground.

The federal code applies to workplaces and facilities 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.

It’s important to note that some forms of discrimination are not necessarily illegal, not matter how unfair they may appear. For example, it’s not against any law for an employer to turn you down for a job because of your tattoos and piercings unless that body art has a religious or cultural significance.

However, some employers and other parties have been successfully sued for discriminating on grounds that were not specifically protected.

In other cases, discrimination may be allowed when weighed against other factors. In 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada case Bhinder v. CN rejected a complaint from a Sikh man who was required to wear a hard hat on the job. His religion demanded he wear a turban with no other head covering. In this case, the court said a genuine work requirement is no less valid just because it is discriminatory. As a result, the employee could be fired for refusing to wear the hat, even if it meant contravening his religious beliefs.

If you feel you’ve been discriminated against, you can contact the federal, provincial, or territorial human rights commission to file a complaint. They can provide more information to assess your case and take your case to a tribunal.

Read more:

Canadian Human Rights Commission 

Provincial and territorial commissions list