Updated: November 17, 2021
B.C. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender issued the following statement regarding the introduction of Bill 18, which adds Indigenous identity as a protected ground against discrimination in B.C.’s Human Rights Code, and Bill 29, which amends the Interpretation Act pursuant to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“I first want to acknowledge the ways in which the systemic racism faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada is the product of colonization and the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands and cultures.
We know that Indigenous people face significant human rights issues here in B.C.—from over incarceration to the continued overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care—and yet the numbers show us that Indigenous people are largely not accessing the human rights system to resolve their human rights issues. It is clear that Indigenous people carry an abiding sense of exclusion from the very system that is supposed to serve them. Indigenous people report feeling that the discrimination and exclusion they face in their daily lives is reflected and replicated in the human rights system itself, for example in structures that do not reflect their collective rights or foundational beliefs. Ultimately, as Justice Ardith Walkem wrote in her Expanding our vision report, there can be no true justice where Indigenous people feel that there is no recourse for violations of their basic human rights.
Bill 18 will change B.C.’s Human Rights Code to explicitly include Indigenous identity as a protected ground. Alongside Indigenous leadership and the Human Rights Tribunal, my Office has been calling for this change and I applaud today’s announcement. The addition of Indigenous identity as a protected ground in the Human Rights Code is one important step towards transforming this system to make it more inclusive and accessible to Indigenous peoples. Similarly, the steps taken today to amend the Interpretation Act send a significant signal that Indigenous rights—as enshrined in international human rights law, the Constitution and provincial law—play an important role in interpreting all other legislation.
There are also many other crucial steps ahead of us in realizing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (Declaration Act). Given the overrepresentation of Indigenous people living in poverty, the inclusion of ‘social condition’ is also, in my view, essential to ensuring that the human rights system reflects and includes the experiences of Indigenous people. The exclusion of social condition from the Human Rights Code means that discrimination on the basis of poverty or homelessness is currently not prohibited by law. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples demands that Indigenous people be free from discrimination of all kinds, and yet discrimination on the basis of Indigenous identity and poverty are often difficult to disentangle, which can make protection against discrimination difficult to achieve. Inclusion of social condition in the Code will be an important next step to ensure that our human rights system is effective in protecting and promoting the human rights of everyone, including those most marginalized among us.
Today’s announcements are important steps in fulfilling the commitments of the Declaration Act and I applaud them. Together we’ve taken a step to make the human rights system more accessible and inclusive to Indigenous people, but we have further to go. The Declaration Act can be transformative and the task ahead is to realize this transformative potential.
Let us not underestimate both the need and the vision required to breathe life into these commitments.”
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