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Statement Regarding Racism and Discrimination on Behalf of Regional Chief Ghislain Picard

Hon. Mary Jane McCallum: Honourable senators, It’s good to be back.

I’m making a statement on behalf of Regional Chief Ghislain Picard. This is a message from the Assembly of First Nations, Québec/Labrador on racism and discrimination:

I am a member of the Innu Nation of Eastern Quebec and Labrador. I have had the privilege of representing the First Nation leadership from ten different Nations, and these two jurisdictions, and I have for almost three decades now. The work from where I stand has not brought on many opportunities to celebrate successes. In fact, almost every single day is a reminder of the long journey ahead where we aspire as should be our right, to govern ourselves, as you do. I also have the privilege along with my colleague Regional Chief Terry Teegee from Takla Lake First Nation in British Columbia to carry the portfolio of justice on behalf of our colleagues from the executive committee of the Assembly of First Nations.

A little more than ten years ago, a former Prime Minister, before a G20 Summit, denied that Canada had a history of colonialism. This happened after the official apology made by the same government in this Parliament, in 2008, for the residential school system that aimed explicitly to “kill the Indian in the child”. This is an important part of recent history that explains, in part at least, the current debate around systemic racism and discrimination in this country. Although we cannot rewrite history, we can certainly do what we can to right the present and set the course for a brighter future. This is what I consider to be my work from where I stand.

We know just about everything there’s is to know about racism and discrimination. There have been many different faces and every single Indigenous person has had an encounter with discrimination at least once in their lives. There are many reasons why we refer to this as systemic racism but the most compelling one is found in the relationship between the Canadian State and our Peoples, for the past 150 years. This legislative framework imposed on our peoples since 1876, the Indian Act, is the prime example of the failed attempts by the State to eradicate our Nations. The irony is that this piece of legislation although amended a number of times since its inception, is still guiding the governance for many of our nations.

Systemic discrimination must be looked at as having been part of the colonial past of our country. Law enforcement played a major role in the colonization process. Must we remind you that it is the police that took away our children to forcefully enlist them in residential schools, it is the police that prevented our peoples to engage in their ceremonies and spiritual practices. Where others looked at police as a service to ensure their protection and safety, our peoples looked at them as the oppressor. So much that in many of our Indigenous languages, police translates into “those who take us away”.

Despite the constitutional guarantees and after several Supreme Court decisions, First Nations constitutional and treaty rights continue to be violated. We look at access to public services, including the right to protection and security, something that other citizens take for granted, as part of those rights.

Yet, let’s face it, there are politicians who do not dare name things for what they are. Although racism and discrimination are widely recognized and documented, some prefer to look at them as the problem of others, denying the fact that it is entrenched in the very fabric of Canadian society.

Denying the existence of systemic discrimination or racism is not a good path forward if we are to commit to a major reform of the justice system. It leads to denial there is a problem, although so many commissions of inquiry and studies have concluded its existence and its impacts on our lives.

So when will the Canadian state, the one behind this systemic discrimination, be fully on board on the urgency to act. We feel compelled to appeal to everyone who has a say and has the power to change things. This issue like all Indigenous issues should not be the subject of partisan debates. Instead, you should work together, with us, to eradicate this institutionalized treatment that continues to destroy lives.

Denying the existence of systemic racism is itself a form of discrimination. Especially at a time when the federal government, provincial governments, several city mayors, the RCMP itself, the Montreal Police and many other police services across the country and even the Supreme Court of Canad, recognize its existence.

There have been at least 13 reports since 1967 that have looked at the relationship between the justice system and our peoples. They touched on almost every facet of the situation from the troubling incarceration rates of indigenous peoples to their relationship with the law and those who enforce it. 13 reports with conclusive evidence that Canada has failed. Add to that, probably hundreds of papers from academia that more than likely, came to the same conclusions. One of those first studies is the Laing report dating back to 1967, 53 years ago. This report dealt with the situation of the indigenous population in correctional facilities in the country.

Those who may still doubt that the justice system has failed our Peoples may want to take a good look at this reality as it is still more than relevant today. How does Canada compare with other countries? Let’s look at those who share the same patterns and the same colonial history. In Australia, Indigenous people (including those from the Torres Strait) represent 28% of prisoners while they represent 3% of the population. The need for a reform in Australia has been expressed time and again. In New Zealand, Maori make up 51% of the prison population, while they make up 12.5% of the total population of that country.

In Canada, Indigenous people count for 4% of the total population, yet they represent 30% of the inmates in Canadian prisons.

As for Indigenous women, not only are their numbers high in Canada’s correctional institutions, it is actually growing. The Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) of Canada notes in its latest report that the number of Indigenous women in correctional facilities has increased by 74% over the past decade. Indigenous women now represent 41.4% of federally incarcerated women. Again, more findings that are both alarming and troubling.

Why is the issue of the relationship of Indigenous people in Canada to law enforcement such a difficult issue to address? The strained relationship between Indigenous people and the police has made the news so many times since the 1960s and has been documented so many times over. These are things that we know, can you imagine what we don’t know?

Moreover, numerous studies have confirmed that Indigenous people are more likely to be detained by a police officer following an arrest, more often than not, on the basis of prejudice and racism. They are also more likely to be detained for longer periods as part of the bail process. They are more likely to be sentenced to imprisonment, and too often this is for a long period of time. Finally, they are more likely to be imprisoned for non-payment of fines. You can add to these sad indicators that Indigenous people are more likely to be killed in police actions.

Over the years, in an attempt to redress these sad indicators, the State has adopted various accommodation measures aimed at mitigating the impact of the imposition of Canadian law on Indigenous people. However, these have resulted with very mixed results. The Gladue reports represents one such measure. Almost twenty years later, with the above incarceration figures, it is clear that section 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code has not produced the desired effects within the Canadian justice system.

These are the things we know. These are the things we know, can you imagine the things we do not know? Who knew that our most vulnerable citizens may have been the subjects of a guessing game on their alcohol level by health care practitioners in health care facilities, those are the very institutions that should ensure their wellbeing. Here again, a breach of trust. Who will respond for such horrible and reprehensible acts?

Despite numerous recommendations and calls for action, Indigenous-specific issues of systemic discrimination are still not being addressed in a manner that reflects the urgency of the situation. Violence against Indigenous people is still making headlines. More studies or inquiries will not tell us more than what we already know. Canada must take immediate action and introduce a national plan to commit the provinces to officially recognize systemic racism. This action plan must also commit all governments at every level, to eradicate all forms of racism and discrimination against Indigenous people in its institutions, starting with the police services.

This task is before us. It must be looked at as a national emergency, it has gone on for far too long!

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