Last week, news broke that an Indigenous man and his 12 year-old grand-daughter were arrested and handcuffed by Vancouver police. They had gone to a Bank of Montreal branch to open the girl’s first bank account, but a staffer apparently became suspicious and called the police. The news sent shockwaves across the country, with many expressing outrage at what appears to be a blatant act of racial profiling and discrimination.
While this event was particularly shocking, experiences of discrimination are nothing new to Indigenous communities. Unfortunately, the body that exists to provide accountability and redress for discrimination has not been meeting the needs of Indigenous people.
In a report commissioned by the BC Human Rights Tribunal and released today entitled Expanding Our Vision – Cultural Equality and Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights, Ardith Walpetko We’dalx Walkem, QC, reports that Indigenous peoples carry an “abiding sense of exclusion” from BC’s human rights complaints process. Her report, informed by the voices of over 100 Indigenous participants, calls on the Human Rights Tribunal to take bold action to improve the accessibility and relevance of BC’s human rights system for Indigenous peoples.
Ms. Walkem’s report outlines various reasons Indigenous people do not make frequent use of BC’s human rights complaints process. Indigenous people reported seeing the process as futile, and discrimination as being so pervasive that it is simply “a way of life.” Often, it is Canadian law and policy itself that creates and compounds discrimination against Indigenous peoples.
Indigenous people surveyed for the report also pointed to the lack of Indigenous decision-makers, mediators, and staff at the Tribunal as evidence that the Tribunal cannot be counted on to deliver justice. Moreover, the very concept of “human rights” that the Tribunal applies is a colonial construct that fails to acknowledge and account for Indigenous laws and legal systems. “There can be no true justice where Indigenous Peoples feel that they have no recourse for gross violations of their human rights which occur on a pervasive and ongoing basis, and further, when their own mechanisms for defining and assessing human rights are shut out from the discussion,” Ms. Walkem writes.
As one part of BC’s tri-partite human rights system (along with the Tribunal and the recently re-established Office of the Human Rights Commissioner), the BC Human Rights Clinic also has a responsibility to improve access to justice for Indigenous peoples. We acknowledge that we have work to do to ensure that our services are delivered with cultural competency and humility, that we are accessible to people in rural and remote communities, and that we take seriously our duty to learn about Indigenous legal orders and to consider and incorporate them when appropriate. We can also use our voice to advocate for broadening the conception of human rights in law, in line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous legal traditions.
One common reason Indigenous people gave for not filing a complaint after experiencing discrimination was that they did not know that they could, and did not know how to do so. The Clinic, in partnership with the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, is working to address this gap with our Indigenous Human Rights Training Partnership project. Funded by the Law Foundation of BC, we are providing full-day human rights workshops to Friendship Centre staff, and supporting these service providers to share information about human rights with members of their communities.
Ms. Walkem’s report is a call to action. Discrimination against Indigenous peoples has gone unaddressed and unaccounted for for far too long. We at the Community Legal Assistance Society and the BC Human Rights Clinic welcome this report, and offer our thanks for Ms. Walkem and the Tribunal for their leadership in bringing it forward.