Canadian Human Rights Commission
John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights
10th Annual Human Rights Awards
“Now is the time for human rights defenders”
December 11, 2016
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Thank you very much for that kind introduction.
Bonjour and good afternoon everyone!
It is such a pleasure to be here with you today.
Having the opportunity to meet such amazing and dedicated people, and hear your stories, is my favourite part of being at the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
It is what inspires me. It is what gives me energy
Today is especially inspiring because we are celebrating the work of some very special individuals who are making a significant mark in Canada’s human rights community.
This is a community I was honoured to join when I became Chief Commissioner about a year and a half ago.
But in many ways, human rights have always guided my life.
I grew up in Quebec, in the Bas St-Laurent region.
I have never personally experienced the sting of racism or discrimination.
But my story, like so many of yours, is more complex.
I am mother to a Mexican daughter.
I am grandmother to a black grandson.
I have seen people treat them differently because of the colour of their skin.
I have felt hurt for them.
I have felt anger for them.
And I have worried for them.
It is what drew me to the Canadian Human Rights Commission a year and a half ago.
If you will indulge me for a moment, I will tell you briefly how I came to be in this privileged position.
Because I believe my story is proof that most of the time, none of us set out to become “human rights defenders”—we are called to it. I know our award recipients and so many of you in this room have felt that call, maybe when you least expected it.
In my case, I was busy being the lead partner in a Quebec law firm of 12 lawyers that I founded in 1993.
We were flourishing.
My family was healthy.
Life was good.
I had just been reappointed as Senior Independent Chairperson for the Disciplinary Tribunal in Federal Correctional Institutions for another five years.
The rights of Canadian prisoners were then and still are a huge part of my work.
So in all honesty, when the call came from Ottawa, I was stunned, shocked……..and I was honoured.
Equality, dignity and respect had always been guiding principles in my life.
My mother would tell you that growing up, I was always standing up for others.
I have always held myself to a series of core beliefs:
I believe in respect.
I believe in relationships.
I believe in trust.
I believe in human rights for all.
I believe in social connectedness.
I believe we should all stand up for each other.
These beliefs have guided my life, both personally and professionally.
And now, I was being called to serve—being called to lead an organization charged with promoting and protecting human rights in Canada.
I knew, deep down, that I had to say “yes.”
And now today, a year-and-a-half later,
with all that I have learned,
and all that I’ve been told as Chief Commissioner,
there is one thing I know for sure.
It is the main message I want you to leave with today.
And it is this:
Canada needs human rights defenders like never before.
Now more than ever, there is an opportunity for human rights defenders to have our voices heard, to make an impact and to bring about meaningful changes.
This is what I was told when I went across Canada to meet with as many human rights organizations as I could during my first year as Chief Commissioner.
I went to meet with academics, NGOs, First Nations community leaders, advocacy groups, provincial and territorial human rights commissions, Ministers and Agents of Parliament.
Most importantly, I heard from so many community organizations that work directly with people living in vulnerable circumstances.
Each of them, I came to learn, are human rights defenders.
They were not shy about telling me what they needed from me.
They told me to be bold.
They told me to be a strong voice.
They told me to speak out loudly against discrimination and intolerance.
I believe that is what we all need to do, together—the people in this room, and others across Canada.
Together, as Canada’s human rights defenders.
What do I mean when I say human rights defender?
I mean someone, who with passion and commitment, is dedicating their intelligence, their resources and their time to improving the lives of other people in Canada.
They are ensuring that everyone in Canada is included and has an equal chance to thrive.
Someone who through their work or their art or their community service is finding ways to challenge discrimination and raise human rights issues to new levels.
We all have that potential. And I would say, we all have that obligation.
Our award recipients today, and all of us in this room, we are all human rights defenders.
As human rights defenders, there has never been a more important time for us to speak out, challenge our reality, to ensure that discrimination or intolerance are never normalized.
This is what we are committed to doing at the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
As Canada’s independent human rights watchdog, our job is to promote inclusion, acceptance and equality throughout Canada through the administration of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
We receive and screen discrimination complaints, and work with complainants and respondents to resolve issues through mediation, or, if warranted, through a referral to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
We also audit employers to ensure equality of employment for women, members of visible minorities, persons with disabilities and indigenous people.
We also have the authority to research, raise awareness, and speak out on any matter related to human rights in Canada —giving a voice to some of the most vulnerable in our country.
We have the authority to hold the Government of Canada to account on matters related to human rights. In some instances, we can do so by initiating human rights complaints or issuing special reports to Parliament.
An Indigenous elder, Dr. Robert Joseph, once described the Commission as being “the conscience of the government.”
I have yet to find a better description of what we do.
Every decision we make at the Commission, every action we take, and every position we hold, is done in the public interest.
But it’s a new era for us at the human rights commission— for all of us, really, who work in human rights in Canada.
This is a new landscape we find ourselves in.
Ideas, dismissed and ignored for many years, are now front and centre.
In our political discourse.
On the editorial pages of our newspapers.
Even in popular culture.
Social media has given more people than ever a voice in telling their stories.
We now have a Prime Minister who marches in Pride Parades and who has made it very clear that he believes diversity is one of Canada’s greatest strengths.
We are hearing that the government is going to reset the relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada, and take steps to help prevent discrimination based on gender identity or genetic makeup.
This is all very encouraging.
But the problem is that this renewed emphasis on diversity, acceptance and inclusion might confuse some people into believing that we are already there.
That Canada has reached the perfect balance.
That everyone is already included enough.
But those of us in this room know different.
We know that in Canada’s own backyard, too many people are still not getting a fair chance, an equal shot.
We know that the rhetoric of our political leaders is not in line with the reality that so many people in Canada are facing.
So what is going on?
How can our rhetoric be so out of line with our reality?
At the same time that I was thinking about this question, I happened to be reading a book by international human rights lawyer, David Matas.
His book is called “Why did you do that? The Autobiography of a Human Rights Advocate.”
In it, Matas talks about the “four enemies that prowl through the human rights battlefield.”
- Sense of helplessness
Matas says that when discrimination is happening to “others,” many people do nothing.
But when it is happening to someone you feel connected to, it is easier to care.
For Matas, the antidote to exclusion or racism or apathy or intolerance, is connection.
That empathy and connections between people — these are the life blood of human rights.
It is becoming a big part of how we work as a Commission this past year—our connection with our fellow organizations and in inspiring connection between every-day citizens.
I often draw inspiration from Henri David Thoreau, who asked:
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
I think so much of what we see going on in Canada’s own backyard comes down to the issue of empathy.
If we were to acknowledge each other’s stories.
If we were to hear what others hear. See what others see. Feel what others feel.
If we did all that, would we treat each other differently?
If we want to make real and meaningful change, I think a big part of our role as human rights defenders is about raising awareness and finding ways to create empathy.
Take for example the issue of how detained migrants or refugees are being treated right here in our country.
Statistics Canada recently reported that immigrants are coming to Canada in record breaking numbers.
But not everyone who comes here finds themselves in a Canada that accepts and welcomes them.
Entire families— men, women, and children— are being held in facilities intended for criminals.
- Many of these people do not have criminal records.
- In some cases, they simply are unable to prove who they are.
- Many are dealing with mental health issues and psychological trauma.
What makes all of this worse is that if migrants feel their human rights are being violated by Canadian authorities, there may be little they can do about it.
Now, while I am sure that most Canadians would find it horrifying to learn that innocent people who came to Canada for a better life are being treated in this way.
The problem is, they either don’t know about it.
Or, the information has been presented to them in such a way that left them not feeling enough emotion.
Not enough empathy.
Not enough reason to act.
Not enough of a connection to the idea “This could be me or my children.”
The same is true for many of the other human rights issues in need of a voice:
- children in Canada’s North cannot go to school because the local school can’t accommodate their disability;
- transgender children face bullying that is so relentless that they choose to move rather than face the hostility. Some make even more devastating decisions;
- Persons with disabilities continue to live with discrimination, judgement and poverty.
- some people are refusing life-saving tests out of fear that their genetic information may lead to life-long discrimination;
- many First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities do not have access to even the most basic human rights – access to water and safe homes;
- incarcerated women with serious mental health issues, living with the haunting reality of abuse, are held in solitary confinement instead of being offered treatment;
- and recently, symbols of hatred and anti-Semitism are being spray-painted in urban centres.
It’s a lot.
But I truly believe that progress is possible in all these areas.
But we’re going to need a strong coalition of human rights defenders working together.
We need to keep holding our government true to their promises.
We need to keep telling the stories that need telling.
We need to allow these issues to hit HOME for every Canadian.
We need to reach out to the next generation before they are tainted by prejudice and stereotypes.
We need to create an environment where human rights become second nature.
Because as long as people distance themselves from those being mistreated, it will be hard to keep this momentum going.
Because silence is complicity.
Keeping the momentum going has never been more important.
Let us be open to the possibility that things can be better in Canada. There are still so many in our country that suffer in silence.
Human rights are not guaranteed. They are tested every day.
We cannot take them for granted, or take for granted that we live in a society where these rights are simply a given.
We need to be watchful and outspoken.
We need to stand together, and amplify each other’s voice.
I believe the English expression is: Strength in numbers!
There is a similar expression we use lately around the Commission: advocacy through coalition.
That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
If we really want to create change in Canada, if we really want to get our voices heard, and if we really want to have an impact, then we have to do it together.
In the words of Helen Keller: “Alone we can do little…..together, we can do so much.”
In doing this together, maybe we can continue to rightly say that Canada is a leader in human rights.
Once again, my thanks to the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights and my heartfelt congratulations once again to all today’s honorees.
We need people like you—smart, talented, dedicated people—to help lead the charge for Canada’s human rights leaders and human rights defenders.
And we need award ceremonies just like this—so that other people in Canada are inspired to pick up the torch and join the call.
I want you to know that you can count on the Commission to be a partner in this work.
We will be bold and outspoken right alongside you.
Please consider us your friend and fellow human rights defender.
I thank all of you for your dedication to human rights and for making a difference in the lives of so many.
Now please enjoy your much-deserved celebrations!
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