Chief Commissioner speaks at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly

Speaking notes for

Marie-Claude Landry, Ad. E.

Chief Commissioner
Canadian Human Rights Commission


Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly
Shaping our Future and Closing the Gap: Reconciliation, Rights, Relationships


Gatineau, Quebec
Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Thank you for the kind introduction.

Good morning. It is a pleasure to be here among so many esteemed colleagues on the traditional territory of the Algonquin people.

I would like to thank National Chief Perry Bellegarde for inviting me to be a part of your discussions today.

As the Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, I am honoured to be speaking with you at this juncture, which I believe will mark a new era in the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada.

I feel particularly fortunate to be in a position to speak to you about child welfare, as it is such an important human rights issue.

Child welfare reminds all of us just how important human rights protections are to the people among us who are the most vulnerable – our children.

I must tell you that I feel truly honoured to be speaking with you today.

I have only been the head of Canada’s national human rights institution for nine months, but I can tell you there is a renewed sense of optimism among the groups that I have met with.

...a sense that many of the pressing issues that have been ignored are now central to the Government’s mandate.

Again, I believe we are witnessing the dawn of a new era for human rights in Canada.

...One where government is actively pursuing solutions to improve life for people living in vulnerable circumstances.

...One where more people in Canada are aware of our shared past and acknowledge the legacy of trauma created by Indian Residential Schools.

...One where the Government has committed to forge a new relationship with Indigenous peoples.

It is also a new era at the Canadian Human Rights Commission. We are committed to being an independent and outspoken national voice on all human rights issues in Canada.

I know that it takes action – not words – to build trust. And I believe that trust is a gift given from one person to another.

I will work hard to turn words into action. It is my hope that one day you will give me the gift of your trust.

Today, I want to speak about the child welfare case. The upcoming [Canadian Human Rights] Tribunal decision could impact funding for child welfare services. But it may also impact how the Government funds a whole range of services in First Nations communities.

Before I explain why, I would like to tell you about the journey I have been on over the past nine months. I was appointed the head of Canada’s national human rights institution this past March. Since then, I have met with over 125 organizations representing vulnerable groups. I met with them to find out what they expect from me and the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

One of the first of these meetings was with National Chief Bellegarde.

People were happy to share their opinions and ideas. And I have heard them loud and clear.

We have already begun work to make the Commission the organization that people in Canada want us to be.

We will use our expertise to contribute to public policy and social change.

We will adapt our complaint processes to resolve issues fairly, effectively and quickly.

We will adjust our processes to make it accessible to the people we are here to help.

In short, we will put people first in everything we do - every direction every action, every decision.

This involves lending our voice to join others who speak out on behalf of people in vulnerable circumstances – people who do not have a voice, such as vulnerable children.

On the morning after the election, I called on the government to: “repair the erosion of human rights in Canada.”

I outlined the most pressing human issues facing Canada today.

I called for action to address the injustice and inequality that so many people in Canada continue to face.

Here are a few highlights.

I called on the government:

  • to convene a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and develop a national action plan;
  • to ensure that all people in Canada have access to safe drinking water and adequate housing; and
  • to end the inequitable funding of child welfare services and schools on First Nations reserves.

Now, I said that I believed we were at the dawn of a new era.

For the first time in history, an Indigenous woman has been appointed Minister of Justice.

And many of the most pressing human rights issues facing Canada are among the top priorities outlined in her mandate letter.

I also think it is encouraging that a Prime Minister addressed the entire Assembly yesterday for the first time in well over a decade.

And that he made it clear that he will immediately move to turn his five campaign promises into action.

At the same time, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has raised public awareness and has challenged many to take a closer look at the racist attitudes that continue to exist in this country.

We all have a role to play in reconciliation.

I believe that many Canadians acknowledge the past and are ready for reconciliation.

Of course, reconciliation must include a future where people in vulnerable circumstances are protected and have the same opportunities as everyone else. For example, this would include fully implementing Jordan’s Principle in the spirit it was intended.

This brings me to the child welfare case.

As most of you know, this complaint was brought to the Canadian Human Rights Commission by the [First Nations Child and Family] Caring Society and the AFN in 2007.

The complaint alleged that child welfare services on reserves are underfunded, which results in a greater number of First Nations children being placed in foster care.

The Commission referred the complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for a hearing.

The Commission participated in the Tribunal hearings.

In fact, we invested significant time and resources into arguing this case because we believe that a child growing up on a reserve deserves the same opportunities in life as every other child in Canada.

In our view, that is what the right to equality means.

This case has been long and difficult and has involved numerous legal challenges and delays.

Dr. Blackstock, congratulations on the special honouring you received yesterday.I want to tell you that I have the deepest respect for the work you do. Your courage and determination in fighting for the rights of children is an inspiration and a model for everyone.

Indigenous children and their families have suffered for too long from the effects of inequitable funding.

We are expecting a decision from the Tribunal any day and I am optimistic that they will rule in favour of the children.

Improved services are vital to ensuring that more families are able to focus on healing.

They deserve support to get through the very situations that cause child welfare services to become involved in the first place.

We should have a country where everyone is included. Where all children are treated equally.

Every child – no matter who they are or where they live – deserves the same opportunity to grow up safe, with the love and support of their family and their community.

But the decision also has the potential to help families well before they are in crisis.

The impact of this decision could be far-reaching. It could change how the government funds a whole range of services in First Nations communities. Services like education, healthcare, housing, policing, and support for people with disabilities.

Services that are vital to strong communities and healthy families.

Services that are essential to keeping people out of vulnerable circumstances.

If ever there was a time when Canada could make meaningful strides towards equality for Indigenous peoples, it is now.

Of course, meaningful change will require collaboration. And it will require a great deal of trust.

Working together, we can achieve so much more. I believe there is an opportunity to “close the gap” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.

The road ahead looks easier than it has in the past, but we must remain vigilant.

For our part, the Commission will continue to be an independent voice for human rights.

We will be vocal on pressing human rights issues.

We will hold governments to account for the equality rights of all people in Canada.

We will work collaboratively, with you, with government and with other stakeholders to promote and protect human rights.

In conclusion, ensuring that all Indigenous children and families have equal access to services is vital to the health of this country.

Canada can only realize its full potential when everyone is included and valued.

It starts with the children.

Because when we protect the rights of children, we protect the future of our communities and our country.

Thank you, merci, meegwetch.

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