In February, at the Black History Month celebration in Gatineau, Prime Minister Trudeau spoke about the recent demonstrations, seeking justice for Coulten Boushie. He said: “I think I am not wrong in saying, there are few rooms that understand as well as this one, the unfairness of the justice system here in Canada.”
The statistics are clear. African-Canadians and Indigenous people are incarcerated in truly disturbing numbers. Only seven per cent of the children and youth in Canada are Indigenous, and yet a recent study found that 33 per cent of youth admitted to our country’s correctional services are Indigenous.
During the pre-inquiry gathering of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the families and survivors described a common experience of sexism and racism in policing. They described a justice system that is not working for them. They had trouble reporting a loved one that was missing; they were told: “She’s probably out on a bender. She’ll be back in a couple of days.” They described a half-hearted search and compared it to the kinds of searches that are mounted when non-Indigenous persons are missing. They were disappointed that criminal charges (when they were even laid at all) were weak, and furious that the charges were then plea-bargained down. Families and survivors were also upset that the court dates kept being delayed – in one case, until the victim had committed suicide — and they felt that the sentences handed down were light and the time served even lighter. They described a JUSTICE system — JUST not for US.
After the death of Helen Betty Osborne and John Joseph Harper, Manitoba responded with the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry. Five years ago, Justice Murray Sinclair stated that “the same factors that spoke to over-incarceration in 1991 when we did our analysis — the systemic discrimination, the lack of employment, the lack of social programs that address crime and misbehaviour, the poor educational attainment, higher suicide rates — are still present. But I think we’re also now beginning to see and understand the intergenerational implications of residential schools.” In 2011, Ontario commissioned former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to look into why Indigenous people aren’t properly represented on juries in the province. Five years later, he said that his recommendations were “a work in progress.”
The prime minister and the minister of justice have been clear; we have to do better. But these weeks have demonstrated that all Canadians need to do better as well. Racism is a huge problem in our country. We must all recognize that each and every one of us needs to be part of the solution. We have to admit that we live with prejudice and racism. Racism is defined as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” Settlers and colonizers thought their ways were superior. North American slave owners lived the power differential of superiority.
Ursula Franklin taught us about a Quaker process called “scrupling.” She said it was the way a community came together to question the moral implications of their actions. The Quaker community was concerned about slavery. They all owned slaves, but they knew it was wrong. The community came together and asked themselves difficult questions about their practices, in order to find the way out.
Similarly, we all need to “scruple” about racism in our country. We all need to recognize the prejudice and assumptions we make every day.
For example, our inspiring neighbour and OISE professor Margit Eichler, together with Mary Anne Bourke, developed a programme called the “Bias Free Framework” for Health Research. I remember a workshop in which every one of us uncovered biases that we would have totally denied.
Canada 151 is the time for all of us to move into the next 150 years of Canada walking the talk of equality and inclusion. No longer can we pretend that we didn’t know. We need to be intentional about filling in the gaps of what we never learned in school. As a Member of Parliament, I have had the privilege of making new friends, hearing their narratives, and working with them to make a difference — to change the systems that are still discriminating against them.
Racism is taught. It is often about ignorance. We have to intervene with compassion and information. Every one of us has to be part of the solution. We have to call out racism and ignorance whenever we see it. As June Callwood said, “If you are a witness to an injustice you are not an observer, you are a participant.”
It’s an historic time. Change is happening. We have to do better. Doing better will require all Canadians to accept their responsibility to do their part in eliminating the scourge of racism in our country.
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