Canadian Human Rights Commission
The Indigenous Bar Association Conference
October 15, 2016
Vancouver, British Columbia
“CHRC: An Ally in Achieving Social Justice and Social Change”
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Good afternoon everyone!
I believe in trust.
I believe in respect.
I believe in relationships.
I believe in human rights for all.
I am here today with an open heart.
It is an honour to be here with you today on the traditional territory of the Musqueam and Tsawwassen Nations.
I feel privileged to have the opportunity to be a part of this discussion.
I must tell to you that I have been truly inspired by the ideas and insight that so many of you have shared over the past two days.
I believe that these discussions are more important than ever before.
I believe that we have an opportunity to make meaningful and lasting changes that will improve life for indigenous people in this country.
After decades and decades of silent struggle, Canadians are finally beginning to see the truth about our disgraceful past.
People are finally beginning to understand the realities facing indigenous people.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has had a tremendous impact on public awareness. It has forced many to confront the racist attitudes that continue to exist in this country.
And with this increased knowledge and understanding, Indigenous issues are gaining prominence in the national discussion
There is a never-before-seen momentum and desire for change – both from leaders and from the people.
Our Attorney General is an Indigenous woman – for the first time in history.
Indigenous issues that have been all but ignored in the past – education, violence against women and girls, housing and clean drinking water – are now priorities for this government.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal affirmed the rights of Indigenous children when it ruled that the current First Nations Child and Family Services Program, and how it is funded, is discriminatory. This is a case in which the Commission has devoted a historical number of resources.
As well, the Government has announced that it will formally adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
But the truth is: momentum alone is not enough. If we want to advance legal and social justice for Indigenous peoples in Canada, we need to inspire action not just from governments, but from citizens.
As National Chief Perry Bellegarde said, every Canadian should “create space” for Indigenous Canadians by “opening their hearts, their minds and their spirits.”
And as Dr. Robert Joseph, who I met with earlier this week, said: At the heart of reconciliation is love.
In recent years, the Commission went across Canada to hear directly from Indigenous women about the kinds of barriers they encounter when trying to assert their rights.
We heard first-hand accounts of the violence, the deep-seated discrimination, the lack of services, the lack of justice, the fear of retaliation and the need for Reconciliation.
But knowing what needs to be fixed is only a first step.
Awareness by itself will not make the changes we need to see.
Consider this: an Environics study released this past June found that 84 per cent of Canadians are aware that individuals have a role to play in bringing about Reconciliation.
The same study shows that only 15 per cent of Canadians can name a single call to action from the TRC report.
I believe that Canadians, for the most part, are caring and compassionate people.
So if we are all aware that change is needed, why are we not seeing it?
How do we inspire people to move from awareness to action?
I’m reminded of what David Matas—the human rights advocate—calls the four enemies of the fight for human rights.
They are: indifference, absolutism, hypocrisy and a sense of helplessness.
Matas is referring to the idea that when discrimination is happening to—“others”—that many people just do nothing.
Or that if the problem just seems overwhelming, it makes people turn away in helplessness.
There is no arguing that the realities facing many Indigenous people in this country are among the most pressing human rights issues in Canada.
It’s important for people to understand that our past and present relationship with indigenous people is not in line with whom we think we are or want to be.
We first need to look at ourselves to understand and learn.
We have a duty to carry this message to others and to act on what we know. This is the first step in reconciling with ourselves, and with Indigenous peoples.
There is still a pressing need among Canadians for a deeper understanding and empathy for the history, the legacy, and the generations of damage done by colonization and systemic racism.
We must show people the ways in which whole generations of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people have experienced barriers to equality.
And we also need to educate our children, so that the racist attitudes of the past are left in the past.
But in order for us to build upon this momentum, I believe we must also focus on solutions.
I think it is time for greater emphasis on the way things should be, on what the next steps are, and what kinds of concrete actions can be taken today.
This kind of change will take thousands and thousands of voices.
It will take a deliberate and sustained effort to discuss what needs to be done to make it right.
And it will take patience and perseverance.
As Canada’s national human rights institution, an important part of our work is to raise awareness and inspire people to change their way of thinking.
It’s a responsibility we share with many organizations.
It is why we look to our partnerships with stakeholders and provincial and territorial human rights commissions.
It is why we look to our relationship with the IBA.
As lawyers and as community leaders united to promote the advancement of legal and social justice for Indigenous peoples in Canada, you have an incredibly important role to play.
I can think of no better group of people to bring together to have this discussion.
And so in closing, I ask all of you:
How do we harness this opportunity for change?
How can we continue to drive this momentum forward?
How do we find solutions to so many complex problems?
How do we get Canadians behind those solutions?
How do we ensure government follows through on their promises?
As we explore these ideas, I want to emphasize that the Canadian Human Rights Commission is very much with you.
I look forward to this discussion and to further collaboration and conversation with each and every one of you.
Together, we can do so much.
Thank you, Marci, Meegwetch.
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