Chief Commissioner’s remarks at University of Sherbrooke - Promoting justice not just for some, but for all

[Originally delivered in French]

Speaking Notes

Marie-Claude Landry, Ad. E.

Chief Commissioner 
Canadian Human Rights Commission

Entrance Ceremony
University of Sherbrooke

August 24, 2017

Sherbrooke, Québec

“Promoting justice not just for some, but for all”

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Good morning everyone!

What a pleasure it is to join you today.  The University of Sherbrooke, my alma mater, holds a special place in my heart and my pride is on prominent display in my Ottawa office.

You are privileged to be commencing your studies  here with this law faculty — an institution where achievement, innovation and passion are an integral part of every day.

Over the years, as a founder of my own business, I have had the opportunity to employ many students, articling student and lawyers who called the University of Sherbrooke home, and the reasons were simple:  because of the quality of the education and the inherent values that will be imparted on you during your studies. 

Thank you for your warm welcome, and thank you for inviting me today to speak to you about the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and organization that I have the immense privilege of leading.

I am thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to you about the Commission, and especially YOUR role, both personally and professionally, in ensuring social justice in our country.  

But above all, I want to share with you my passion for human rights—regardless of whether it becomes a central focus of your studies or future law career.  We all have a responsibility when it comes to integrating human rights — respect, inclusion and diversity, into our everyday lives.

You are privileged to be here, commencing your studies at, in my opinion, the best law school in the country.  You are in a position of privilege for being where you are today, as you will be when you conclude your studies.  And with this privilege comes the obligation of protecting and promoting the values that are essential to all democracies, and that are the foundation of our country:  respect, inclusion and diversity.

Canada is seen as a model of diversity and inclusion in the eyes of so many, and we are, no doubt, a country of choice for many.  But we cannot allow that to make us forget our own challenges.  Recent protests of hate and intolerance in Quebec, as elsewhere in Canada and the world, including our immediate neighbours, remind us that there is still so much to do.

The legal community has a large role to play in this regard, as it is essential to maintaining a democratic society.  It is not enough to have institutions that are described as democratic.  Having a real democracy means respecting the human rights not just for some, but for all. 

You may not be aware, but the Canadian population has high hopes and optimism for your generation.

You are the first generation to live, on a daily basis, the values and liberties for which so many people fought.

Values, such as:

  • Equality between women and men;
  • Equality for all people, regardless of their colour, their race, their ethnic origin, their nationality or their religion;
  • Fairness and respect for people living with disabilities, both physical and mental;
  • Acceptance of all forms of love;
  • Acceptance of all the variations there are to expressing gender.

So many people fought for so long to get here.  And now, for your generation, so much of this is just “the norm.”

But we must be careful not to take these Canadian values and fundamental rights for granted.

We don’t have to look very far to see that these values and liberties are being questioned, and even attacked, every day.  The smallest acts of intolerance can encourage and feed those already feeling hatred and anger.

Before going further, allow me to tell you about how I came to occupy the position of Chief Commissioner of the Commission, for what has now been over two years.

The values of respect, inclusion and diversity, as well as the importance of empathy, have always guided me in my life.

I grew up in Quebec, in the Bas St-Laurent region, as well as in Quebec City proper.

My path through the education system wasn’t always easy.  I was told by some that perhaps university studies shouldn’t even be part of my future ambitions.

Despite these challenges, and the comments I faced, I was guided by my values, and decided to meet yet another challenge and undertake my law studies here, at the University of Sherbrooke, in 1985. 

Later, as was the case for many professional women, and especially during the early years of my career as I founded my own law firm, I had to face many stereotypes and sexism. 

And, over the course of these years, I started to see the power that each and every one of us has to influence and promote change—to be an agent of change.

It is also during these years that I discovered the importance of the words by Henri David Thoreau:

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant.” 

Through my additional work within the community, I had the opportunity to meet so many extraordinary people — so many of them having difficult stories and life journeys.  So many people passed through my office during my years in private practice, they, as well, with difficult stories and life journeys.

I can tell you, without hesitation, that the most important skills you can develop as lawyers are those that will make you grow, both personally and professionally – the capacity to empathize with others, to listen, and to see things through the eyes of another.

It is during this time, that I also founded my family.  I have three adult children and one grandchild.  My eldest, Isabel, was adopted in Mexico, and my grandson is of mixed heritage – Mexican and Haitian.  As a result, I had to face the prejudice, comments and racist attitudes that my daughter and grandson have faced, and, in some cases, continue to face.

I have felt their pain, their anger.  I have worried for their wellbeing.

Personal challenges.  Personal journeys.  Professional experiences.  These are all elements of my life journey that guided me towards human rights, and which influenced my decision to accept this position at the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

I was at the head of a law firm, and my legal practice was flourishing.  I had just been renamed, for another five years as the first Senior Independent Chairperson for the Disciplinary Tribunal in Federal Correctional Institutions.   

In all honesty, when I received the call from Ottawa, I was surprised, shocked... but also very honoured.  

I saw this as an opportunity to make a difference, and be part of an organization that works independently from government, to protect and promote human rights in our country.  I saw this as an important opportunity to match my personal and professional experiences, with my strongly-held values, and be an agent of change.

My values and convictions have always been an important compass guiding me in my life:

...I believe in respect.

…in the importance of human relationships.

...in human rights for all, not just some.

...in community engagement.

…I believe that confidence is an essential ingredient in our interpernal relationships.

...and ultimately, I believe that we must all work together.

The decision to accept this position was not an easy one for me, since I was leaving behind a tremendous amount, and was choosing to live away from my children.  However, I knew, deep down, that I needed to say yes.

I see each of you today, your eyes shining, enthusiastic and ambitious, with an entire career in front of you that, I hope, will be a source of motivation to be an agent of change.  And if you were to remember only a few things from my message today, it would be:

  • First, don’t let anyone force you to put aside your values – the values that form your personal, moral compass.
  • Second, remember that when we see the world through the eyes of another, we are enriched and we grow as individuals.
  • And finally, don’t let anyone discourage you.

The link between democracy and human rights is a link that you will explore throughout your studies.  It is of great importance, and it essential to any democratic society.  You only need to listen to the news, read the newspapers, see online conversations on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to know that we find ourselves in a period of great turbulence that is threatening human rights every day, both here and elsewhere.

With the increase in hate crime, the gathering of white supremacist groups, and the open manifestation of racism, we are witnessing a troubling polarisation within our society. And we don’t have to go back in time too far to see what devastating consequences this can have on a society. 

In the face of such polarisation, now more than ever, human rights need to guide us and be a part of our values.  Not only do human rights have to be at the heart of our society, but they must also be at the heart of our daily lives.  They have to become second nature.

These universal values, that are cherished and form the foundation of our country, are, nevertheless, fragile and not guaranteed.

The law, which aims to protect the people, can sometimes lead to inequality.  It can sometimes lead to social injustice, especially if it is applied blindly, without context.

Throughout your studies, and throughout your lives, I urge you to pay particular attention to human rights, at all levels.

When it comes to human rights, we are all on the same side.  Human rights are linked to our human experience, and play an integral role in our work as officers of justice.

The Canadian Human Rights Act, and the Employment Equity Act are at their essence, influenced by the Canadian values we so cherish – respect, inclusion and diversity.  These laws are tools, which unfortunately, are often little known or used by lawyers.

As you know, the Human Rights Act celebrated its 40th anniversary this year.  It was actually adopted before the Charter.

Since 1977, Parliament has wanted this to be a law that encourages equality and inclusion for all in Canada, a law that protects people living in vulnerable circumstances.

This quasi-constitutional law has helped to gradually change our society, thanks to the committed people who have taken the lead and fought to ensure the law is applied. The Commission has played a fundamental role in this, since 1977.  We have, among other things, an important mission to shed light on stories of discrimination—using our expertise to denounce the daily impact that discrimination is having on the lives of people in vulnerable circumstances in Canada.

As the Indigenous elder, Chief Robert Joseph, has said to me: The Commission is the government’s conscience.  We are here to denounce the human travesties that affect the daily lives of millions of people, right here in Canada, including too many children.

Through our work in promoting and protecting human rights, we have helped every day people use the law to create great change.  As a result, we have closed-captioning on our television, we have more accessible buildings and bank machines for persons with disabilities, we have a military that allows women to fight in combat roles on the front lines, and we have a human rights law that recognizes sexual orientation as a protected ground of discrimination.

Every time we make a decision, every time we act, or call on the government to take action and be accountable, and every time we give human rights advice, we do so in the public interest.  We do so for the benefit of all people living in vulnerable circumstances in our country – those who suffer in silence, and who suffer the repercussion of discrimination and harassment.  Our role is to amplify their voices so that human rights can, as I said earlier, apply not just to some, but to all.

You may have, like me, concluded that we are in a time of great change.  Issues, so long ignored or rejected by different governments, are now front and center.  We see this in our:

…political discourse.

…editorial pages in our newspapers.

…popular culture.

Our Attorney General and Minister of Justice is an Indigenous woman – a first in our history.

Last year, I was in attendance when our Prime Minister raised the flag representing the LGBTQ2+ community on Parliament Hill in Ottawa — a first.

I was also there, when for the first time in our history, a Prime Minister marched in a Pride parade, and when, this year, a foreign prime minister and his spouse, joined in on the parade.

These changes in tone are encouraging, and could leave some people thinking that we have achieved our collective objective—that Canada includes everyone. That there is no discrimination against the LGBTQ2I community, against women, against persons living with disabilities, against our Indigenous communities, and so many others.

But that is definitely not the case. Our media outlets, no matter which, remind us every day that we must remain vigilant.

You know, I often compare human rights to our personal health.  We can never take it for granted.  Often, when we fail to take care of it, it fails.

And just like with our health, racism, xenophobia, intolerance, sexism and all other types of discrimination can be subtle— the symptoms difficult to detect.  It is only when we accept to make compromises that the erosion begins, and we get closer to living the mistakes of previous generations.  We must, therefore, keep our eyes wide open and be aware so that we can prevent this from happening.

Because although Canada appears to be in good health, I must honestly say, that there are nonetheless symptoms of illness in our society:

  • We don’t do enough for transgender people who are victims of discrimination, and who live in fear of being a victim of persecution, or of being refused basic health care, right here, in our country.
  • We don’t do enough for caregivers who must shoulder enormous responsibilities, and face discrimination in employment as a result.
  • We don’t do enough for people suffering with mental illness who are incarcerated in our prisons—often prevented from getting care, and at times, subjected to long periods of solitary confinement, which UN experts on torture have called to be banned. 
  • We don’t do enough for people living with physical disabilities, whose complaints represent over 50% of the discrimination complaints we receive, most often in employment.  Yet, these groups are asking nothing more than the opportunity to contribute to the economic development of our country.
  • We don’t do enough for racialized communities that are over-represented in our justice system, including our prisons, due to a lack of resources. 
  • We don’t do enough to combat hate and intolerance that is directed towards marginalized groups.  We only need to look at recent events in the United States to see where that could bring us.
  • It isn’t a secret that Indigenous people living in Canada have been subjected to systemic discrimination for over a century.  For seven generations, Indigenous children were placed in residential schools, where they were abused mentally and physically, deprived of their parents’ love, with the only goal to “get the Indian our of the child.” Did you know that the last residential school in Canada only closed its doors in 1996? Did you know that while the Indigenous population only represents 7% of the Canadian population, it accounts for 48%, almost half, of all children placed in foster homes? And I’m not talking about something happening in another country. I’m talking about Canada.  
  • We don’t do enough for migrants who are fleeing war, violence and threats to their health and well-being, so that they can start a new life in Canada. Did you know that entire families of migrants — men, women and children — are detained for months, even years in facilities intended for criminals? Many of these migrants suffer from mental illness and psychological trauma. Their only crime is that they fled a country without their identity documents.

Allow me to tell you the recent story of a young girl named Kobina, who, at the age of 8, was incarcerated for 385 days in Toronto’s Immigration Holding Centre.

The authorities gave Kobina’s mother a choice — to leave her child with someone in her extended family, give her child to Protective Services, or keep her.  Having no family in Canada, Kobina’s mother could not bear to be separated from her daughter.  And so began 385 days of detention.

  • Going outside to play only once per day in the winter, and twice per day in the summer.
  • Not having a childhood.  Period.

I am convinced that many Canadians, people like you and me, would be troubled to learn that children, like Kobina, their families and other innocent persons are treated like this. I am convinced that many Canadians would be ashamed to know that migrants who are incarcerated have fewer rights than those found guilty of actual crimes.

As I mentioned earlier, we are witnessing a movement, a desire for change, without precedent, both among our leaders and among the public.  But so much is left to be done. This is a movement that we hope will catapult human rights beyond tolerance and accommodation, into inclusion and acceptance.

As you have seen over the last few weeks, we are witnessing a rise in troubling and hateful discourse, and racist manifestations that have, as their only goals, to foster division and fear in others.

We have a responsibility to not ignore these stories. Our responsibility is to know them.  And your role is, and will be, to shed light on these stories and issues and to use your voice to counter attacks on our Canadian values.

But here’s the challenge: when we aren’t faced with stories like on a daily basis, or when they don’t affect someone we know, someone we are close to, we tend to ignore them, forget them, put them aside, and feel removed from them.

As a lawyer, you will have the obligation to walk a bit in another’s shoes. This should be a daily exercise.  By looking through the eyes of another.  Listening to them.  Being open to the stories that surround you.

Over the course of the last 26 years, one of the most important questions I asked my clients was this:  “tell me your story.” This allowed me to better understand them, to put myself in their shoes, if only for a moment, so that I could fully comprehend the very real challenges they were facing, and do a better job of lending them my voice.

This brings me to the last message I would like for you to remember:  don’t let yourself get discouraged.  Don’t get discouraged by the size of the human rights challenges ahead.  It only takes small gestures, and a bit of courage—the courage to not remain silent. 

We need to be intolerant of intolerance.  We need to call out all threats to our fundamental values, because otherwise, our silence would make us complicit.

Starting today, we need to stop, look around and act.  Each and every one of you, as students, and later, professionally, as lawyers, can make a difference — one act at a time.  No act is insignificant.  

And to properly represent and counsel your future clients, and to face injustice, you need to know the tools that are at your disposal.

Over the last few years, I have travelled across Canada with my team, from coast to coast to coast to discover these stories.  I wanted to hear about the experiences of those who work tooth and nail for human rights.  I wanted to hear from the very people who give voice to some of the most vulnerable people, right here in Canada.

They weren’t shy about telling me what they expected from the Commission.  They told me they need the Commission to:

  • Be bolder.
  • Use our national voice to more loudly and clearly denounce discrimination and intolerance.
  • Mobilize our different partners and groups to widely promote the respect of human rights.

I heard stories of violence, entrenched and serious discrimination, deficient services, difficulties in accessing our justice system, fear of reprisals—and all this here in Canada, in our own backyard.

But knowing and recognizing the problems is only the start.
I am convinced that Canada is a country made up of concerned citizens, capable of great compassion.

So, how can we get our fellow Canadians to a point where they can no longer tolerate the intolerable, and not stay silent in the face of situations that need to be denounced?

I had the pleasure to meet lawyer and author, David Matas – an ardent human rights defender.

I share his thinking about how we all face four enemies when it comes to maintaining human rights: indifference, hypocrisy, absolutism, and a sense of powerlessness.

Matas maintains that when discrimination is happening to “others,” it is easier for people do nothing. Often, when a problem seems so big as to be insurmountable, people will withdraw, feeling powerless.  And with this feeling of powerlessness, they risk to fall into indifference, or will search to justify their inaction.

Yet, through the years, I have come to see, as did David Matas, that when we get involved, we can incite change and make a difference.  You only need to see the recent accomplishment for the transgender community, with the inclusion of “gender identity or expression” as a new ground of discrimination in our human rights law.

This accomplishment would not have been possible without the dedicated fight led by so many individuals – individuals in the community, human rights defenders and defenders of trans rights, as well the work of human rights organizations and Parliamentarians.

Not to mention the thousands of people, who, through social media, letters, opinion pieces, calls to the MPs, continuously demanded this important change.

And so, I invite you too to be agents of change and to participate in the advancement and the protection of human rights as a universal value.

I am calling on you, not only as future lawyers, but as human beings.

You can make a difference. Get involved today by choosing simple acts that promote inclusion. 

Don’t let anyone push you to put aside your most important values—and the values of respect, inclusion and diversity, that are so integral to our country and our democracy. 

I would like to quote a friend, Catherine Fraser, Chief Justice of Alberta, who said to future jurists: 

“You may well be told what you do is about the law, not justice. I have never accepted this. I have always believed that if we are to retain public confidence, the application of the law to life should actually produce justice – and justice for all, not just some. You have power (...) to ensure that this goal is accomplished, strive to make it so.”

As law students, future lawyers and leaders in your communities, as people who are in a privileged position, you have an important role to play in our society, in ensuring the respect of human rights for all. 

Let me repeat – don’t think that you need extraordinary actions to initiate change.  It is the daily acts:  empathy, compassion, the refusal to accept intolerance, and other acts of kindness, no matter how small, that make a difference.

Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use the change the world.”

It is incumbent upon you, all of you, to use the education and talents you will develop over the course of your training, to become agents of change.  It is more important than ever.

I am convinced that your contribution will help us ensure that our country includes everyone, that our country remains strong because of its differences and diversity, protected from discrimination.

What can you do?  I invite you all to read and listen to the stories that surround you. They are there. You just need to take a moment.

And then after that? Share the stories. Amplify the voices of those who are not being heard—of those who entrust you with their stories.

If every person amplified the voice of another, if they shared just one story or celebrated the courage of one vulnerable person, I think that together these voices will bring about change.

I came here today with one wish:  that human rights become of part of your everyday lives. That human rights nourish in you the same passion they have in me. I hope that in years to come, your values will continue to be as much a source of passion as they were at the beginning of your careers.

I wish you the desire and ability to always make a difference.

I hope that your quest for justice—not just for some, but for all—will always be present in your lives, both professionally and personally. 

I invite you to participate in the human rights dialogue, and to follow me and the Commission on social media. Add your voice to the conversation.

To close, I can’t help but show you a short, yet compelling and powerful video about an extraordinary man. A man who is continuously searching for justice and reconciliation for his people and Canada. A man who says that at the heart of reconciliation… is love. 

The Indigenous elder, Chief Robert Joseph, represents, for me, a leader of peace, a role model and source of inspiration. He is the perfect example of how we can each contribute to positive change in our communities and our country.

Thank you for your warm welcome, and I wish you a wonderful start to your school year!

Thank you

 

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