Brian Eyolfson: We need to meaningfully listen to the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples
Five years ago, Brian Eyolfson was appointed as a Commissioner with the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. “My job, through this National Inquiry, was to carry out a very large mandate in a way that put family members and survivors of violence first, and in a way that was trauma-informed, decolonizing and inclusive,” says Eyolfson, a Two-Spirit member of Couchiching First Nation in Treaty #3 territory.
“It was a privilege to be involved in the process and to witness the courage, the strength and the resilience of so many family members and survivors who shared their truths with the National Inquiry, and many who shared publicly with everyone in Canada at public hearings.” Listening to the stories and lived experiences of the survivors has had a profound impact on Eyolfson. It reinforced his understanding of the many systemic practices that continue to affect the lives of Indigenous people, and create vulnerability for Indigenous women, girls, 2SLGBTQQIA people.
“There are things that can be done to change this,” says Eyolfson. “Education and awareness are important. We also need political will and for everybody in society to take action.”
This Inquiry’s 2019 final report identified overarching findings including colonial violence, human rights abuses, racism and most notably, genocide. “We also found that an absolute paradigm shift is required to dismantle colonialism within Canadian society, and from all levels of government and public institutions. Ideologies and instruments of colonialism, racism and misogyny, past and present, must be rejected,” says Eyolfson.
Eyolfson grew up in Fort Frances in northwestern Ontario. He pursued an undergraduate degree in psychology and volunteered with organizations addressing mental health issues. Around the same time, equality rights provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect. Also, the provisions of the Indian Act that took Indian status away from women who married non-status men, were amended. Eyolfson started to reflect more on the impacts of colonialism on his community.
“I saw community disconnect for a lot of people, due to direct sex discrimination and intergenerational sex discrimination. I also thought a lot about the impact that residential schools had on Indigenous families and communities, as my maternal grandparents had attended residential school,” says Eyolfson.
His interest in human rights and Indigenous rights influenced him to become a lawyer, and he now brings over two decades of legal experience to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). He practices alternative dispute resolution and provides independent investigation, mediation and adjudication services, primarily in the area of human rights.
Eyolfson sees public inquiries as an effective way to gather evidence, address issues and create positive change. From his own experiences as a Commissioner on the National Inquiry and his extensive background in Indigenous reconciliation, Eyolfson believes that people with lived experience have the true expertise and need to be meaningfully heard.
“Public inquiries can be educational, can create awareness and shed light on important issues,” says Eyolfson. “For the OHRC, public inquiries can be an effective means to gather the necessary evidence and information that is needed to create recommendations for positive change in the area of human rights, such as improving policies and practices to prevent and eliminate discrimination and create equitable opportunities or resolve situations of conflict.”
Eyolfson also has considerable knowledge of issues affecting different communities across Ontario, particularly Indigenous peoples and communities. As the co-chair of the OHRC’s Indigenous Reconciliation Advisory Group, he has been actively working with Indigenous peoples and communities to advance reconciliation and substantive equality.
“I think it’s really important to have Indigenous peoples guide or lead the conversation on reconciliation,” says Eyolfson. “I think the Commission needs to listen to build relationships… it needs to meaningfully listen to the lived experience of Indigenous peoples and what they think would be solutions. I think it’s about centring the voices of Indigenous peoples and working along with them in a respectful way.”
Before serving as a Commissioner with the National Inquiry, Eyolfson was the Acting Deputy Director with the Legal Services Branch of Ontario’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. From 2007 to 2016, he was a full-time Vice-Chair with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, where he adjudicated and mediated many human rights applications. Eyolfson was also a senior staff lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto (ALS), where he practiced human rights, Aboriginal and administrative law. He represented ALS at the Ipperwash Inquiry, and before that was counsel with the OHRC.
Throughout his career, Brian Eyolfson has focused on embedding lived experience in human rights work. This focus, and his own unique lived experiences, are invaluable assets to his guidance as an OHRC Commissioner.