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Opening Statement to the Standing Senate Committee on Indigenous Peoples

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The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) was invited to appear before the Standing Senate Committee on Indigenous Peoples on April 19, 2023 to speak to issues related to Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian human rights framework. OHRC Chief Commissioner Patricia DeGuire was permitted a maximum of 5 minutes to deliver an opening statement.  

Honourable senators, I am pleased to be here tonight representing the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Accompanying me is Juliette Nicolet, the Commission’s Director of Policy, Education, Monitoring and Outreach, who will be answering questions. 

Land acknowledgement

I begin by acknowledging that it is my honour to be discussing the issue of Indigenous human rights on the unceded Territory of the Anishinaabe Algonquin Nation, whose presence and contributions are ongoing since time immemorial. The OHRC acknowledges that for thousands of years Indigenous communities from across this land have practised distinct cultures and ways of life, including their legal traditions and approaches to human rights, long before colonial systems were imposed. I recognize and support the important opportunity to partner with First Nations, Inuit, Métis and urban Indigenous peoples and organizations to address the failings of these systems to fulfil Indigenous human rights.

Engagements informing the OHRC’s testimony     

In 2018, the OHRC co-hosted a three-day Dialogue bringing together diverse Indigenous people and members of the human rights community to discuss a vision of human rights which reflects Indigenous perspectives, world views, and issues. During our testimony, we may refer to some key issues and recommendations from that event.

Also, we may draw on what the OHRC heard during engagements with Indigenous communities, organizations, and leaders across Ontario since then, and feedback shared by the Indigenous Reconciliation Advisory Group, which was created to advise the Commission on addressing discrimination under the Code

Gaps and limitations of existing human rights mechanisms

 We have heard of the significant gap between the needs of Indigenous peoples and the services human rights system provides.

Given time limitations, I will list some of the significant deficiencies identified. We may elaborate more during the question period, if you like.

Human rights legislation is founded upon the presumption of Crown sovereignty and primacy over Indigenous law and custom.

Human rights legislation does not recognize the unique status of Indigenous Peoples as the first human occupants of this land and their constitutional status as First Peoples.  

Most tools used in resolving disputes in human rights are antithetical to most Indigenous worldviews and approaches to conflict resolution.

Ways existing human rights systems can be improved

Indigenous partners have suggested several improvements to existing human rights protection mechanisms to better promote fulfillment of Indigenous human rights.  

In summary, these include:

Using the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or, the UN Declaration, as the organizing framework for understanding, interpreting, and implementing Indigenous peoples’ human rights in Canada.  

Amending federal, provincial, and territorial human rights legislation to:

  • explicitly recognize the unique status of Indigenous peoples
  • stipulate that the UN Declaration must inform interpretation and application
  • include “Indigenous identity” as a prohibited ground of discrimination  
  • recognize collective rights and responsibilities as well as positive duties to realize social and cultural rights
  • require the appointment of Indigenous commissioners, adjudicators, mediators, and staff to human rights institutions
  • permit creation of Indigenous-led Indigenous Human Rights Divisions within existing human rights institutions   
  • establish optional restorative justice processes and separate processes for handling systemic human rights complaints

To be effective, each of these measures would need to be adequately funded. 

Human rights institutions must also change the way they work with Indigenous peoples to advance human rights priorities. This requires meaningful consultation, true partnership, and co-development.  

New Indigenous-specific human rights institutions

Respecting Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty means Indigenous communities should have the right to create distinct and unique approaches to human rights and Indigenous-led human rights institutions if they desire.

Indigenous peoples must determine what these approaches and institutions, including their roles and powers will look like.

Consideration could be given to the Paris Principles, which indicate that, to be effective, human rights institutions require as broad a mandate and functions as possible.

Any new institutions developed must be permanent and have sufficient dedicated funding to exercise all their roles and powers.

The relationship between any new Indigenous-specific human rights institutions and existing human rights protection mechanisms would need to be determined once the full scope and powers of the new institutions are known.

Given the ongoing harmful impact the inter-jurisdictional neglect has had on the full realization of Indigenous human rights, all possible options must be explored to permit  new Indigenous-specific institutions to address matters that fall within federal and provincial/territorial jurisdictions

However, the federal government should not let any delay in reaching this ideal resolution prevent it from taking immediate action to support Indigenous-led development of Indigenous-specific human rights institutions with the power to address matters within federal jurisdiction, should that be the desire of Indigenous peoples.


That is the end of my statement and I thank you for your time.