Canadian Human Rights Commission
Canadian Race Relations Foundation – National Conference
October 26, 2016
“The path to an inclusive Canada”
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Thank you for you warm welcome.
Thank you to the Canadian Race Relations Foundation for organizing this event.
Thank you to all who have shared ideas and beliefs on how we can realize an inclusive Canada.
So let me start by sharing my ideas and beliefs –
- I believe in respect
- I believe in building relationships
- I believe in trust
- I believe in human rights for all
These may appear to be lofty beliefs, but they are grounded in each and every one of your stories, including my own.
“Je suis une fille de Québec” --- I am a girl from Quebec City. As you may have concluded, I have never personally experienced the sting of racism. But my story, like so many of yours, is more complex.
I am mother to a Mexican daughter.
I am grandmother to a black grandson.
I have seen people treat them differently because of the colour of their skin.
I have felt hurt for them.
I have felt anger for them.
And I have felt worried for them.
I am sharing my story, because I feel strongly that empathy and understanding – the compassion that comes from walking a mile in another’s shoes – comes through the sharing of stories and experiences.
I believe that now more than ever, it is important to shine a light on stories and experiences that -- sometimes -- contradict deeply held Canadian values.
I say “now more than ever” because I believe that there is an opportunity to bring about meaningful change.
Allow me to explain...
Canadians are proud to say that they live in a diverse and inclusive society that values everyone.
Ideas that were, for many years, dismissed and ignored are now front and centre. In our political discourse. On the editorial pages of our newspapers. Even in popular culture.
Social media has given more people than ever a voice in telling their stories.
This renewed – and never-before-seen – emphasis on diversity, acceptance and inclusion may suggest to some that we are already there.
That Canada has reached the perfect balance.
That everyone is already included enough.
But is this the case? Are your experiences and stories in line with this conclusion?
For example, while Canada leads the world in positive attitudes towards immigration and multiculturalism, earlier this month, Angus Reid and CBC reported that 68% would prefer to see minorities doing more to “fit in” to mainstream society.
This past summer, an Environics study reported that while 84% of Canadians believe that individuals have a role to play in reconciliation with indigenous peoples, only 15% of Canadians can name a single call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report.
Why is this?
Author and international human rights lawyer David Matas suggests that when discrimination is happening to “others,” many people do nothing.
He says that four enemies undermine our efforts to create a truly inclusive society.
- Sense of helplessness
But when people experience discrimination personally, or it is happening to someone they feel a connection to, it is easier for them to care. And this is why sharing our stories is so important.
Henri David Thoreau asked:
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
- If we were to acknowledge another’s story
- If we were to hear what they hear. See what they see. Feel what they feel.
If we did all that, would we treat each other differently?
If we want to make real and meaningful change, it is up to all of us to raise awareness and find ways to create empathy.
Let me provide you with three examples where discrimination is allowed to happen because people can distance themselves from those being mistreated.
Three examples where empathy and understanding would contribute to bringing about positive change in ways that awareness alone cannot.
First, it is no secret that Indigenous people in Canada have been the victims of racism and systemic discrimination for well over a century.
In recent years, the Commission heard directly from Indigenous women about the kinds of barriers that they encounter when trying to assert their rights.
What we heard was profound:
- We heard that racism, violence and discrimination have permeated the lives of many Indigenous women.
- We heard about the ongoing effects of racism, and how discrimination can become so normalized that Indigenous women do not even recognize when it happens.
- We heard that speaking out against racism and discrimination can be difficult. Some Indigenous women fear retaliation. Some find the Commission’s and other justice processes to be intimidating and complicated.
This is the reality facing many Indigenous peoples today.
While we are hearing that the government is going to reset the relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada, we will all have a role to play.
Now more than ever, we must ensure that our actions are consistent with our words.
This includes those who serve and protect us, my second example
Policing is a dangerous and often thankless job. And effective policing depends on mutual respect and trust between the police and the communities they protect.
Racial profiling erodes that trust.
Research shows that in the absence of evidence-based profiles, front-line law enforcement officers are prone to fall back on personal stereotypes when making decisions.
Racial profiling leads to over-criminalization and over-representation of racialized communities in our prison system.
The Commission continues to publically encourage Canadian police and security agencies to implement proper accountability practices, including collecting race-based data.
I know this sounds contradictory...
But in fact, collecting race-based data every time an officer stops a citizen is the best way to find out if racial profiling is taking place—if an officer’s racial bias is getting in the way of the job.
Both the Kingston and in Ottawa police departments have collected race-based data, and Kingston’s police department reported that the process opened their eyes to bias from both police officers and those calling the police.
Ottawa released its report this week.
While the findings were not conclusive, the force is now open to expanding the collection of data into other areas of policing.
Those conducting the Ottawa study have said that the project has contributed to open dialogue and community trust, which is so important because no one should live in fear in their communities simply for being different.
My third example has to do with migrants in detention.
Statistics Canada recently reported that immigrants are coming to Canada in record breaking numbers. But not everyone who comes here finds themselves in a welcoming and accepting country.
Recent studies by the University of Toronto have shined a light on the arbitrary detention of migrants.
Entire families – men, women, and children – are being held in facilities intended for criminals.
- Many of these people do not have criminal record.
- In some cases, they simply are unable to prove who they are.
- Many are dealing with mental health issues and psychological trauma.
What makes all of this worse is that if migrants feel their human rights are being violated by Canadian authorities, there may be little they can do about it.
Some assert that the Canadian Human Rights Act can only protect you if you are “lawfully present” in Canada. Some argue that the Act may only apply to those who are in Canada legally. This is an important issue that needs to be explored.
It is unjust that the very law that Parliament intended to protect people from discrimination may not apply to some of the most vulnerable people in our country.
I truly believe that progress is possible in all three of these examples. But we need to tell those stories.
As long as people distance themselves from those being mistreated, it will be hard to generate the momentum needed to give these issues the attention they deserve.
Let me conclude by bringing back my first words of hope. That we can change things by bearing witness to each other’s experiences and stories.
We continue to see human rights issues and social justice take center stage in our national discussions, in social media, in our homes and schools.
We must harness the positive momentum that we are seeing all around us to ensure that your stories bring about change at an individual level.
We must all work to nurture a deeper understanding of our differences and promote communities where people feel truly connected to one another.
- The work of organizations like the Canadian Race Relations Foundation is so very important.
- Conferences like this are so important.
- Working together is so important.
- Sharing our stories is so important.
Now more than ever, we must find ways to create connections – both between communities and within our own communities.
Now more than ever, we must ensure that our actions are consistent with our words. We must work together to be the change we want to see in the world.
And as we move forward you – all of you – can count on the Commission to be a partner and a collaborator in driving positive social change.
Please consider us your friend and ally.
I thank all of you for your dedication to human rights and for making a difference in the lives of so many.