Canada 150: from aspiration to action
Read the Blog version of the Chief's message on the Huffington Post website
Published June 30, 2017
This year, Canada and Ontario launched year-long celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of confederation. The festivities reinforce Canada’s brand: a place where refugees are welcomed, diversity is celebrated, multilateralism is encouraged, and the future is bright. In short order, Canada has become the go-to foil to contrast against world leaders who peddle exclusion, isolation and fear. Even the New York Times is smitten – ranking Canada the number one place in the world to visit and declaring us “hip.”
Like you, I want to believe that Ontario is a place where diverse people can contribute to society without discrimination. To that end, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) launched a new strategic plan that prioritizes reconciliation with First Nations, Métis and Inuit (Indigenous) peoples, enforcing human rights in the criminal justice system, recognizing that poverty is a human rights issue, and educating the next generation about rights and responsibilities. We have committed to put people at the centre of all our work, while advancing evidence-based and practical solutions to tackle the discrimination they face.
Indeed, amidst the self-congratulation, my conversations with Ontarians make it clear that our actions as a society need to catch up to our aspirations. In Kenora, we learned that the municipal council defeated a motion that would have varied a zoning by-law to allow for a desperately-needed emergency shelter to serve Indigenous people in the downtown core. At the Thunder Bay jail, we met a young man from Lac Seul First Nation, Adam Capay, who was held in solitary confinement for more than four years, with disastrous impacts on his health. In Toronto, African-Caribbean youth didn’t just tell us about streaming – they lived it. We heard from racialized Francophone newcomers who face unique discrimination in employment in places like Hamilton. And in Ottawa, the Muslim community told us about the heightened anxiety they experienced after the Quebec City shooting, and mourned the death of Abdirahim Abdi at the hands of police.
Each of these conversations highlights the lived reality of systemic discrimination, and the ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples, many of whom see little reason to celebrate the sesquicentennial.
On each of these issues and many others, the OHRC has been a bold voice in support of vulnerable and marginalized people’s human rights. We spoke out when it was difficult and even unwelcome. We waded into the tense debate around accommodating Friday prayers for Muslim high school students in Peel region. We spoke out against indefinite and arbitrary detention of migrants in provincial jails. We urged the Toronto Police Disciplinary Tribunal to consider racial profiling at the hearing of two police officers who detained at gunpoint and assaulted four Black teenagers walking to a tutoring session in Lawrence Heights (even after we were excluded from the proceedings).
Silence isn’t an option. Not when brave people share their stories and experiences with us, often at great personal risk. And not when we know that human rights victories are rarely won by operating in a comfort zone.
Realizing human rights requires struggle and determination … and a thick skin. The OHRC faced a chorus of disturbingly hateful social media messages, calls, and emails over the past year. But, while all the negativity can wear you down, it is a sure sign that we are no longer preaching to the converted. We are making people uncomfortable and urging them to wield power in a way that disrupts the status quo. It may not always seem like it, but this is what progress looks and feels like.
Our collective efforts are yielding results. We are charting new relationships with Indigenous peoples based on mutual trust and respect. We empowered youth to stand up to Islamophobia by working with the community to launch the “Break the Behaviour” campaign. We welcomed the introduction of anti-racism legislation, which responds to long-standing calls for government-mandated data collection in key sectors like education, policing and child welfare. And we are cautiously optimistic about the government’s commitment to correctional transformation brought about by our ground-breaking work on solitary confinement.
One hundred and fifty years is relative infancy for a country. So, like any milestone birthday, the jubilation should be coupled with reflection on the work that needs to be done to make sure that future celebrations are more inclusive and meaningful to all people who call Ontario home.
The path ahead won’t be easy. We must forge nation-to-nation relationships with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. We must recognize housing as a human right and protect people from discrimination based on their socio-economic status. We must rebuild racialized and Indigenous peoples’ trust in public institutions. We must make success for all students a priority. In short, we must tackle systemic discrimination in all its forms and create a culture of human rights accountability.
In July, while visiting Ottawa, then-President Obama proclaimed: “The world needs more Canada.” There is much work to be done before we can rightfully hold ourselves out as a model for other nations to emulate. So, let’s get to work – only together can we create an inclusive society where everyone’s human rights are a lived reality.
This annual report is a testament to the talent, expertise and dedication of our staff and part-time Commissioners. Each one brings a unique perspective and passion to our work.
Thank you to our part-time Commissioners Raja Khouri, Fernand Lalonde and Ruth Goba for their many of years of service. And welcome to newly-appointed Commissioners Karen Drake, Rabia Khedr, Kwame McKenzie, Bruce Porter, Maurice Switzer and Léonie Tchatat, who each bring diverse and unique insights and experiences from across the province. As always, we are indebted to Commissioners Julie Lee and Errol Mendes who bring deep institutional knowledge.
Thank you also to our staff, whose knowledge and expertise ground all our work. Our staff team works hard to make our vision for Ontario a reality whether it be in Communications and Issues Management; Legal Services and Inquiries; Policy, Education, Monitoring and Outreach; or Centralized Services.
Finally, thank you to the other pillars of Ontario’s human rights system. We are excited to continue to work closely with the Human Rights Legal Support Centre (HRLSC) and the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) to fulfill the vision in the Human Rights Code (Code).