OPINION: Understanding racism requires leaving your comfort zone, according to Ontario Human Rights Commissioners
By: Renu Mandhane and Maurice Switzer
TIMMINS — In February, Joey Knapaysweet, 21, and Angnes Sutherland, 62, both from Fort Albany First Nation, died in separate incidents involving the Timmins Police Service. Both incidents are being examined by the Special Investigations Unit. The deaths galvanized a community where Mayor Steve Black said a police gun had not been fired in the line of duty in 34 years.
In the wake of these tragic incidents, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon, and Fort Albany Chief Andrew Solomon issued a statement saying that they were "shocked," and they wonder whether “systemic racism” contributed to the deaths. They lamented that “our people must continually leave their families and communities to come to cities to seek services that are not available in their respective communities." Fort Albany is some 400 kilometres north of Timmins.
One month later, we led an Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) delegation to Timmins and the surrounding area as part of our commitment to reconciliation. In the past couple of years, we have been to Thunder Bay, North Bay, Kenora, Sioux Lookout, Fort Francis, and Dryden.
While our trip was planned in advance of the recent deaths, we knew when we left Toronto that our statutory authority to inquire into incidents of tension or conflict would be engaged. We wanted to explore the systemic barriers that require people to access services far from home, determine whether there was possible systemic discrimination in service delivery, and understand people’s lived experiences of racism. “Systemic discrimination” refers to patterns of behaviour, policies or practices that are part of the social or administrative structures of an organization, and which create or perpetuate a position of relative disadvantage for groups identified under the Ontario Human Rights Code.
As of 2016, just over 11 per cent of the population of Timmins identifies as Aboriginal. This is more than double the national average. Timmins is a service hub for First Nations people, including residents of James Bay Cree coastal communities. People come to Timmins to access health care, social services, and higher education at Northern College.
We spoke with local Indigenous communities and organizations, as well as people in Moosonee and Moose Factory. People identified a number of current examples of systemic discrimination, including inadequacies in the administration of justice, health care (especially care that is culturally appropriate and geographically close at hand), mental health care, education, and child welfare.
People also raised local concerns. We heard about overzealous enforcement of public health regulations by the Porcupine Health Unit that often posed a barrier to serving traditional Indigenous foods at gatherings. We heard that the local hospital’s Cree translators were only available to people who were admitted from out of town. We heard that some Indigenous children taken into care were sent to Sarnia (nearly 1,000 kilometers away) because there were too few approved Indigenous foster parents due to rules that require foster children to have separate bedrooms.
People also recounted individual experiences of racism. When asked if racism was a daily experience, they answered “of course” or “it’s a normal part of living in town.” They noted that people perceived to be Indigenous based on stereotypes about appearance, dress or name were often singled out for adverse treatment. People noted that discrimination in housing is pervasive. There were stories about racial profiling in malls and stores — being followed by security or hassled when using a status card. One person told us about racist comments voiced to participants during the Mushkegowuk Cup, an annual minor hockey tournament involving Cree children and youth.
People expressed a general, abiding mistrust of police. When asked why, they pointed to the legacy of residential schools, high-profile incidents involving the Thunder Bay Police Service, and the perception that Indigenous youth are targeted for disproportionate police attention.
These conversations were foremost on our minds when we said that racism is pervasive and normalized for Indigenous people in Timmins.
Our delegation also met with leaders in education, child welfare, health, policing, and social services. We raised some of the concerns we heard, but talking about racism seemed to make people uncomfortable or defensive.
We asked institutions about their commitment to reconciliation. We quoted from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, which urges all levels of government to educate and train public servants on the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Aboriginal-Crown relations, intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.
In response, some institutions mentioned that their strategic plans contain commitments to “diversity.” Some pointed to a committee that meets infrequently. Few institutions could demonstrate any meaningful action. While touring the Timmins and District Hospital, we visited the Aboriginal Healing Room, also called the “Spiritual Place.” It was beautiful, featuring work by Indigenous artists, but there were french fries and litter strewn on the floor. When we asked to smudge, staff struggled to access sage and matches.
We also visited a well-maintained chapel.
With the notable exception of the local public school board director, there was no real sense of urgency in terms of investigating issues or understanding concerns about Indigenous peoples, and taking action to tackle them.
Only Mayor Black seemed genuinely interested in reconciliation. He referenced a commitment in the city’s 2020 strategic plan. He was distressed by the recent deaths and concerns about racism. He said that good relations with Indigenous peoples were essential to the city’s long-term prosperity. The mayor and council can do more, and we call on the City of Timmins to provide adequate resources and take the following steps within the next year:
First, respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.
Second, create, in partnership with Indigenous leaders, a standing committee to facilitate honest and respectful dialogue about issues of mutual concern.
Third, recruit a municipal team to take action on racism, lead anti-racism initiatives that engage the entire community (Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike), and publicly report on the state of human rights.
On March 27, city council will consider Mayor Black’s proposals to: create a First Nations advisory committee; host training for cultural sensitivity and awareness; create a leadership forum so municipal and First Nation leaders will meet regularly; and permanently raise three flags at city hall for the Mattagami First Nation, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, and the Métis Nation of Ontario.
In our meeting with the Timmins Police Service, we asked about their reconciliation efforts. We learned that their Aboriginal Advisory Committee, led by a non-Indigenous retired OPP officer, meets four times a year. The deputy chief could not tell us about the committee’s mandate or to whom it reports. When asked whether a special meeting had been called after the recent deaths to address community concerns, the answer was no. When asked how officers were feeling after concerns about systemic racism were raised by Indigenous leaders, one member of the senior command said that he was “insulted.” On advice of their communications manager, the officers refused to acknowledge Knapaysweet and Sutherland’s names. In a March 21 email, Timmins Police Chief John Gauthier said he would be interested in future training by the OHRC.
A local resident recently wrote to the Timmins Press to say that he felt “victimized” by the OHRC’s suggestion that racism is pervasive and normalized in Timmins. Another reader wrote to say that he had “witnessed more discrimination and racial slurs in eight years [in Timmins] than I ever did in 25 years living in Yellowknife.” He added: “People are not even discreet about it.”
Of course not every person in Timmins is a racist. The point is to step outside one’s comfort zone to understand that racism is an everyday reality for some members of the community and to acknowledge that they are the victims.
The letters to the Timmins Press represent two divergent reactions to the issue of anti-Indigenous racism. A step towards reconciliation would be for the people who identify with either of these views to start talking to one another, and for the City of Timmins to facilitate those conversations. In the end, dialogue is what true reconciliation requires at both a personal and institutional level. For our part, the OHRC is happy to help support this critical process.
Renu Mandhane is the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and Maurice Switzer is a part-time Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.