Canadian reflections on 50 years of the U.S. Civil Rights Act: Speech by A/CC David Langtry

Speaking Notes for Mr. Langtry
2014 IAOHRA CONFERENCE
“50 Year of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: The Unfinished Agenda

San Diego, CA 
August 10, 2014
Approximately 15 minutes

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GREETINGS AND INTRO

Many thanks and good morning!

What a privilege it is to be here in beautiful San Diego among so many esteemed colleagues. 

The promotion and protection of human rights is what brings us together. 

I am honoured and delighted to be participating in this conference with others who share a passion and commitment to human rights issues. 

As many or all of you know, Canada is a federal state. Our human rights institutions are spread across ten provinces and three territories, as well as the federal jurisdiction.

While I am Acting Chief Commissioner of the federal body, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, I am also serving as President of the organization that brings all Canada’s human rights commissions together – the Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies (or CASHRA) and it is in this capacity that I am speaking to you today.

50th ANNIVERSARY OF CIVIL RIGHTS ACT

It is a particular honour for me, as a Canadian, to share in your celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

The Civil Rights Movement had enormous impact not only on the United States, but on Canada, too.

As we know, the sixties was a period of broad social change all over the world.

It was in the sixties that Canada began to create its human rights laws and found institutions to administer them, finally giving flesh and form to the aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1960, the federal government introduced Canada's first Bill of Rights.

It laid the foundation for what later was to become the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, enshrined in Canada’s Constitution in 1982.

Just five years earlier, in 1977, the Canadian Parliament had enacted the Canadian Human Rights Act.

The Canadian Human Rights Act provides protection against discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, national origin and six other grounds.

The values enshrined in Canada’s human rights laws carry echoes of the 1964 Civil Rights Act

These laws have been responsible for positive social change, and the elimination of many barriers to equality.

But while I am proud of what we have achieved, equality is still elusive for many individuals and groups in Canada.

For example our research shows people with disabilities face persistent barriers to employment, education and social inclusion.

But no other group faces conditions of persistent disadvantage as much as Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

In fact, I have said before and I will repeat again today, that the challenges facing Aboriginal peoples are among the most pressing, if not the most pressing human rights issues facing Canada today.

MURDERED AND MISSING

Our research confirms that Aboriginal people in Canada lag behind all other adults in terms of almost every indicator of socio-economic well-being – whether education, employment, health or access to justice.

Violence and abuse towards Indigenous women and girls is particularly distressing.

This past May, the RCMP – our federal police – confirmed that the numbers are far worse than imagined: there are almost 1,200 cases of murdered or missing Aboriginal women and girls in Canada in the past 30 years.

The allegation has been made, and I believe this must be investigated, that numbers like these would never have been tolerated in a white, urban context. Something is clearly wrong.

All of Canada’s human rights commissions, through CASHRA, have joined the provincial and territorial governments in calling for a national public inquiry. 

We will continue to do so for we must get to the root causes of these disturbing facts.

TRUTH AND RECONCILATION

Sadly, violent treatment of vulnerable Aboriginal people – especially children – was a long and unbroken tradition in Canada.

I am referring to a 140-year system of forcibly taking Aboriginal children out of their homes and communities and sending them to Victorian style boarding schools where they were routinely abused by the very instructors charged with their care.

More than 150,000 children passed through this traumatic experience.

This is one of the darkest chapters in Canada’s human rights history.

The Residential school system has caused endemic, intergenerational trauma.

Thousands and thousands of Aboriginal children grew up without the love of their parents. When they in turn became parents, they lacked the basic psychological and behavioral skills for the job.

This has left horrible scars – including drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, and chronic marginalization. 

Here in the United States, the painful story of the slave-trade has long been taught in schools. I am sure few Americans grow up without awareness of this history.

But few Canadians know about Indian residential schools, or that they were funded by the federal government, as part of official government policy to force assimilation, and [quote] “kill the Indian in the child.”

Canada has only recently begun to unearth this part of its history. The truth is finally being brought to light.

That’s been the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – created as part of a class-action settlement brought on behalf of some 80,000 survivors of the schools.

By giving survivors a chance to tell their stories, and by investigating historic archives long kept hidden, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made strides towards reconciliation.

As an honourary witness this year at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final national event, I made a personal commitment to continue telling the story – in my professional life, in my personal life, and at venues such as this one today.

Through CASHRA, we will continue to push to have the history of the residential schools become a mandatory component of school curricula across Canada, so that every Canadian child grows up knowing their country’s FULL history, even the shameful chapters. 

The hope is that by knowing the full history, a greater understanding and empathy with Aboriginal peoples can be possible.

For only when all of a country’s inhabitants can sit at the table as equal partners, and truly be included and valued, can a country realize its full potential. 

CASHRA CONFERENCE

These were among the themes of the CASHRA conference, which I hosted and chaired in our Nation’s Capital this past June. 

People from across the country came together to raise awareness about human rights and shed light on emerging issues.

Issues such as the rights of people living with mental disabilities, the treatment of inmates in our prison system who have mental disabilities, and the right of employees to balance their work responsibilities with their family caregiving needs.

The conference was entitled “Accommodation Works – Towards an inclusive society.” 

We talked about what an inclusive society means to us, and what that vision should look like.  

I’ll repeat what I said to our Ottawa audience: that inclusion does not mean forcing people to hide or deny their differences. 

On the contrary, it means recognizing and celebrating those differences, and creating a culture of inclusion. 

To cite the words of Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “….our job is social inclusion.”

I could not agree more.

I look forward to renewing connections with you, and gaining new insights to bring home to my colleagues in Canada.

Thank you.

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