For Access to Justice Week, 2023, we’re profiling Debra Febril, a lawyer in CLAS’s BC Human Rights Clinic. Debra works to make the human rights complaints process more accessible for Indigenous Peoples.

Q: Tell us about yourself!

A: My Nisga’a name is Tsit’tuutsgum Ts’winhl Kaax Xsaak. My English name is Debra Febril. I am a proud member of the Nisga’a Nation, the mother of three boys (Jason, Robert and Layton), and Gigi to Jezimae and Coenan. I am also a lawyer.

Q: How have your experiences as a Nisga’a woman, mother, community member, and advocate informed your approach to human rights advocacy?

A: I would say that my background and life experiences as an Indigenous woman have helped me in two different ways.

First, I have lived experience and have faced discrimination in each of the protected areas under the BC Human Rights Code multiple times in my lifetime. When I assist Indigenous clients with their human rights complaints, I can relate to their experience in ways that someone who has not faced racial discrimination cannot. My lived experience allows me to create a culturally safe space for the client and me.

Second, when I assist a client, whether Indigenous or not, I am able to heal and grow from walking beside them and supporting them through a difficult legal process with my knowledge and training in human rights law. For me, this is not outcome-dependent, it is client-centred. I start with the question: what would I need in this situation? I would need to be fully informed and given some space to make a decision that is best for me. From there I just do my best to support the client where I can.

Q: What are some of the most common human rights issues affecting Indigenous Peoples? What do you see as some of the underlying causes of these recurring issues?

A: In my experience, most of the human rights issues affecting Indigenous Peoples in BC arise in the area of “services customarily available to the public” under the Code.

Largely I believe this is a result of colonialism. Systems were created hundreds of years ago to rid Canada of its “Indian problem” and “kill the Indian in the child.” Along with these systems came all the deep-seated Eurocentric notions, misconceptions and stereotypes about Indigenous Peoples that are pervasive and still exist to this day. If the systems don’t change, how can the people that support them?

I will give you an example from my own experience. When I was in grade 9 social studies class, I remember we had just finished learning about Vikings. I was sitting in my desk and we were asked to quietly read the next section of the textbook to ourselves. It was about settlers in Canada and the “savages” they conquered! It wasn’t long before all my classmates started to stare at me, the only visibly Indigenous child in the room. I thought: “no, that’s not me, that’s not my culture or my people. They don’t think I’m a savage, do they?!” You bet they did – from that point on I experienced hate for the first time coming from peers. All the female Indigenous students from that point on were bullied and harassed in the hallways. We had rotten food thrown at us by grade 8-12 boys, we were pulled down by our hair in the hallways, followed, shoulder-checked into lockers, and threatened to the point where we never went anywhere alone. We spoke to the adults, the principal, the teachers, the hall monitors, and no one did anything to stop it. We each left the school one by one, never to return.

I have two adult sons who navigated the education system and were taught a similar history with the exact same textbook! Their personal experiences of racism are not mine to tell, but what I can say is that there were only some slight improvements from my experience.

Fast forward to 2022 when my youngest child, who is six, learned a bit of Canada’s history. He came home from school beaming with pride telling me what he learned about residential schools and orange shirts. It was a very G-rated version of this history, but age appropriate and with enough “truth” in it that he did not express an ounce of shame! My first thought was, finally some change! What a difference truth, information and awareness can make.

I also see some progress being made in society, especially within the BC human rights system. Is it enough to stop racial discrimination or discrimination on the basis of Indigenous identity from occurring? Unfortunately no, I don’t think it is.

Intergenerational trauma is not an Indigenous-only concept! It’s an everyone concept – we all carry a history passed down to us from family, from the education system, and from society. If children are taught to fear differences, or that they are in some way superior or that it is OK to mistreat people because of the colour of their skin, then this will continue from one generation to the next.

Real meaningful changes cannot occur until we look at things on an individual, a community, and on a systems level.

Q: Why is it important for Indigenous People who’ve made a human rights complaint – or who are thinking about making a human rights complaint – to have access to an Indigenous lawyer or legal advocate to assist them?

A: Until 1951 it was illegal for Indigenous Peoples to hire a lawyer under the Indian Act, let alone become one! It is important to provide access where a human right was previously denied.

Q: What is one thing the colonial legal system could learn from Nisga’a systems of law and approaches to disputes?

A: I think the colonial legal system could learn a lot from the Ayuuhkl Nisga’a and other Indigenous laws in BC. They have been in place for thousands of years before the colonial legal system came along.

If I had to choose one concept to describe what is missing from the colonial legal system that is found in Indigenous legal orders, it would be “Sayt Kilim Goot” (one heart). In my experience there is no real sense of “community” in the processes and procedures surrounding decision-making in the legal system.

The BC Human Rights Clinic has a number of legal resources designed especially for Indigenous Peoples on our website here. Be sure to check out this video we created profiling the experiences of several Indigenous participants in the human rights system.