Canada needs a National Anti-Racism Commissioner
There are human rights commissions in every province, but not at the federal level. The authors argue for a coordinated and horizontal approach such as a National Anti-Racism Commissioner who would be accountable to Parliament.
Although Black History Month – a time to recognize and celebrate the historic contributions of the black community while reflecting on anti-black racism – is now behind us, the struggle to deconstruct the systems that brought us to this point is in progress.
Racism is not just an individual problem; it is a systemic problem, and systemic problems require systemic solutions. The Government of Canada has regularly created commissions and commissioners to bring about systemic change, such as the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, and the Official Languages Commissioner.
These commissioners have played a vital role in making Canada a better country and an inclusive society — a well-deserved reputation, in some cases. These institutions report primarily to Parliament, and their mandates invariably influence how Canadians interact with each other and with the world.
In response to growing anti-Asian hatred and the overrepresentation of racialized people in prisons, last October the Government of New Brunswick appointed Manju Varma as the first Independent Anti-Racism Commissioner.
Its mandate includes holding public consultations and gathering information on the extent and impact of systemic racism in the province. She will present a final report and recommendations in September.
It is time, however, for Canada to have an Anti-Racism Commissioner to tackle head-on the scourge of racism across the country, who, like other federal commissioners, should also be accountable to the Parliament of Canada. .
It would also honor the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – to know, the “The inherent dignity and worth of the human person, the equal dignity and worth of all persons and the right of minorities to protection and fair employment opportunities.”
A call to action
For the first time in Canadian history, Ian Shugart, then Clerk of the Privy Council of Canada (Canada’s chief bureaucrat), publicly acknowledged in a Nov. 2021 Call to action that ahen we focus on the fight against racism, it is not enough to simply equip ourselves with knowledge and tools.
“We must take action in a way that we know will be meaningful to overcome all obstacles and disadvantages… Inaction is not an option,” said Shugart, Canada’s former senior civil servant.
This is perhaps Shugart’s most important legacy: recognize the need for systemic change and move away from the vanilla perspective of equality, multiculturalism and diversity that are supposed to be at the heart of Canadian values.
In response to Shugart’s call, anti-racism secretariats were created in the Department of National Defense; Global Affairs Canada; Justice Canada; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada; Infrastructure and heritage. No doubt others will follow.
What is missing, however, is the focal point that an anti-racism commissioner can provide that will help Canada move from goodwill to societal transformation.
It is time for the Prime Minister to use his influence and his legislative ability to establish an office that can bring about the changes that many Canadians want to see. We owe it to ourselves and to our children.
Undertones of racism and intolerance
The so-called “freedom convoy” that wreaked havoc in Ottawa and at border points between the United States and Canada was more than a protest against COVID vaccination mandates; there was an undertone of racism and intolerance the likes of which had never been seen in Canada.
Some observers believe it is the tip of the spear of a more insidious far-right movement in this country. Today, old-fashioned overt racism has taken the form of subtle, rationalized indirect bigotry, sometimes masked under the banner of “freedom.”
Clearly, the “freedom convoy”, as well as other events over the past two years, have shown that Canada’s current laws and institutions have failed Blacks, Indigenous peoples and people of color.
Despite the existence of the Charter of Rights and Freedomsthe Canadian Human Rights Actprovincial human rights codes, Employment Equity Act for federally regulated employers, the Equal Pay Guidelines and the creation of human rights commissions in each province and at the federal level, little has changed for racialized Canadians.
For many Canadians, the brutality of oppression and racism is a daily occurrence. The federal government must break this endless cycle and fulfill the promise made long ago in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, to which Canada is a signatory:Considering that recognition of the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.
It is ironic that Canadian human rights laws stem from this 74-year-old statement in which John Humphrey, a Canadian lawyer, played a central role in writing.
Former Senator Murray Sinclair, Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, defined systemic racism as “…when the system itself is grounded and grounded in racist beliefs, philosophies and thoughts and has implemented policies and practices that literally force even non-racists to act racistly.”
Horizontal and coordinated approach
Systemic racism is evident in all facets of Canadian society. It is persistent and pervasive, leading to and sustaining social inequalities between generations of marginalized groups.
The scourge of racism may not go away in our lifetime, but putting institutions in place to stay vigilant is an important step.
Our collective greatness will be judged by our ability to be truly inclusive, diverse, equitable and anti-racist. An Anti-Racism Commissioner would represent the first-ever horizontal and coordinated approach between the federal and provincial levels to combat racism.
This cannot be done by a single government department, such as Heritage Canada. It must be part of the accountability system of the Parliament of Canada to achieve the shared Canadian vision of an inclusive and equitable society and a sustainable economy for all citizens.
When he led the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr. described “the fierce urgency of the moment.” The same can be said of the need for a new way to combat racism in Canada and its many institutions.
The virus of racism infects us all. Creating an Anti-Racism Commissioner to stamp out this virus will allow all Canadians to move forward — together.
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