Thursday, February 7, 2013

Do We Have to Get Married?

After one more vote in the House of Commons and another in the House of Lords, gay marriage will be legal  in the UK.  There are still some objections, but with MPs voting 400 for the bill to 175 against, it will most likely pass.

Gay couples will be asking themselves, now that we can, should we?

Dr. Dan Hill (1923-2003), the former ombudsman of Ontario and the first Director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission would probably say yes.  Here's why.

The Ontario Human Rights Code is a provincial law that gives everybody equal rights and opportunities to jobs, housing, and services. The Code's goal is to prevent discrimination and harassment because of race, colour, gender, ability, and age, to name some of the sixteen grounds.

The Code came into being in 1962 – the first of its kind in Canada; however, even though anti-discrimination laws were on the books, it was difficult getting convictions.

  • Police would not lay charges.
  • If they did, the charges would not be brought to court.
  • If charges were brought to court, judges and juries were reluctant to find their local business people and neighbours guilty of discrimination.
The goal of the human rights activists at the time was to make it unpleasant and inconvenient for people to be bigots.  They had to get charges laid and people put on trial.

In the 1960s, the Human Rights Commission was a very small operation employing maybe one and a half people.  Nonetheless, as complaints were made across the province, investigators held hearings.  Because investigating cases was so time consuming, and the staff was so small, often the best way to get compliance with the Human Rights Code was through negative publicity and embarrassing the offenders.

Word had to get out that discrimination was no longer permitted in Ontario.  The offenders had to know and the victims of discrimination had to know.

I heard about one of the early cases at the funeral of Dan Hill.  This story was told by Al Borovoy, who later became the head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.  At the time of this story, Al worked as a lawyer for the Canadian Labour Congress Committee for Human Rights.

This story takes place in Chatham, Ontario in 1964.  Chatham and nearby Dresden were important termini of the underground railroad.  Black citizens had lived there for many years comprising about 15% of the population.  Routinely, black people were prohibited from getting their hair cut in certain barbershops, having a meal in certain restaurants, or staying in certain hotels across south-western Ontario.  The descrimination was not as  widespread as it was in the US south, but it did exist.  To combat this, a network of activists would file complaints with the Human Rights Commission who would then investigate each case, hold hearings, and see that rulings were upheld.  Once a case was won in a town, there was rarely a need for another.

There were several black leaders in Chatham.  One sent a complaint to the Human Rights Commission in Toronto that a man in Chatham refused to rent boats to blacks.  Chatham is on the Thames River which was a great habitat for many fish species including walleye, longnose, gar, bullheads, bass and chinook salmon.  The Commission set up a test.  They recruited some black and white university students from the University of Toronto and they all drove together down to Chatham.

The black students went to the dock and asked to rent a boat.  The owner of the boat company said he didn’t have any boats available.  Ten minutes later, the white students went to the dock and asked to rent a boat.  Several boats were suddenly available.  Now, the team had the proof they needed.  

First the commission (which pretty much consisted of Dan Hill) would try to get a conciliated settlement.  He generally took a reporter from the Toronto Globe and Mail.  In this case the boathouse owner refused to concede.  The story appeared in the newspaper, creating bad publicity for the businessman and the town.

The next step was that the Commission would order a hearing before an independent board of inquiry who, this time, was Judge Anderson of Belleville.  Al Borovoy acted as legal counsel for the black complainants.

Dan and Al’s strategy, in these cases, was to get the biggest audience they could so it would all be played out in front of the community.  They went up and down the street telling people that there was a human rights hearing, that a member of their community was discriminating.  The hearing was usually held in a town hall.  When the accused had to testify, he would face a room full of angry community members.

Al told me that during the hearing he was ripping into the owner of the boat rental business, accusing him of racism and illegal business practices.  The accused looked at the faces of the townspeople and was so embarrassed that, instead of testifying in his own defence, he just gave up and said, “OK OK I’ll rent boats to anyone who wants them.”
Dan Hill
At this point, Dan Hill told all the black people in the room to immediately go to the docks and put a deposit down to rent a boat to go fishing.  Several people said, "But Dan, we don't even like fishing."  Dr. Hill said "You go and reserve that boat now.  You take your families fishing this summer, or you will lose this right and all others."  So from June to August, 1964, you could hear the laughter of black families partying and picnicking out on the river.

And that's why gay couples should marry.

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