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National Aboriginal Day: Reflecting on the journey to reconciliation

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June 20, 2016

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On Canada’s 20th annual National Aboriginal Day, we recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and many contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis (Indigenous) peoples. As an arms-length agency of government, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) also sees today as an opportunity to restate our commitment to reconciliation and working alongside Indigenous communities across Ontario.

Ontario’s existing human rights system can be helpful when Indigenous people face discrimination in their workplace, when trying to rent an apartment, or as customers in stores and restaurants. The OHRC also tackles systemic discrimination against Indigenous people, for example in child welfare, policing and corrections.

Still, we know that the current system is limited in the way it responds to the unique relationship between Indigenous peoples and the land, as well as the lived reality of Indigenous peoples in the wake of colonialism, residential schools and inter-generational trauma. We learned more about these limits as we watched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work unfold, and debates around the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

We learned that we need to rethink the way the OHRC engages with Indigenous peoples across Ontario. We have been meeting with many different Indigenous leaders, groups, individuals and youth, with the goal of finding the best way to work together to address pressing human rights issues, including realizing rights protected in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

We continue to learn that the process is sometimes as important as the outcome. That listening and understanding, and building a trusting relationship, will be necessary first steps in our journey.

The journey will require all of us to acknowledge some hard truths. We are learning that many Indigenous peoples don’t see Ontario’s human rights system, which is narrowly focused on individual discrimination, as being in sync with their own traditional dispute resolution processes or distinct understanding of human rights – which are often more collective in nature and emphasize a deep historic connection with the land.

When the Human Rights Code was drafted more than 50 years ago, there wasn’t, to our knowledge, much discussion with First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples. So from its start, the approach of Ontario’s human rights system reflected the approach that has long characterized Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples: government indifference, inaction, or implementation of laws and policies to “help” Indigenous peoples, rather than working with and empowering them to realize their own vision of a just, fair and free society.

The challenge now is to apply our learning to what we do at the OHRC. We have come to understand that any meaningful engagement has to be on Indigenous peoples’ terms, based on their ideas and experiences – not ours. We are committed to creating a circle of knowledge where learning from Indigenous peoples is given as much importance as educating Indigenous peoples about their rights under the Code. That’s the only way the OHRC can begin its journey towards reconciliation with First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples in Ontario.

Renu Mandhane, B.A., J.D., LL.M
Chief Commissioner
Ontario Human Rights Commission