Continuing the conversation with Indigenous leaders
The Chief Commissioner had the privilege of meeting with several Indigenous leaders from various territories across the province. The Chief Commissioner also met with representatives of the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, the Ontario Native Women’s Association and with the Ontario Regional Chief.
The Chief Commissioner engaged with these leaders to continue building trusting relationships based on dignity and respect. The purpose of the meetings was to listen and learn about each community’s concerns and priorities, especially in the context of COVID-19, and to ask if there were ways the OHRC could help the communities to address inequalities in health care, children’s educational needs, systemic racism and fostering truth and reconciliation. As a result of these meetings, the Chief Commissioner wrote two opinion editorials, Why it’s dangerous to be disabled and Indigenous in Canada, published by National Newswatch, on the prevalence of discrimination in health-care services and the serious need to be attuned to intersecting grounds in ensuring equitable treatment, and COVID-19 fears are fanning the flames of racism in Kenora, published by TVO, denouncing the surging hate, harassment and propagation of misinformation in the pandemic.
The Chief Commissioner also met with representatives of the Nation to Nation Indigenous Employee Network, which consists of First Nations, Métis and Inuit professionals within the Ontario Public Service.
Connecting with the Chiefs of Ontario Leadership Council
When Ena Chadha was appointed Chief Commissioner in July 2020, she made a commitment to reaffirm and promote the OHRC’s priority of building trusting relationships with First Nations, Métis and Inuit leaders and communities, and to continue to learn how to best integrate their issues and world views into the OHRC’s work.
One example of bringing this commitment to life was her presentation at the November 2020 meeting of the Chiefs of Ontario Leadership Council. Composed of the Grand Chiefs of Political Territorial Organizations from across Ontario, and leaders of other independent nations, the Leadership Council works with the Ontario Regional Chief to set, coordinate and implement First Nations leaders’ priorities. Ontario’s Minister of Indigenous Affairs also attended.
The Chief Commissioner spoke about the role of the OHRC’s Indigenous Reconciliation Advisory Group, and about how this group provides much-needed advice and insight on issues such as ways the OHRC can focus policy development to address inequalities in service provision experienced by Indigenous peoples in Ontario.
The Chief Commissioner also spoke about the serious concerns she has heard about Indigenous child and family welfare, education gaps and language rights, the lack of proper consultation before enacting legislation that affects First Nation rights, and inequities in health care and policing – which have all been exacerbated during the pandemic.
She then outlined the steps the OHRC is taking to support First Nations having a voice in pandemic responses and other ongoing issues, and the areas where the OHRC would benefit from their collective wisdom. Each step is an important element of moving forward together on the path to reconciliation and lasting change.
This meeting gave rise to the Chief Commissioner’s efforts to support Ontario Regional Chief Archibald’s work on the COVID-19 vaccine taskforce.
Continuing the path forward with the OFIFC
As agreed in their Memorandum of Understanding, the OHRC and the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC) continued to work together to share information and data, engage with urban Indigenous people on policy development, and coordinate provincial advocacy in key areas including COVID-19 data collection.
The OFIFC actively took part in both the OHRC’s Community Advisory Group and Indigenous Reconciliation Advisory Group, as well as involving the OHRC in other initiatives, such as its Indigenous Human Rights Program. The OHRC also contributes to the OFIFC Youth Opportunities Fund Collaborative Table that is focusing on developing, implementing and evaluating strategies to transform the public education system for urban Indigenous youth in Ontario.
The OHRC congratulates OFIFC Executive Director Sylvia Maracle on her upcoming retirement after 42 years in this leadership position. We are grateful for the insight and wisdom she has shared with the OHRC, and celebrate the many ways she has advanced the human rights of Indigenous people across the province. We were honoured to have her as a featured speaker in our recent virtual celebration of the OHRC’s 60th anniversary and hear about her memories working with the OHRC in its early days of promoting and enforcing human rights.
Engaging with the Elders Council
In September 2020, OHRC staff had the opportunity to attend a virtual meeting of the Elders’ Council to seek guidance on ongoing Indigenous reconciliation policy development issues. The Elders’ Council supports the work of the Ministry of the Attorney General’s Indigenous Justice Division.
Composed of 13 Indigenous Elders, Senators and Knowledge Keepers from communities across the province, the Elders Council is committed to supporting the reclamation of Indigenous legal systems and strengthening justice for Indigenous people across Ontario. In the meeting, the OHRC requested guidance on how non-Indigenous organizations could make sure they are respecting First Nations, Métis and Inuit rights and diverse world views when developing and delivering services for Indigenous peoples. The Council shared with the OHRC their insights about Indigenous knowledge and the ways of being of Indigenous peoples.
The OHRC congratulates the Elders’ Council on receiving the 2020 Law Foundation award in recognition of their championing access to justice.
Removing discriminatory words, images
For many years, Indigenous peoples and racialized communities have raised concerns over the display of derogatory words and images including names, terms, descriptions, depictions, symbols and other markers used for sports teams, street and road names, geographic areas, landmarks, facilities, statues, plaques and commemorative days.
In fall 2020, the OHRC responded to a letter about a debate over the renaming of Colonization Road in the Town of Fort Frances and the potential implications under the Human Rights Code. The OHRC based this response on the human rights principles and guidance it used to help settle the case of Gallant v Mississauga, where the City of Mississauga committed to removing from its sports facilities all Indigenous-themed mascots, symbols, names and images related to non-Indigenous sports organizations.
The OHRC recognizes that some words and images might negatively affect the ability of Code-protected individuals and groups to take part and benefit equally in their community. Human rights law has found images and words that degrade people because of their ancestry, race, colour and ethnic origin, among other grounds, may in some instances amount to a denial of service and violate the Code. In some cases, it may be necessary to revisit long-standing norms in our society. We highlighted the importance of engaging with individuals and communities to promote understanding when concerns are raised. We urged municipalities to take the first step in removing barriers by collaborating with affected groups to develop policies on the use of names and images, to promote welcoming and inclusive environments for all groups in society.
The Town of Fort Frances has since issued a public statement saying it is actively investigating a meaningful approach to the potential renaming of Colonization Road as a small step forward in the path to reconciling past, present and future relationships with neighbouring Indigenous communities. The town’s statement mentions the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the OHRC, and its obligations under the Code. The town is also working on a street naming/renaming policy.
In the coming year, the OHRC aims to develop a general policy statement on the discriminatory display of words and images, to help build awareness across Ontario about negative impacts and promote a collaborative human rights-based approach to resolving issues.
Supporting the fight against racism in health care
Upon reading the Chief Commissioner’s opinion editorial, Why it’s dangerous to be disabled and Indigenous in Canada, published by National Newswatch, the Brian Sinclair Working Group wrote to the OHRC requesting support for its efforts to fight medical racism. In January 2021, the OHRC wrote a letter supporting the Brian Sinclair Working Group’s open letter: Adding the fight against racism to the Canada Health Act: the time is now. The OHRC shared its deep concern about the tragic events surrounding the death of Joyce Echaquan, and the many other heart-rending examples of deep-seated systemic racism that First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples continue to face when seeking medical care in Canada.
The OHRC recognized the significant impact the Canada Health Act has on health services delivery in the provinces and territories, and the need for human rights principles, including anti-racism, to be entrenched in that Act as well as all other federal and provincial legislation. The OHRC also emphasized the need for all stakeholders in the health-care system to adopt and implement an intersectional approach to anti-racism and human rights policies and strategies in consultation with Indigenous groups, communities and organizations, as well as other racialized groups affected by systemic racism and the legacies of colonialism in the healthcare system.
Addressing anti-Indigenous racism in lacrosse
In December 2020, in recognition of the importance of lacrosse to Indigenous cultures and in the face of troubling reports of racial slurs and mistreatment in lacrosse games involving Six Nations of the Grand First Nation (Six Nations) lacrosse players, the OHRC announced it would work and meet with Six Nations, the Ontario Lacrosse Association (OLA) and the Canadian Lacrosse Association (CLA) to engage in discussions about how to address concerns of systemic racism against Indigenous lacrosse players.
An expert Indigenous facilitator will support the discussions that will start with concerns raised by members of the Six Nations lacrosse community. This will be the first step in the important process of rebuilding trust, fostering accountability and promoting reconciliation.
The OHRC recognizes that lacrosse has been a way for Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to connect with each other, and can help build relationships that unite, uphold reconciliation and proactively address racism.
Challenging racism in the North
In February 2021, the OHRC heard reports of Indigenous people in Kenora being refused service by local businesses under the assumption that they were carriers of COVID-19, due to an outbreak on the nearby Wabaseemoong Independent Nations. Discriminatory action against any persons or communities who have, or are perceived to have COVID-19 is prohibited by the Ontario Human Rights Code. While anecdotal, these allegations of racism were nonetheless disturbing, and mirrored the atmosphere of intolerance and discrimination East Asians – Ontarian or otherwise – faced during the 2002–04 SARS outbreak.
The OHRC acted swiftly by releasing a public statement citing concerns about racist rhetoric and misinformation in Kenora and beyond, and condemning any and all vile acts of discrimination. The OHRC also urged duty-holders and the public to refer to its online Questions and Answers on human rights concerns and obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the context of public spaces and organizations. An opinion editorial titled “COVID-19 fears are fanning the flames of racism in Kenora,” by Chief Commissioner Ena Chadha, was published online by TVO shortly after.
Thanks to the OHRC’s leadership on this issue, the Chief Commissioner was invited to speak at the “Ga Kina Together – Kenora Call to Action” virtual event, where the Human Rights Legal Support Centre (HRLSC) provided information to Wabaseemong community members on how to protect their human rights. Ultimately, the joint response by the OHRC and HRLSC positively contributed to the mosaic of messages expressed by local leaders and community members asking area residents to be kind to one another as public health partners fought to contain the outbreak in the area.
The OHRC will continue to respond quickly to reports of racism and other human rights concerns as the pandemic continues to challenge communities across Ontario.
Tania Cameron @TaniaCameron
I received an unexpected call from Ena Chadha, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. She expressed her support of my advocacy & assisting people of Wabaseemoong that have denied service in #Kenora @OntHumanRights
Brian Chang @bfchangTO
Good to see some response & acknowledgement from @OntHumanRights because of @TaniaCameron's advocacy and strength calling out racist #KenoraKaren. Denial of service to Indigenous families is a racist and intolerable act. Unacceptable.
“The HRLSC and the OHRC have for the last number of years really worked hard to foster a relationship because we know that the system is better when all three parts of it work together and so the OHRC and the HRLSC continuously look for ways to support each other’s work.”
- Sharmaine Hall, Executive Director, Human Rights Legal Support Centre, OHRC 60th anniversary kick-off event
Providing advice, support to the Indigenous Human Rights Program
The OHRC was pleased to continue its support for the Indigenous Human Rights Program (IHRP). Established by Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC), in partnership with the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC), the IHRP is developing an Indigenous cultural competency and human rights training program for lawyers and law students, creating podcasts highlighting experiences of Indigenous people at human rights tribunals across Canada, and launching free human rights legal public education sessions at Indigenous Friendship Centres in Toronto and Ottawa. Staffed by law students and pro bono human rights lawyers, the clinics will deliver culturally-appropriate human rights assistance in a safe and welcoming setting, and help fill a long-standing gap in legal services for Indigenous peoples.
The OHRC is an active member of the IHRP Advisory Council, and our staff have delivered training on Ontario’s human rights legislation and system for law students taking part in the program. The OHRC also supported the PBSC in successful applications for funding, including a recent grant of $100,000 from the Law Foundation of Ontario’s Access to Justice Fund. The Chief Commissioner met with the OFIFC Director of Policy to discuss ideas of how the program can be used to facilitate redress at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
Indigenous Reconciliation Advisory Group expands its membership
The OHRC’s Indigenous Reconciliation Advisory Group has expanded to now have 22 members from diverse First Nations (on-reserve and off-reserve), Métis and Inuit communities and organizations including youth and Elders. The Human Rights Legal Support Centre and Canadian Human Rights Commission also continue to take part.
The advisory group met by videoconference in December 2020 and February 2021. Members shared how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and marginalization experienced by First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities across all areas of life. Members also advised the OHRC on the type of policy action that would most effectively respond to community human rights needs.
“The Commission has a very significant role to play with respect to public education and I think that the public education is more than a commissioner’s opinion piece in the news. I think it has a lot more visible and sustainable work to do. I think that the Human Rights Commission should play a role in the education of the civil service and other commissions in terms of understanding the origins of Indigenous-based inequities. I think the Commission should set very specific examples both in strategic plans short- and long-term. I think that the Commission should be reporting to other kinds of inquiries that are raised.”
- Sylvia Maracle, member of OHRC Indigenous Reconciliation Advisory Group
Introducing the Indigenous Reconciliation Advisory Group