June 26, 2023
When Antonella Ceddia accepted her place at law school in 1999, she thought it may be the end of the road for her career as a human rights professional.
With over a decade of experience behind her as a Policy Advisor and human rights investigator, and the private sector as a management side consultant, Ceddia was ready for a change of direction.
“I didn’t have a particular practice area in mind as a lawyer; I just wanted to do anything except what I had done before,” says Antonella Ceddia.
As it turned out, her early legal career proved to be more of a galvanizing detour on the path to the upper echelons of Ontario’s human rights law bar.
After clerking at the Court of Appeal for Ontario, Ceddia spent over six years sharpening her litigation skills representing private corporations and clients under the tutelage of some of the country’s most respected counsel at Bay Street giant McCarthy Tétrault LLP. Here, Ceddia found a way to combine her earlier experience and her new profession – first as the lead human rights lawyer for the City of Toronto, and then at the Toronto Catholic District School Board, where she currently serves as Executive General Counsel and Head of Legal Services.
“It’s in my DNA to think about the intersection of public policy, governance and the law, and that’s what was missing in my early years of private practice,” she says. “Going to law school was about wanting to be at the table where the decisions were made, and it all came together at the City of Toronto.”
Ceddia, a member of the advisory board and program faculty for the Osgoode Certificate in Human Rights Theory and Practice, got her first taste of the area as an adviser at Queen’s Park back in the early 1990s, when the backlog of cases at the Ontario Human Rights Commission ensured that it consistently crossed her desk in the “contentious issues unit” of the Cabinet Office.
“That piqued my interest,” says Antonella Ceddia.
She joined the Commission itself to investigate complaints and mediate disputes. Although she is not old enough to remember the OHRC’s creation in 1962 – coinciding with the proclamation of Ontario’s first Human Rights Code – Ceddia filled that gap in her knowledge with a case study examination of its first three decades, along with suggestions to improve its efficiency, to form the basis of her Masters Degree in Public Policy and Administration
She then moved to Ryerson University to set up its first full-time human rights complaints and investigation framework. It was the first department of its kind at any Canadian university. The policies and procedures Antonella Ceddia developed have stood the test of time, outlasting even the name of the institution, which is now known as Toronto Metropolitan University. This interface of policy and law soon provided her with another opportunity when she was offered a secondment as Policy Advisor in the Office of the Mayor Barbara Hall in Toronto.
She was never too far away as Ontario passed other landmarks in its human rights law history. For example, Ceddia’s arrival at the City of Toronto in 2008 coincided with legislative amendments that ended the OHRC’s gatekeeper role, opening up direct access for complainants to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.
That change put Ceddia in a key role for some of the most frequent litigants at the tribunal as the number of cases heading to hearings skyrocketed, since her team was also in charge of responding to complaints against Toronto’s Police Services Board and Chief of Police, as well as the city itself.
“When the direct access system came in, it made a huge difference, not only for individual complainants, but also for organizations’ understanding and awareness of human rights, because they had to take complaints seriously from the outset,” Ceddia says. “Respect for human dignity is a fundamental pillar of any democratic society, and a strong human rights system is important for everyone. Any time you can help the senior leadership of an organization to understand that, it will create opportunities to make improvements.”
Outside of her own human rights law practice, Ceddia is a frequent speaker and lecturer across Canada on the subject, and has become something of a fixture at the annual Osgoode Certificate, appearing every year bar one. The intensive program marked its 10th year in May 2023, where Ceddia discussed Advanced Topics in Human Rights Law on the program’s final day.
Apart from lawyers with a heavy human rights component to their practice, Ceddia says the certificate also provides valuable knowledge for human rights and human resources professionals in both the public and private sector.
“We need to ensure that the senior leadership at businesses of all sizes understand the significance of human rights and function in a way that respects them,” she says. “Ontario has been a leader in human rights law since 1962, and I hope we will continue to lead by funding the system properly and making sure it is fair for everyone involved.”
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