Closing remarks: National Black Canadians Summit
Marie-Claude Landry, Ad. E.
Chief Commissioner Canadian Human Rights Commission
Panel: Setting the Bar on Human Rights: Key Cases in African Nova Scotian Communities
National Black Canadians Summit
Organized by the Michaëlle Jean Foundation & hosted by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission
July 29, 2022
2:00 to 4:00 p.m. Atlantic Time
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I am honoured to have been invited to share some final words after such a powerful discussion. As an ally, I deeply appreciate the opportunity and privilege to have listened and learned from the powerful testimonies we just heard.
I would like to begin with some notes of thanks.
First, thank you to all the participants and organizers who made this possible today.
I especially want to acknowledge the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission for bringing us together.
A special thanks to Mohammed Hashim, Joseph Fraser and Myrlande Pierre, for your thoughtful reflections.
And most especially, I want to express my gratitude to Mr Symonds, Mr Johnson, and Reverend Dr. Lennett Anderson.
Your courage and resilience will stay with us. Each of you has left a permanent footprint on the arc of progress in Canada.
It is thanks to your bravery and strength that our country has taken important steps forward toward dismantling systemic racism. And we thank you.
I have always held a set of core values and beliefs that have shaped my entire life as a fierce ally and advocate for anti-racism, for inclusion, and for access to justice for all.
Access to justice for all.
It is a phrase we use a lot.
But we do not always stop to think about what it really means.
What it means to truly achieve access to justice.
And what it means to have to fight for it.
As I listened to the powerful accounts of lived-experience that were shared with us today, I reflected on how for many racialized groups in Canada, accessing justice takes courage.
It takes incredible courage to even consider engaging a system steeped in colonial history and tradition.
That’s why hearing from Mr Symonds, Mr Johnson, and Reverend Dr. Lennett Anderson is so important.
Your courage will help carve a path for others to follow. So that one by one, and as a collective, these cases can bring about incremental change that will help dismantle systemic racism in Canada.
Still though, case law is not a panacea.
History has shown that there is a symbiotic relationship in how case law influences social progress, and how social progress can sway the courts.
I always liked how Canadian lawyer and author David Matas puts it.
“Every court case on a human rights issue means appearing in two courts at once: a court of law and a court of public opinion. In a human rights case, the battle of public opinion can be won even if the court case is lost. The injustice of a bad court result may mobilize the government to action it had not intended before court proceedings.”
I believe Mr. Matas is right. I believe we need both: the court system and the court of public opinion, working together to create change.
And as advocates, we have two responsibilities in all this.
One: break the silence and push for greater awareness among people in Canada that:
- that systemic racism is very much a Canadian reality;
- that anti-Black racism, specifically, is deeply rooted in Canadian society;
- that it is deeply imbedded into our institutions, our social norms, our national psyche;
- that it often manifests itself in an unconscious, unintentional and stereotypical manner;
- and that it carries layers of psychological and sociological impacts.
Dismantling systemic racism begins with acknowledging that it exists. And there is still a lot of work to be done to bring about that awareness.
While we push these important messages as advocates, we need to also keep pushing the court system to imbed these facts and principles into the Canadian public record through our case law.
This is especially important because as we all know, compared to other forms of discrimination, racism is a far more complex social phenomenon and construct.
It can be difficult to prove, to track, to lay evidence for.
That is why provincial decisions — like these Nova Scotian decisions we heard about today — are crucial.
At the federal level, they help us strengthen our arguments in cases of racism. Cases like Turner, like Davis.
Another example of what I am talking about is from Ontario.
For decades, a 1993 Ontario decision known as Parks has been “the” go-to case when arguing for systemic and unconscious racial bias, especially toward Black people. As recently as 2020, we were still relying on the Parks decision.
But now there is a newer decision we all can turn to.
It is the Morris decision by the Ontario Superior Court in 2021.
At the heart of this case was the issue of disproportionate sentencing of Black people in the Canadian prison system.
This specific case looked at the over-sentencing of Mr. Morris.
While the Morris decision has been criticized for not going far enough, there is no arguing that this decision has given Canada’s courts and tribunals a powerful body of content to turn to for future cases that look at anti-Black racism.
But perhaps the most significant thing in the Morris decision is the comprehensive report that was included as an Appendix.
This report is unprecedented.
It offers a brief but eloquent history of systemic anti-Black racism in Canada.
The Ontario Court of Appeal even stated in its decision that:
“The report gave the trial judge the benefit of a scholarly, comprehensive, and compelling description of the widespread and pernicious effect of anti-Black racism.”
The trial judge observed that the report helped him understand how Mr. Morris ended up where he did.
This is a significant moment in Canadian legal history.
The Morris decision provides precedent that all future human rights cases must be considered with a keen understanding of the complex structure, and often unconscious nature of racism.
Decisions like these are proof that we will always need strong case-law in Canada to move the needle of progress forward.
But as I said before, case law alone is not a panacea.
Without a growing public awareness about systemic racism and its deep roots in Canada, and without strong community allyship, our laws and legal decisions risk becoming just words on paper.
So as I conclude, I will invite us all to keep in mind that the power of community-building, awareness-building, and allyship are equal to the role of case-law in dismantling systemic racism in Canada.
Because at the end of the day, laws alone do not transform a society...
It is why community building and allyship have been so integral to the Commission, always.
But especially in recent years as we have bolstered our efforts to advance anti racism across our various roles.
We are grateful to be able to work with a community of stakeholders who continue to support and inform the anti-racism actions we have been implementing in our work as a human rights advocate…as a service provider and regulator… and as a federally regulated employer.
We will continue to rely on that invaluable feedback always. Because this kind of work, by nature, must be ongoing.
It is why conversations like this are so important.
We need to keep encouraging strong allies in positions of power and influence to do their part in amplifying the voices of those who may not have the energy to keep fighting alone.
We need to keep validating the courage it takes to go through a system that is often too complex and deeply rooted in colonial history and tradition.
We must continue to push for every person in Canada to be able to see themselves in the human rights system, to be able to use it in a meaningful way, and to trust that it will result in a meaningful outcome.
This is what access to justice means.
So we must not lose momentum.
These are critical times.
We must honour the courage of Mister Symonds, Mister Johnson and Reverend Doctor Lennett Anderson.
I am grateful for what you have shared with us today, and for everything I have learned.
I encourage all people in Canada, and especially non racialized people, to be an ally and commit themselves to listening, learning and taking meaningful action.
Thank you all.
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