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Canada 150: We Need To Go From Aspiration To Action

Amidst the self-congratulation, my conversations with Ontarians make it clear that our actions as a society need to catch up to our aspirations.

06/30/2017 10:32 EDT | Updated 06/30/2017 10:42 EDT
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Tourists stand near an illuminated 'Canada 150' sign in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, on Wednesday, June 21, 2017.

This year, Canada 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 Canada is a place where diverse people can contribute to society without discrimination. To that end, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) is prioritizing 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, the local indigenous friendship centre told me how 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, I 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 me about streaming – they lived it. I heard from racialized Francophone newcomers who face unique discrimination in employment in Hamilton. And in Ottawa, the Muslim community told me 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 my 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).

This work and much more is highlighted in the OHRC's Annual Report 2015-2016 which was launched Friday. The Report is entitled "A Bold Voice" because silence isn't an option. Not when brave people share their stories and experiences with us, often at great personal risk. And certainly not when we know that human rights victories are rarely won by operating in a comfort zone.

The Canadian voice is a strong one but the path ahead won't be easy.

Our collective efforts are yielding results. The OHRC is charting new relationships with indigenous peoples based on mutual trust and respect, including a forthcoming cooperation agreement with the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres which provides services to urban indigenous people across Ontario. 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 Canada home.

The Canadian voice is a strong one but 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. Let's give the world more of the Canada that we all aspire to, one where everyone's human rights are a lived reality.

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