Gary Pieters: From Complainant to Commissioner - Amplifying a human rights ‘system’ mindset in how we think, act and treat each other
Gary Pieters, an educator, brings his own lived and professional experience as a Black Canadian that has driven him to dismantle systemic inequity. “My twin sibling and I were raised in a single-grandparent home having very limited social resources,” says Pieters. “Students come to school with lived experiences of poverty, and poverty can impact on access to resources. So when you look at barriers and poverty, it leads you to look at systems with a poverty-reduction lens.”
Before becoming an educator, Pieters held a variety of public and private sector jobs and volunteer experiences. He brings this history to the OHRC, along with skill sets cultivated from over two decades of leadership roles in equity initiatives in the education sector as teacher, vice-principal and principal.
Pieters first experienced Ontario’s human rights system as a complainant, when he felt the need to call out racism and vindicate his own rights. From being a complainant to becoming a Commissioner, Pieters talks about the importance of embedding human rights into all areas of life, especially education. He experienced long standing anti-Black racism in the public school system in Toronto as a student in the 1980s that continued into his career as educator. “When students come into the classroom, it's not just the students. It's the parents, and it's the whole community that comes into school. That school is at the heart of the community,” he says.
Pieters strongly believes that education should provide equitable access to opportunity. He explains, “When students come to school, the school can either teach for belonging and citizenship, or it can marginalize students. So my whole philosophy around education is teaching from an inclusive lens, and that means dismantling any individual and systemic barriers that hinder students and communities.”
Another issue he brings up is language. English is not the first language for many people in diverse metropolitan cities. “There’s auditory discrimination, where people are discriminated against based on their tone or accent,” says Pieters. In situations where language can be a barrier, we need to rethink what and how we teach children, young people and adults in order to empower them with an amplified lens “to be self-advocates, who advocate for themselves and their needs. A basic fundamental of human rights and social justice is self-advocacy.”
Pieters believes that the human rights landscape we exist in is complex and ever-evolving. “There is a significant rise in racism, racial profiling, Islamophobia, homophobia and anti-Asian racism,” says Pieters. “Whether it is in schools or communities, people need to be able to add language to their own experiences.” He also oversaw a program on teaching young people how to identify, understand, address and prevent gender-based violence, sexism and exclusion.
Every year during Pride month, the issue of raising the flag within some denominational schools and district school boards has come up for debate. This has re-traumatized LGBTQ2S+ students, families and communities. “Raising the flag is extremely important because it affirms the need for inclusion – that everyone belongs, everyone’s rights are centred in our Human Rights Code,” says Pieters.
“I want to be a consequential Commissioner in the sense that I want to leave a lasting positive impact on the human rights landscape of Ontario,” says Pieters. He is an action-oriented leader who understands the challenges of living with and facing discrimination, and defending his rights to be free from it. “I will bring to life that type of passion and that type of energy, to invigorate the whole concept of a society where everyone can succeed and prosper, with respect for their fundamental human rights, to flourish and thrive,” says Pieters.
Pieters is also keen to tap into new areas where human rights needs to be explored. Examples are young people and access to justice, and the acceleration of technology, artificial intelligence and privacy.
“Incarceration rates are a big issue, and young people (especially Indigenous, Black and racialized) with limited resources are incarcerated at a higher rate,” says Pieters. He also notes the school-to-prison pipeline is an issue that needs to be looked at. He adds, “Racialized youth are disproportionately suspended from schools. When you are pushing children out of school, it denies them access to education and it puts them into harm’s way, and harm’s way is an open-ended concept.”
Considering COVID-19, Pieters observes how people are increasingly learning, working, shopping and banking from home. “Access to the Internet and connectivity and devices has become a human rights issue, especially for people who are poor, and cannot afford the cost of Internet, the cost of a device, the monthly connectivity rates whether it's for their phone bill or the data.”
Pieters spends his leisure time looking at and photographing Toronto’s skylines, walking or cycling by the water. He volunteers for community projects and provides his expertise for things that matter. “My goal is to help people develop a human rights mindset. It is embedded into the way we think, act and treat each other.”
Pieters has a social media presence and likes to tweet items that interest him on his Twitter account.