OTTAWA — As the temperature rises in debates about separatist sentiment in the West and legally enforced secularism in Quebec, minorities and Indigenous communities alike in Canada could be left more vulnerable, says the vice-president of the Metis National Council.
Speaking at a national conference this week in Ottawa, David Chartrand said Metis communities are looking to find opportunities for growth and prosperity, but the gathering stormclouds give him concern for his own people and for minorities and refugees.
“The country of Canada is changing and it’s getting scary, a little bit. What is going to happen to all of us as this country changes?” he asked, pointing to Quebec’s law banning some civil servants from wearing religious symbols and the ”Wexit” movement in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
That’s why the Metis National Council wants to spark a new conversation — one that encourages Metis communities and visible-minority groups and individuals from across Canada to join forces to champion human rights and push for greater educational and economic opportunities.
Chartrand kicked off the two-day conference saying Canada needs immigrants more than ever to support economic development. But a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States has him concerned about how this could seep into the Canadian discourse and what it could mean for minorities and racialized communities in Canada.
“You’re going to say to yourself, what do I do for the black community, or the Indo-Canadians or the Chinese? What do you do for the Metis, the First Nations? These are all minorities, what do you do for them in this country of Canada? Do you stand alone and fight alone?” he said.
“We need to figure out how do we collaborate, ourselves as minorities,” Chartrand said.
Barriers that continue to exist for Indigenous people and racialized groups is one area in dire need of redress, notably in the way laws are made and enforced in Canada, said Jean Teillet, a Metis Indigenous-rights lawyer who is also a great-grandniece of Louis Riel.
Indigenous nations are “sometimes” consulted when laws are created in Ottawa, she said, but she believes First Nations should have more authority over laws that govern themselves, their lands and their resources.
She pointed to the case in which farmer Gerald Stanley was acquitted by an all-white jury in Saskatchewan of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Colten Boushie, an Indigenous man.
She also highlighted the Cindy Gladue trial, where the Cree woman’s preserved pelvic tissue was presented as evidence in court in the case against Ontario truck driver Bradley Barton. Barton was acquitted in her death, which followed a severe injury during sexual activity, but the Supreme Court ordered last spring that he be retried for manslaughter. The case also raised questions about how the courts talk about Indigenous women, especially sex workers.
“There are some horrific, horrific stories going in this country about injustice to Indigenous peoples right now,” Teillet said.
“Justice is not working for us … Justice needs significant work in this country.”
That’s why Teillet is calling for the Law Reform Commission of Canada to be restored. This independent federal agency, whose mandate was to advise Parliament regularly on how to modernize and improve Canada’s laws, was de-funded by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2006. But legislation remains in place for it to be revived.
“It just needs to be funded and set back up again, and we need to do that,” Teillet said. ”We are in desperate need of law reform in this country.”
Anthony Morgan, a Toronto-based human rights lawyer and racial-justice advocate, said important discussions are also needed in bridging the gap between black communities and people of African descent and the wider Canadian population.
He noted the often shared experiences of black and Indigenous people — both are over-represented in prisons, in the justice system and in the child-welfare system.
One way to address these imbalances could be to create a federal ministry for people of African descent, Morgan suggested.
“There is this two-century-long history that black communities have suffered and continue to suffer and experiencing the legacies of that has not been properly accounted for,” he said.
“The only way for us to really come to terms with it, for us to really think about how we fix it across this country, one of the many ways, is through having this ministry.”
But a move like this will never happen without the support of other minority communities, including First Nations, Morgan said.
These kinds of innovative ideas are a good first step, Chartrand said, but the Metis National Council hopes more can be explored and debated.
“If we get anything from this, it’s the development of bringing relations together, opening the ability for us to start to talk … minority to minority, culture to culture. If we can get that happening amongst ourselves (we can) start the trend towards a second conference and embrace more people to us and say to them we want to work with everyone in this country.”