Five Good Ideas

Listening and learning – Indigenous Peoples and human rights

Published on 30/04/2018

Commissioners Karen Drake (citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario) and Maurice Switzer (citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation) of the Ontario Human Rights Commission joined Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane to discuss ways to move forward with human rights in the era of reconciliation and nation-to-nation relationship building. The ideas presented can help organizations of all sizes to either make first steps or continue the conversation along the path to reconciliation.

A note from Karen Drake:
During the program, I forgot to explain the source of my understanding of the story of “Nanaboozhoo and the Maple Trees.” I first came across this story in an article by Lana Ray & Paul Nicholas Cormier, who are from Lake Helen First Nation. My understanding has been shaped by their discussion in their article: Lana Ray & Paul Nicholas Cormier, “Killing the Weendigo with Maple Syrup: Anishinaabe Pedagogy and Post-Secondary Research” (2012) 35:1 Can J Native Education 163 at 165, citing Michael J Caduto & Joseph Bruchac, Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children (Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 1989) at 145.

Good Ideas
Note: Only four ideas are presented, based on the “principle of four” that is so important in Indigenous culture.

  1. RESPECT: Learn about Canada’s history and the responsibilities of our collective treaty relationship with Indigenous Peoples, and the perspective and experiences Indigenous Peoples bring to this relationship.
  2. HONESTY: Begin by humbly acknowledging what you don’t know, and making a commitment to work with the Indigenous community to fill in the missing knowledge.
  3. SHARING: Share in the responsibility for reconciliation by making a commitment to act on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, including honouring the treaty promises made to share the land and its resources to ensure that everyone can share in Canada’s prosperity.
  4. STRENGTH: Combine the lessons learned and the steps taken through respect, honesty and sharing, to make your commitment to reconciliation, an ongoing process of moving forward together as genuine treaty partners, travelling on separate paths but with a joint purpose to make Canada the best country it can be.


  1. Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action
  2. Call it Out: Racism, Racial Discrimination and Human Rights (OHRC eLearning program)
  3. Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres Cultural Competency Training
  4. We Are All Treaty People by Maurice Switzer, illustrated by Charley Herbert, available in bookstores and can be ordered from the Union of Ontario Indians office, 705-497-9127
  5. A First Nations Grandmother, Josephine Mandamin, from Manitoulin Island, who walked around the Great Lakes talks about importance of water

Full session transcript 

Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Elizabeth McIsaac. I’m with Maytree, and welcome to Five Good Ideas. I think that we have a number of new faces in the room today, so welcome to you. For those of you who have been here before, you know that this looks like a bit of a different setup, and we’ll explain that in a little bit. But I’d like to begin by acknowledging that we’re on the historical territory of the Huron-Wendat, Petun, Seneca, and most recently the Mississaugas of the New Credit Indigenous Peoples. The territory is covered by The Dish with One Spoon wampum belt covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the Ojibway and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the lands and resources around the Great Lakes.

As we begin, and in order to begin, I’d like to turn it over to Maurice Switzer, who’s one of the Commissioners of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, who is one of our speakers for today, and he’s going to lead us in a smudging ceremony. So over to Maurice.

[Maurice]: Smudging is so much a spiritual ceremony as it is a way that everybody’s mind is sort of put together for the same good cause. And modern science has now discovered that the act of smudging actually kills impure particles in the air. And many belief systems use incense or different, similar processes to focus. So that’s the purpose of this, and you don’t have to participate. If you get hit by lightning on the way home, don’t blame us. Just kidding. So I’ve asked Juliette from the Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres if she will offer the smudge to anybody who wants to participate while we continue.

[Elizabeth]: Thank you, Maurice. So if you’re not sure where you are, this is Five Good Ideas. And if you’re here, you’re here for Listening and Learning: Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights. I’m going to go through a few housekeeping items. First, I would ask that you please turn off the ringers on your phone. You’re encouraged to keep your phone on if you are tweeting. The hashtag is 5GI, and our handle is @Maytree_Canada. All of this you can find on the handouts. For those of you who have been to Five Good Ideas before, you know that the gist behind this is that we bring in experts who share five good ideas on a topic that’s going to make the not-for-profit sector stronger, better, more effective at what it does. And the idea is that the speaker shares five good ideas, and then we sit at tables, and we network, talk about those good ideas, and generate others as well.

Today, we add a different structure to this, and part of this is because we’ve never had such a popularly subscribed session. So that’s owing to the topic of the discussion, I think, and how important it is to our sector and to Canada more broadly. So what we’re going to do, we have a different seating arrangement. You’re in theatre-style, and we’re going to listen. We’re actually going to listen for a good hour and 15 minutes.

We have an incredible panel, and I’m going to be pleased to introduce them shortly. There will be opportunities for you to share, to ask questions, and we’ll start that at about 1:30, as our task and our goal always is to have everybody out before 2 o’clock. We are live streaming the session, you see there’s a camera in the back, and so we have a number of people, I think close to 100 online who are joining us, so we’ll also have an opportunity for them to ask questions when we get to that period. If you are uncomfortable with being on a video tape for whatever reason, just let a Maytree staff person know, and we’ll make sure that the camera doesn’t turn to you if you ask a question. We put this up on our website immediately afterward, so if you go back to the office this afternoon, and you think that everybody you know needs to see this, you can link them to our website, and they can watch what happened here today.

Back in November, I attended a community advisory committee meeting at the OHRC [Ontario Human Rights Commission], and at that time, the Chief Commissioner, Renu Mandhane, who’s sitting in the middle, talked about a process that the Ontario Human Rights Commission undertook to rethink their relationship with Indigenous Peoples, what the Commission would mean, what reconciliation meant to the Commission, and she described what I heard as a very transformative process, meaningfully engaged. And meaningfully engaged because it meant that it was going to have to transform the relationship and how they would do the work that they do.

That was when it sort of struck me that this is something that our sector, the not-for-profit sector, needs to be thinking about very seriously, about how do we do what we do, and how do we engage meaningfully in reconciliation, and that’s why today’s topic is happening. We have an incredible panel here today. Renu Mandhane is the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Her full bio is on the handout that you have. We also have two other Commissioners from the OHRC. Karen Drake is also an Associate Professor at Osgoode Hall, and we also have Maurice Switzer, who is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation and Principal of Nimkii Communications. Their full bios are on the handout. I don’t want to take away any more time. I’d like to turn it over to them to take us on their session of Five Good Ideas, which they have forewarned me, they’re going to take and make their own, so I think it’s going to be four ideas, and that’s good. Anyway, thank you very much, and over to you.

[Renu]: Thanks. And it’s Four Good Ideas because four is a very significant number in Indigenous culture, and we decided to tweak this so that we could walk the walk, so to speak, in terms of the delivery of this presentation. So I wanted to first open by thanking Elizabeth and Maytree for welcoming us, and acknowledging the traditional territory that we’re on. And also for my friend and colleague Maurice Switzer for leading us in the smudge, which will all mean that we start in a good way.

So you know, before I was appointed Chief Commissioner, I had taken at law school a graduate-level class on Indigenous human rights. As a practicing lawyer, I had represented Indigenous women in conflict with criminal law, and as Chief Commissioner, one of the first things I did within almost a couple of months of being appointed, I had the honor of being in Ottawa when the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was presented. And since being appointed Chief Commissioner, I’ve met with Indigenous chiefs and leaders across Ontario, individuals and groups from Windsor to Lac Seul, to Moose Factory.

And so I think I’ll start with the biggest thing I’ve learned out of all of that engagement over the last couple years. And what it is, is how little I actually know – how little I know about Indigenous people, the diversity of indigenous people in Ontario alone, about our own history, in Canada, whether as an immigrant to Canada, as my parents were, or people who have been here for longer, and about the realities of racism that Indigenous people face, including even in Thunder Bay, for example, having garbage thrown at them when people walk down the street. And I also realized that I don’t really appreciate or can’t appreciate how much has been lost in terms of culture and traditions.

But each engagement has provided me and my colleagues at the Commission with a deeper understanding of the ongoing impact of colonialism and the continued systemic discrimination and hate that many diverse Indigenous people and communities face across the province. And I’ve also learned that building trust requires more than just showing up once a year to a conference or making a lofty statement of principles or a commitment, or even striking an Indigenous relations committee. Building trust essentially requires a commitment to be an equal partner in an ongoing conversation, and that’s at an individual, institutional, and even provincial and national level.

Reconciliation fundamentally requires what a good friendship requires, and what we’re going to talk about today. It requires respect. It requires honesty. It requires sharing, and it requires strength. So to that end, the Commission has engaged with people in cities, First Nations living on reserves, in smaller municipalities, to learn how we can best follow the path set out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and build new and lasting relationships.

And of course, I’ve been guided in my efforts, very much so, by my fellow Commissioners, Karen Drake and Maurice Switzer, who were appointed by the Premier in 2016, and who have been so central in the Commission’s journey along this path. And I can’t emphasize that enough, that having leadership-level people in your organization who come from varied backgrounds and can offer this expertise is by far one of the most important things that the Commission was able to do early on in my mandate as Chief Commissioner.

So what did we learn in all of these engagements? Well, first we learned that the human rights system itself is helpful to address discrimination in where we work, where we live, where we learn, and where we receive services. But we also learned that it is very limited in the way it can respond to Indigenous people and the issues around, for example, language and land, and the lived reality of intergenerational trauma. We also learned that we need to rethink the way the Commission engages with Indigenous people in Ontario, and not just adopt the approaches that may have worked well with other marginalized and vulnerable communities.

And this hasn’t been comfortable, and it certainly hasn’t been easy. I’m going to tell you about two interactions I had early on that really shaped the way we’ve started to change our path. The first was when I met with Sylvia Maracle, who is the Executive Director of the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres. And some of you may know, not only is Sylvia an Order of Canada recipient, she’s extremely fierce and active in her advocacy on behalf of urban Indigenous people.

So I requested a meeting with her because the Commission was getting involved in a case at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario that involved the use of Indigenous-themed mascots in minor league hockey. So I set up this meeting, and I went to her, and my first question was, “So Sylvia, do you think these mascots are discriminatory?” And she paused, and she paused. And then she answered. And what she said was, she asked me why I was there. She said, “Why are you here when I haven’t heard from the Commission in so many years? Why are you asking me about mascots? Why aren’t you asking me about healthcare, poverty, child welfare, addictions, criminal justice?” Why had I thought that I could come and talk about mascots?

Implicit in her questions was really a challenge, and the challenge was whether the Commission was willing to allow Indigenous people to lead the way and set the agenda, or whether we were going to play that role. Obviously, personally I was stunned. I felt like I was somebody who was committed to human rights, and I went back to my office, and I confided in Maurice about what had happened and how it had made me feel. And Maurice, you know, in his way, told me a story.

And he said, “I’m going to tell you a story.” And I’m thinking, “What does this have to do with my question, but okay.” And he says, “You know, I’m going to tell you about a father and a son, and they’re out hunting. And they approach a trap line, and they realize that a wolverine has mistakenly got caught and entangled in their trap line. And seeing the wolverine’s distress, the son immediately approaches the wolverine to try and free him from this trap line, and the wolverine obviously quickly tries to snap, snaps. The wolverine tries to bite this little boy’s hand. And the boy is shocked because he had approached in kindness. And the father explains to him that the wolverine’s distress makes it hard for him to understand who’s his friend and who’s his enemy, and that maybe if the son adopted a more gradual or cautious approach, he might be more successful in his attempt to free the wolverine. So the boy does this, and over time, he’s able to free the wolverine, and the wolverine goes running away along his own path.”

So what this story told me, and I sort of thought about it over the course of a few weeks, is really that relationships are the start, and that you have to invest in relationships if you want to build trust. That trust has to be earned, and it’s not just given because you have an institution like ours that has human rights in the title. So you know, I would say that Maurice and Karen and Sylvia’s willingness to really challenge me and the Commission was a huge part of our learning and our ability to grow. And I will say, the ability to hear that without feeling personally entitled or attacked was a really important thing I think that we were able to give back in that conversation.

So this deep reflection really highlighted for me how the Commission itself is often seen as another form of government, as a government agency, and that the human rights code itself is colonial, it emanates from a colonial past, and reflects a very particular vision of human rights. So from that perspective, it’s not surprising that the human rights system isn’t always in sync with Indigenous Peoples’ own traditional dispute resolution processes, their collective understanding of rights, and even what a harmonious existence requires. So we’ve learned that building trust is about building relationships with diverse people, not just at the political leadership level or the institutional leadership level, but truly engaging with Indigenous people across the province and hearing what they have to say.

But I think most importantly, we’ve understood that any meaningful engagement and any prioritization needs to be on Indigenous Peoples’ terms, and it needs to be based on their ideas and their experiences, and not those necessarily of the Commissioner, or even of the Commissioners who only represent a small subset of the people that we serve in Ontario. And that’s why I’m really going to cede a lot of this time to Karen and Maurice to talk about the four good ideas because I think you would benefit from learning directly from them, rather than through an intermediary like me. So I’m going to stop there, and I think the next plan is that we are going to talk about what reconciliation means to each of us. So maybe I’ll start with Maurice, then Karen, and then I’ll maybe give a few thoughts as well.

What reconciliation means

[Maurice]: Well first of all, thank you everybody for being here. The most precious gift that human beings have is their time, so thank you very much for giving of your time, and a special thank you to Elizabeth McIsaac and the Maytree Foundation for making this possible. You can have all the good ideas in the world, but unless you have a willing host, nothing will happen with those good ideas.

Our Chief Commissioner is characteristically modest here. Nobody has ordered her to make reconciliation part of the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s strategic plan. She has taken the lead on doing that, and having seen her personally interact with people in pretty rough circumstances, in jails, in meeting a person who’s been in solitary confinement for four and a half years, that happened to be an Indigenous man. That takes a lot of courage and a lot of commitment.

I see the word “commitment” several times in here, and my father was a Jewish cab driver in Toronto. He worked for Diamond Cab. I was born in Mount Sinai Hospital, the old Mount Sinai. My friend in the Jewish community in Sudbury said, “You have to understand the difference between commitment and involvement. You have to think of a breakfast that’s made of bacon and eggs, and in making that breakfast, a chicken was involved, but a pig was committed.” So if you’re going to be committed, just bear that in mind.

Reconciliation to me is standing beside people that you regard as equal, regardless of whatever their background, where they come from, what they believe, if they happen to have a different skin pigment colour than you. And to me, reconciliation is talking with people. The Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Murray Sinclair, said, “It’s time that Canadians started talking with all their neighbours.”

And I think we live in a world that’s become increasingly binary. You’re either, you’re right or you’re wrong. You’re either, you know, red or you’re blue. And I think that reconciliation, if it’s done properly, with these four gifts that we’re talking about today, respect, honesty, sharing, and strength, reconciliation will make Canada better, not just in the relationship between the First Peoples who were here and mainstream Canada, but between the newest Canadians who come here, and everybody else in Canada. So that, teaching of those four gifts, it comes from a medicine wheel that has four colors on it, yellow, red, black, and white, and that teaching is that everybody in that circle, everybody in the world, are related. So that’s what reconciliation means to me.

[Karen]: Thank you so much Elizabeth for the invitation to be here. And I want to thank each of you for this opportunity to engage with you today. And Maurice, thank you so much for starting us in a good way.

I want to offer a quotation to frame our discussion, and it comes from Leo Tolstoy’s work, What Then Must We Do? So he says, “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I’m very sorry for him, and wish to ease his lot by all possible means, except by getting off his back.” And I’ve got a similar version, a similar sentiment. This time by Lee Maracle, poet and author and member of Coast Salish First Nation. She says, “I would forgive anybody for standing on my feet, as long as they get the bleep off.”

The reason why I like these passages is because I think what they illustrate is that the things that Indigenous Peoples are seeking as part of reconciliation are not something extra. They’re not something special. They’re not something above and beyond what everyone else is seeking. So what I mean by that is that there’s been an injustice, there’s been a harm that’s been done, and that injustice didn’t just happen far in the past and then stop. The injustice isn’t over. The injustice that we’re concerned with is still happening, right now today. What it is that Indigenous Peoples are asking for is for that injustice to stop. We’re asking for the man to get off our backs. We’re asking for that person to step off of our feet. So what does that mean in concrete terms. What does that mean in terms of practical guidance? Well, I think, hopefully that’s what we’re going to offer in our Four Good Ideas.

[Renu]: So I’ll just reflect on reconciliation and what it means to me. First, because I think that we – what I’ll say is that I think that I, I’ll speak for myself, I’m a very outcome-oriented person. So I always look for what is the end? And if I can’t see what the end is, I feel lost. And I think that in this work, what has been really profound for me is realizing that I might not know what it’s going to look like at the end of this process, but that if we take the steps that are led by Indigenous people, that we will get somewhere, and that somewhere will be better.

And I think that that’s something that’s really different from the work we do with a lot of other communities. I’ll give an example. When we work with the Black community, often, it’s like, “We want to end racial profiling. We want our children to stop being taken away by Child Welfare, and we want to not be overrepresented in prisons.” Okay, that’s the way I think too, so I’m like, “Okay, I’ll take these five steps, and then we’ll end up with that outcome hopefully one day.”

But I think with reconciliation, where Canadians, and myself included get tripped up, it’s so big that you allow yourself not to even take the first steps because you think it’s so big that you don’t know what it’s going to look like in the end. And I think, you know, if you look at our strategic plan, ’cause I know there’s a lot of people and leadership levels in this conversation, what we commit to do in the plan is to build relationships. That’s all we commit to do, over five years essentially. And when we kind of talked about that, that was really new for our staff, like they were just like, “How is building a relationship a thing?”

And I think what we realized is we’d been trying really hard for many years to get to the end result without taking all the steps we needed to do in the middle. And so if there’s one thing reconciliation means to me, it’s starting with relationships, and that has to start at a leadership level. It has to start with the person at the very top of your institution cultivating personal relationships. And that requires a huge amount of time and a willingness to kind of go above and beyond because I think Indigenous people are rightfully skeptical of attempts at reconciliation in this point in time. And so sometimes that means that you have to show that you actually mean it at a personal level, and I’ll give you a very small anecdote.

I was in Moose Factory with Maurice and a few other people, and we had planned a one-day trip. We were flying in, and we were flying out, and we were meeting with a bunch of people. And Grand Chief Solomon, who is the Grand Chief of Mushkegowuk First Nation, not First Nation, but the — Tribal Council, a number of First Nations — said to me, “There’s somebody I think you really need to meet in Fort Albany, but you’re going to have to stay overnight to do it.” And I didn’t have a bag. I didn’t have any stuff. And I was like, “Yeah, I’ll stay overnight and do it.” And so you know, we went to the Northern store, I bought a toothbrush and granola bars for 80 bucks. And then uh, and we made it happen.

But I think we made it happen because I realized that this was important to this person, and if he was important to me, I should make an effort I would make for a good friend. And that’s something I think that needs to be borne in mind, that institutions don’t have relationships, people have relationships. And how do you make your relationships institutional but also personal?

First idea: Respect

We’re moving on to the first good idea. So the first, I’m just going to read them out, and then Maurice and Karen are going to react to them. So the first is respect. Learn about Canada’s history and the responsibilities of our collective treaty relationship with Indigenous Peoples and the perspective and experiences Indigenous people bring to this relationship. So, respect. Maurice.

[Maurice]: We’re going to alternate here. We have a plan, so we’re going to hold to it. Respect is the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup. You know, the last time they won the Stanley Cup 50 years ago, I tell kids that’s how old I am, I remember when the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. They had an Ojibway captain. So maybe that’s what, maybe that’s what the Leafs need. You’ve heard the curse of the Bambino. The Boston Red Sox didn’t win for what, 80 years after they traded Babe Ruth? Well, maybe the Leafs aren’t going to win until they have an Ojibway captain, so think about that.

Reconciliation, with regard to respect, which is one of those four gifts, I’m going to give you — and pardon me if I sound didactic, but I work with a lot of teachers — I’m going to give you five names, and this isn’t to illustrate that you don’t know as much as you know. This is something most Canadians aren’t aware of, a lot of Indigenous Peoples aren’t aware of. I’m going to give you five names. I’m going to ask you to put up your hand if you’ve heard of one of those names, okay? This is about our history, Canada’s history.

Oshawanoo. Assiginak. Shawandais. Pakiniwatik. Musquakie. Musquakie, the word Muskoka comes from Musquakie. The word Oshawa comes from Oshawanoo. Those are five of Canada’s greatest military heroes. Without those five men, we probably would be part of the United States. They were great heroes in the War of 1812 when Canada was invaded by our neighbours to the south, and they’re not known. There’s a huge, 150-foot-high statue to Sir Isaac Brock, who unfortunately died very soon after the War of 1812 started, but those five men played an integral role in that campaign, and I have never seen a textbook with their names in.

There’s a lot of work going on in education now, and we need to have that awareness that Indigenous Peoples have contributed so much in so many ways to this country, including risking their lives. Canada’s defense force in the War of 1812, the reason that they were committed was because they had made treaty promises that they would support the Crown. Canada’s defense force largely consisted of 10,000 Indigenous warriors. There were very few British regular troops in this country. They were back in Europe fighting Napoleon.

So these are ways that we can learn about our history and really appreciate the contributions that Indigenous Peoples have made, that we’re not just drains on the economy, that we don’t block progress, that we’ve contributed so much. We helped the first peoples that came here survive winters that they couldn’t have survived without our help. We helped show them what was suitable to eat. We helped show them what plants would heal them when they got sick. And there are countless stories of that friendship. As long as people came in peace, they were treated as friends. They were treated as we’d like to see reconciliation partners treat one another today. So that’s respect.

[Karen]: All right, so our first take home point here talks about understanding the true history, and to bring it back to the quotation that I started off with. So, what is the man on our backs? What does that represent? And I’m going to suggest that it represents colonialism. And the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report focuses on one aspect of colonialism, the residential school system. There’s more to colonialism as well, though.

So a key aspect of colonialism is the Doctrine of Discovery. Now the Doctrine of Discovery is the legal doctrine and the legal explanation as to how Canada claims to have sovereignty over this territory and over Indigenous people. And what the Doctrine of Discovery says is that Indigenous Peoples are too inferior to count as owning their land, and therefore, when Europeans first arrived, Europeans were entitled to simply claim sovereignty over all of this territory, regardless of the presence of Indigenous Peoples, their cultures, their societies, and that simply by getting off the boat, Europeans somehow thereby had sovereignty over all of this territory.

Now, at the heart of the Doctrine of Discovery is a deep inequality. It’s a presumption of the inferiority of one group of people, as compared to a different group of people. Now the reason why I think that the quotes that I mentioned at the beginning are so important is because there’s a kind of assumption that the Doctrine of Discovery, well, that’s in the past. That’s from hundreds of years ago. We need to just move on. Don’t get focused on the past.

The reality is the Doctrine of Discovery is not in the past. The Doctrine of Discovery is the legal explanation for Canada’s sovereignty over this territory right now, today, in our legal system. There is no other legal explanation to justify how Canada can claim to be sovereign over Indigenous Peoples and over Indigenous territories.

And so when people say, “Well, you know, we can’t apply today’s standards to the past. We can’t apply our values and our morals from today, and look backwards, that’s anachronistic.” Okay, that response is completely unwarranted. Because the Doctrine of Discovery is operating today, we are absolutely entitled to take today’s standards and today’s values and apply it to it and to critique it. And so in order to move towards reconciliation, that’s one place where we need to start. We need to start with understanding the true relationship in terms of our relationship with land. And so if the Doctrine of Discovery is not going to be an acceptable explanation as to how we relate to each other on this land, what is a possible explanation?

Well, Maurice is the author of an excellent book called We Are All Treaty People. And on the ground, what our history tells us, what actually happened was that treaties were entered into to share the land. So the treaties were not submission. The treaties were not a handing over of the land. They were not a cession or a surrender. They were an agreement to enter into a relationship, to share the land together.

[Renu]: So maybe just to summarize, I think what we’ve heard is being humble about what you know and seeking out knowledge. So being open to knowledge and also open to knowledge that’s deeply challenging and difficult. And I think, I’m sure there’s people who hear what Karen has to say, and their mind starts going, “Well, what does this mean? What does this mean to own colonialism as an ongoing, sort of reality?”

But I think just having those moments of discomfort are where the respect starts from. It’s actually being in that discomfort and not finding an easy way of getting out of the discomfort. And I think that that’s part of what reconciliation is. It’s the respect to know what the past was, but to also respect that you might not feel comfortable in every, single moment of this journey that we’re walking alongside one another.

Second idea: Honesty

The next good idea, great idea actually, is honesty. So what we had as an idea here was to begin by humbly acknowledging what you don’t know and making a commitment to work with Indigenous communities to fill in the missing knowledge.

[Karen]: This is one of my favourites, and I think because what this speaks to is the importance of trying to get inside a different worldview. So one thing that reconciliation is going to require is being able to understand an Indigenous worldview. And to understand that an Indigenous worldview, and there isn’t just, I didn’t say “the Indigenous worldview” because of course, there isn’t just one. There are many Indigenous nations across Canada and the rest of North America, and worldviews differ between them.

But also understand that there could be really fundamental differences between an Indigenous worldview and a Western worldview. And there’s nothing that I can do or say in four or five minutes or in a soundbite that will give you an Indigenous worldview. So unfortunately, I have to acknowledge that limitation.

But what I want to do is encourage you to go out and spend the time and make the effort to try to get inside an Indigenous worldview and to appreciate what those differences are. And I can just tell you a little bit about my experience doing that. So I’m a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario, and my father is a member of the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation and because of the Indian Act, we never had an opportunity to grow up within our communities. So I grew up in Thunder Bay, and I went to a Canadian school, and so I never had the chance to be immersed within Anishinaabe or Métis worldviews, and so I’ve had to learn that myself as an adult. I’ve had to go out and seek that information.

And as I’ve been doing that, and as I’ve been trying to learn the perspectives, the traditions, the cultures, the teachings, I’ve been trying to find my teachings, you know, I started by just learning different principles here and there. So the principle, you know, only take what you need, and the importance of sharing gifts, and whatever you take, make sure you use everything. But as I’m learning these, they’re kind of like just these floating, disconnected, little pieces of information, and I couldn’t see how they all connected together. It’s kind of like they were just pieces in a Jell-o mould, just like isolated there from each other.

And it took a lot of time, and I want to acknowledge teachings I’ve learned from a man named Aaron Mills, who’s a member of Couchiching First Nation to help me to put it together into a coherent whole, and to see how there’s actually a logic that connects the different teachings and principles and values and norms within an Indigenous worldview. And until you get that, you won’t be able to help but fill in the gaps with your current worldview, and when you do that, you’re going to make mistakes, there’s going to be misunderstandings, misconceptions, and you’re going to misconstrue what the Indigenous perspective is.

And so like I said, there’s no soundbite I can give you, that this takes a lot of effort, and I don’t think it ever ends. If you didn’t have a chance to be immersed in an Indigenous worldview from the beginning, from throughout your childhood, I think, at least for myself, this is just going to be the rest of my life, trying to fully understand. But it’s fun. It’s super interesting and fun.

[Maurice]: Thanks, I’m going to go after you, Karen. Well, I am going to give you a soundbite. It’s one that I give teachers because I encounter a lot of teachers on whom the responsibility, on their shoulders rests the responsibility of creating, helping create citizens for whom reconciliation won’t be foreign. And I tell them, “One, don’t be afraid to teach the subject.” And many of them are very nervous about it. Terminology alone: like, is it First Nation, is it Aboriginal, is it Indigenous? You know, that’s pretty daunting for people who are so afraid of making a mistake.

But I tell them, you know, “There are lots more resources out there now, whether they’re video resources, audio/visual materials, books, and there are people, you know, there are 80,000 residential school survivors, you know, walking around Canada. Those are great resource people to come into your classroom and to talk to your children, and not to scare them.” And I should say, nobody in this room is responsible for residential schools, the horrible thing that happened right up until 1996 in Canada, that’s not your fault. It’s your fault if it happens again, but that’s not your fault.

Indigenous Peoples don’t want to be victims. We’re not victims. We are great examples of resilience, having overcome some pretty mighty obstacles. So don’t be afraid, you know, to start your learning journey, but don’t pretend to know something you don’t, just ask. Don’t be shocked if you find that you’re not welcomed with open arms. I talk to a lot of teachers who, sometimes, are not treated as hospitably as they’d like to by the parents of some of their children, and I remind them, you know, “How would you feel if you sent your child off to school today, and you never saw them again? Well, there are at least 6,000 Indigenous sets of parents to whom that happened.”

And again, that’s nobody’s fault here. It’s Canada’s fault, and it’s not acceptable to say, “Oh, that was then, that was okay to do that then,” you know. There have always been people who understood that justice, what justice was, you know. If you don’t believe that, you can’t call yourself a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew. Because there have always been people who understood the difference between basic right and wrong.

Don’t take it personally if Indigenous Peoples react with some suspicion like that wolverine in the trap you know, that you heard the story from Renu about. Because this is not ancient history, again, as Karen says. This is lived reality for many people. My goodness, we have 100 First Nations in Canada that it’s not safe for them to drink the water. This is not ancient history. This is not a third-world country. This is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. So, be honest, and expect the people you talk to to be honest in your learning.

[Renu]: And maybe just to make it a little practical, sort of what we’ve heard from Karen and Maurice, I’ll give you an example. As one of our first commitments to reconciliation, we decided to have an all-staff training on Indigenous human rights and reconciliation, and we thought it was important that everyone from the IT guy, to the office manager, to the lawyer, to the Commissioners have this experience. And I think we decided to let Karen and Maurice lead what we needed to learn. And so our staff actually paid for facilitators. We got things done that needed to get done, but we let them tell us what needed to be done, or what we needed to learn.

And we started on day one with Indigenous worldviews, and talking about what is the Indigenous worldview, and how is it different from the Western worldview, and for me, that was understanding that human rights are really about an all-powerful state, that we attenuate that power with human rights. So that’s how it works. Whereas an Indigenous worldview, there is no all-powerful state. So this idea of human rights doesn’t actually resonate with the worldview of how you organize society.

Well, that was a transformative moment for me because it made me understand why human rights don’t mesh well with a lot of Indigenous worldviews, and I had never understood the kind of architecture of why that disconnect was there on the ground. But what it also meant is we only started talking about the provincial/territorial organizations on day three. That’s when we started talking about Métis Nation of Ontario and you know, what Chiefs of Ontario do, and all these organizations.

Well, if our institution had done this training, we would have started there. ‘Cause we would’ve thought those were the most important things for our staff to know. What are these different organizations, and what do they do? Well, it turns out that was actually the least important thing for us to have learned, but we only knew that because we allowed somebody else to tell us what we needed to learn and be led by other people in that learning.

And another great example is, you know, Maurice said, “We have to start by going around the 50 staff and everyone telling us where they’re from and what they wanted to get out of this.” And our team said, “Look, we’re a bunch of public servants. People aren’t going to be comfortable sharing deep personal information.” And Maurice just said, “This is what we have to do. If people don’t want to do it, they can just step out and say they don’t want to participate, but this is how you learn in our way.” And so I think it’s like stepping out again, being honest, hearing what you need to learn and not presuming what you need to learn are some practical ways of sort of getting that Indigenous worldview and starting to understand it.

Our next great idea is sharing. So we say, “Share in the responsibility for reconciliation by making a commitment to act on the TRC commission’s calls to action, including honouring treaty promises made to share the land and its resources to ensure that everyone can share in Canada’s prosperity.”

[Maurice]: I love audience participation. How many people in here have treaty rights? Just three of us, four of us, five of us, six of us. Oh, a few more. I think I count still fewer than 20. Okay, I’ll ask you another question. Who do you think that Indigenous Peoples made the treaties with?

I ask that question almost every time I’m asked to speak to a group, and usually it’s just a few Indigenous, First Nations, Métis or other people in the room who will put up their hands. The treaty concept is sharing. It’s what sharing is about. And in many of the wampum belts that symbolize that sharing, there’s an image of people holding hands in the centre. And I ask grade three kids, “What does that mean, that picture?” And they all know. They all know it means friendship, love, sharing, peace, they understand. And sharing is that essence of that, of reconciliation, of that partnership.

The difference between the treaty rights that many Indigenous Peoples are supposed to have, that we were promised would be ours in those treaties — by the way those treaties are still, there’s no statute of limitations on treaties. Those treaties, and the Supreme Court is gradually catching up with the validity of those treaties, and the politicians are the ones that are sort of lagging behind, but on February 14, the Prime Minister of Canada gave us all a Valentine, when he said that, “Canada needs to start implementing the treaty relationship.”

That means the same as it sounds. Great to have Section 35 of our constitution that says that the Aboriginal and treaty rights of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed. It’s great to have that in our highest law, just as it was great to have it in the United States’ highest law that all men are created equal. But if you’re still having race riots in the streets, obviously those laws haven’t been implemented fully. And if we still have situations where Indigenous Peoples don’t have access to drinking water, and are suffering the worst socioeconomic issues in this country, there’s something wrong with that sharing relationship.

The land on which this building sits belonged to, not in an ownership way, but in a stewardship way, Indigenous Peoples. And it’s more than likely that they never received, although they were never defeated in battle, as Karen said, they never handed it over, but they were never compensated in any meaningful way for that land. The building on which our Parliament building sits in Ottawa  — the Indigenous Peoples have never been in any way compensated for that land. And yet, if you took Canada’s, the Indigenous population of Canada, a country that has constantly rated in the top 10 in the world on the United Nations’ socioeconomic index, wellbeing index, I think they call it, Indigenous Peoples collectively, usually come about 60th, 63rd. One year, we were right next to Borneo. Indigenous Peoples were on a socioeconomic basis ranked right next to them by international assessments. So, know your treaty rights, and know that you have, it’s not just rights, it’s responsibilities.

And I want to give you one example about sharing. We’re supposed to be very apolitical, non-political, so I won’t name the name, but I was startled a week or so ago when a person who is running for premiership of this province said that if their party was elected, they would make sure, ensure that the mining royalties from lands, Indigenous territories, went to Indigenous people. I’ve never heard, I was dumbfounded. I’ve never heard anything like that. $41 million, that amounted to this year. That’s unheard of, it’s unheard of for a mainstream politician to make a promise like that.

And the reason why that’s necessary, someone said earlier, one of my friends, either Renu or Karen said, I think Karen said, “There’s lots of money in this country.” We’re not talking about somehow finding a new pot of money. We’re talking about reallocating monies that have not been shared properly. And I’m going to give you an example. There’s a treaty called the Robinson Huron Treaty that was implemented, or wasn’t implemented, it was put into place in 1850, and it impacted about 21 First Nations around the north shore and down the Highway 69 corridor. There was no Highway 69 obviously in 1850. About 21 First Nation communities.

And the reason that treaty was put in place was because, as settlements started to move north, people started to discover minerals, wealth. So they just, as was often the case, they just tromped all over territory. The government didn’t keep their treaty promises. They didn’t, as they had promised the Indigenous Peoples, keep settlers from trespassing on their lands. They let them do whatever they wanted.

But a chief named Shingwaukonse, Chief Little Pine, and a group of warriors stopped the miners and annoyed them, and they went to the province, and the province went to the feds, so they said, “Well, we better make a treaty.” Treaties had been made in Canada for a hundred years before that. The Robinson Huron Treaty resulted, and as a result of that treaty in 1850, every member of one of those 21 communities was given $2 a year in exchange for allowing the share of their land for the purpose of revenue extraction.

$2 doesn’t sound like very much, but that was half a labourer’s salary, half a year’s salary in 1850, so that wasn’t a bad deal. They doubled it in 1876 to $4. So you know, that sounds reasonable. What do you think it is now? – [Audience member] $4.  Thank you, there’s someone who’s read their history. – [Audience member] No, I get $4. – You get $4? I’m Williams Treaty, I don’t get anything. Thank you. $4 since 1876.

And to put that in perspective, there are 30,000 citizens of those 21 communities today. If they’re not too embarrassed, and many of them are, to go to a meeting where there’s a table like this set up, and there’s a mounted policeman with his hat on and his Red Serge outfit, and a government lady who gives out two toonies to people. That still happens.

So if you take those 30,000 beneficiaries, this year they got 30,000 times four, that’s $120,000. One miner for one of the hundreds of companies who have taken trillions of dollars in resource wealth out of the territories of those 21 First Nations, one miner for Vale Inco last year salary, bonus, overtime, made $130,000. One person. That’s not sharing.

The wealth is there. What we have to have is have politicians and corporate Canada say, “You know, we’re going to catch up with the courts. We agreed that, if you shared the land with us, we were going to share the wealth of it with you, let’s start.” They better do it because, sooner or later, the courts are going to order them to do it, and isn’t it nice when people do the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because they’re ordered to? So that’s sharing.

[Karen]:  I want to echo and pick up on some of the things that Maurice talked about in terms of the treaty relationship, which is one about sharing the land. And when I do talks, that’s often the conclusion. My conclusion is, the true relationship between Indigenous Peoples in Canada is one of shared sovereignty. And then I sit down, and the very first question is, “What does that mean? How do we actually implement shared sovereignty? What does it mean on the ground, like, on a day-to-day basis?”

And I don’t have answers, I just have exhortations for you. But, like Maurice said, not only do we all have treaty rights, but we all have treaty responsibilities as well. And one way that we can effect our responsibilities is to understand, not only the Indigenous, or an Indigenous worldview, but also the laws, the laws of Indigenous people that then inform the treaties. So what are the laws that go into the treaty responsibilities?

I was mentioning that I’ve had to learn this as an adult myself. But one of the very first laws that I learned was this principle that, when you need to take something, so let’s say you need some birch bark. You only take as much of it as you need. So there’s a way to take the birch bark from the tree, where the tree, it can continue to live. You don’t need to chop down the tree from the bottom, just rip off a few pieces of birch bark, and then leave the rest to rot there. There’s a way to just take exactly what you need.

Okay, so at first glance, that law might seem simplistic. How often are we out getting birch bark, and what do we really need all this birch bark for anyway. So how much application does that law have? How useful is it really? But we can understand that principle as applying to all facets of our life. Whenever there’s something that we think we need, to only take as much of it, whether it’s from the physical environment, or in all aspects of our day-to-day life. Whenever we meet people, or interact with people, or engage with people, how can I engage with them in a way that I only take what I need, in terms of their time, their emotional labour, their commitments?

And this principle can apply not just amongst us as individuals. I’ve come to understand that this principle can apply to social institutions, to political institutions. It can apply on a much larger scale. So when it comes to resource extraction, how much do we really need? There’s a lot that we want, but can we find a way to really only take what we need?

[Renu]: So again, to summarize, I think there’s a couple things there. First of all, I think what’s important to learn here in sharing is that Indigenous people were really effective stewards of this land for a very long time. And that there’s something there that we can learn. And so sharing is also about learning from other people and what has worked, and what knowledge and experience that they have that may be relevant to us today.

The other thing I think that’s important about sharing is that this isn’t just about loss for our side of the treaty relationship. It’s not about giving and not receiving anything in return. You know, the latest StatsCan data on educational achievement and use of social assistance for Indigenous people, I mean, educational achievement is much lower than the average population, and the use of social assistance is higher. I mean, this is a problem that we can choose to address at the back end, or we can choose to address at the front end, and I think that most Canadians would see that, if we are able to share, we actually are able to meet untapped potential, in terms of people who are able to actually contribute to our society, who are consumers for goods.

And what’s really interesting is when you go to northern cities where First Nations make up a sizeable part of the population, places like Sioux Lookout, they actually know that Indigenous people are drivers of their economy, and they invest in Indigenous people because they know that they’re extremely important to their, you know, municipality. I think that Canadians need to also understand that, you know, sharing and having that more equal treaty relationship is actually good for all of us. It’s not about a loss on our side and a gain on the other side. Just like when you share with your friends or family, you know that this will come back to you in spades at another time when you’re in need, and so I think it’s that remembering that this isn’t just about giving up. It’s actually that we will get something in return through that more equitable sharing.

Fourth idea: Strength

So our last great idea before we open it up for our discussion is strength. To combine the lessons learned and the steps taken through respect, honesty, and sharing, to make a commitment to reconciliation as an ongoing process of moving forward together as genuine treaty partners, traveling on separate paths, but with a joint purpose, to make Canada the best country that it can be.

[Karen]: For this one I’m going to offer a story. And the story’s about Nanabush, who’s also sometimes referred to Nanabozho or Nanaboozhoo. In this story, Nanabush went to visit the Anishinaabe. And he couldn’t find them anywhere. They weren’t out hunting. They weren’t out fishing. They weren’t working in the fields. They weren’t collecting wood or collecting berries. And he couldn’t find them.

And he looked and looked, and finally, he found them all in a sugar bush, in a grove of maple trees. And they were all lying on the ground on their backs with their mouths hanging open underneath the maple trees, and they were letting the sap drip directly into their mouths. Now at this time, things were different from the way they are today. What came out of the trees wasn’t the thin, watery sap that we have now. Instead, what came out was thick, sweet syrup: so thick, sweet syrup just came directly out of the trees. And the Anishinaabe were just letting it drip into their mouths.

And Nanabush said, “No, this is no good. This won’t do, I can’t have this.” So he went down to the river, and he got bucket after bucket after bucket, and he took the buckets of water and poured them into the tops of the maple trees. And he kept doing that until the syrup thinned out and became the thin, watery sap that we have now. So now, if we want the syrup, what we have to do is collect bucket after bucket of the sap. We have to bring it over to the fire. We have to collect all the firewood. We have to make the fire. We have to sit there over the fire and tend to the sap as it boils. We have to keep skimming off the surface, and it takes hours and hours just to get a little bit of that thick, sweet syrup.

The reason I wanted to tell this story is because, as you know, this is called Five Good Ideas, and we didn’t give you five good ideas. We gave you four, and also, they really weren’t strategies, which is what I think that you’re used to. We really gave you a lot of sort of abstract ideas, and some stories, and some of our experiences, but really, not a lot of concrete strategies. The Nanabush story about the maple trees, you know, I think at first glance, it seems simplistic. It seems like a children’s fable, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that there’s a lot to learn from the story.

The key point here is that we are not going to pour reconciliation syrup down your throats. So if you want to contribute to reconciliation, you have to have the strength to go out and make your own reconciliation syrup yourselves.

[Maurice]: Strength is sustainability. Again, it was as Renu said in her opening remarks, it’s not just a one-off, you don’t check off the box. You’re either in, or you’re out. Like, if you’re serious about making Canada a better country, it will not happen until Indigenous Peoples, the First Peoples who were here, are part and able to share in this country’s success. It will not happen. Other countries have seen what happens if you allow a huge underclass to develop. We don’t want to be that kind of country. So what can we do to give that strength?

Well, when I went to post-secondary education, I’m told that there were fewer than 90 Indigenous students in all of Canada in post-secondary education. Fewer than 90 in all of Canada. I’m old, like I said, I’m old enough that I saw the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup, but I’m not that old, you know. Today, there are 20,000. That’s strength, and they’re in every field you can imagine.

Unfortunately, we have to take governments to court to get our treaty rights recognized. I mentioned to you the story about the Robinson Huron. Those 21 communities are spending millions of dollars that could be spent on educating their own children, on building their own water plants. They’re spending it on legal fees because the Government of Canada has not recognized their rights that they agreed to. So that’s unfortunate.

But as citizens, you all have a voice, and you can talk to your member of Parliament, and your member of the legislature. Believe me, they listen, they really listen. And they listen more to a non-Indigenous person than they do to an Indigenous person. Because we’re expected to say these things. But if a non-Indigenous person says it, that builds, that creates that partnership, that relationship, that reconciliation, that really puts strength into us, into the whole country as we move forward. So just remember what I said, my story about commitment and involvement. Commitment is strength. So do you want to be a chicken, or do you want to be a pig?

[Renu]: So just to round this out, I want to just encourage you that this is very doable. It might sound overwhelming, but it actually, when you think about building relationships, if you can put a substantial commitment toward, it’s not easy, but it is doable. The path the Commission has even charted in the last two years culminating most recently with an MOU with the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, the very person who challenged me at that table about why I had even come to meet with her, two years later, we stood together and signed a cooperation agreement. I mean, that is an investment that was not a massive amount. It wasn’t the only thing I was doing as Chief Commissioner.

So I think that, if you take one thing out of this sort of, this story of Nanaboozhoo, and what you’ve heard today, it’s that, if you start with the right intentions, and you continue to walk along and continue to live out those intentions regardless of sometimes the missteps and the mistakes you’ll invariably make along the way, this is a very doable thing for an institution to start to walk in strength with Indigenous people. And it certainly helps that, if you can have those people as part of your institution and helping you guide, give you guidance about traditions and protocols throughout the way so that you do this in the best way possible. And that’s why really this work would not have been possible without Karen and Maurice really being open to having that relationship with the Commission, so I’m really thankful to them personally and professionally.

Audience questions

So we’re going to open it up for questions.

[Audience member]: Good afternoon, my name is Al Farrington. You made a point that it’s not that hard. From my point of view, I can’t understand why so many Indigenous communities across Canada still don’t have fresh water. I mean, we’re living in 2018. What does it take by way of resources and commitment to make sure that those Indigenous communities have fresh water? It’s a human right for goodness’ sakes! What is taking so long? We have two ministers now assigned to Indigenous Affairs. That’s more than any other ministry, and still it’s not resolved.

[Karen]: All I can say is I couldn’t agree more. Hear hear!

[Renu]: I would just say that this has to become an issue that voters care about. Because right now, I think Canadians care, at the level that you’re talking about, but I don’t think that they care enough that it’s an election issue. And so, you know, until we can get everyone mobilized at least to say, “I’m not Indigenous, this is important to me,” I think that we will see efforts that, quite honestly, match what the public expects. And I think, you know, if you looked at some of the polling around Kinder Morgan, and what was happening in BC recently, I think that that bears out that the public cares, to a point.

And a lot of people said, “This isn’t about Indigenous issues. This is about the national interest.” And they define the national interest as somehow being at odds with Indigenous people’s interests, rather than seeing that our national interest includes Indigenous people. And I think that the water issue is a similar issue. I mean, I’ll tell you, when I went up to Moose Factory and to Lac Seul, and these are not actually that remote First Nations in the scheme of things, it is a completely different world. It’s a different place. It’s not a place that most people who live in urban Ontario would even appreciate is part of the same province. But until people start to demand a political accountability for this, I don’t think that we’ll see the kind of change, or the pace of change that we need to see on some of these issues.

[Audience member]: Excuse me for a second. Just tell us please briefly, how much progress has been made on that specific issue? Could you brief us on that?

[Renu]: Well, I can’t, because first of all, it’s in federal jurisdiction, so it’s not actually something the Ontario Human Rights Commission is focused on. But I mean, I do think actually Minister Philpott is now doing almost a numeric update on the website that shows how many boil water advisories each day are being taken off. I do think that there is a sustained commitment. But it has to, I think, be a commitment that Canadians make it clear that they care about, to continue that push.

[Maurice]: The Government of Canada has said that by 2021, all water advisories will be gone from First Nations. They point to the fact, as Renu says, that I think 30, since they took office, but there have been 18 new come on the list. So, you know, it’s not just giving money, it’s training people. A young man I knew was called up to Kashechewan a number of years ago because there hockey is very big in these remote communities, and their ice plant broke. Their ice-making machine broke. When they closed Maple Leaf Gardens, they shipped up, as a gift to the community, they dumped it off a plane. They never showed anybody how to do it. You know, this young man, you know, who lived in Timmins, the closest city where they had an arena, you know, they hired him to come up. But you don’t just throw money at problems. You know, you teach people things.

You know, the Government of Ontario subsidizes getting, the cost of alcohol to people like Moosonee, but not milk? Why? Anyways, we could go on for hours and hours, but it does take political will, and I know, in many northern communities for example, where they’ve had to rely on the Northern store, people are paying outrageous prices. Working with good-minded organizations like yours, they are showing people how to grow in greenhouses. You know, it’s not just Indigenous Peoples that have never grown plants. I’ve been to Fogo Island in Newfoundland, where they’ve had to show them how to grow cabbage and things. So that’s the kind of work that, in partnership with other Canadians, you can start seeing some change.

Elijah Harper once said — I heard him ask, “What do Canadians need to do to make things better for Indigenous Peoples?” And immediately he said, “We have to stop waiting for government to do the right thing.” Everybody in this room has far more power than any one person that’s elected. It’s whether we can act that’ll make the difference, so, but thank you for your question.

[Elizabeth]: Okay, we have a question from online, and then I’m going to go over to that side of the room, and I see one at the front.

[Audience member]: So the question is, “What courses, if any, on Indigenous people are offered in the public high school system, and what opportunity is there for youth exchange?”

[Renu]: I’m not an expert in the curriculum, but I do understand that only very recently has there been changes to the curriculum to require learning about Indigenous history and culture, so this is something that will benefit, obviously our next generation of leaders, but it’s not something that we had prioritized up until recently, And certainly in my many conversations with Indigenous people, I’ve also heard about language being a very important aspect, so not just history, but actually the opportunity for Canadians to learn an Indigenous language, so that those languages can be kept alive. And Karen said to me recently, “Without language and land, there is no community.” And so I think that we need to see how that teaching at the high school level and actually throughout the curriculum, I think, how that goes forward, and what are the results of that.

I’d also just give a little shoutout to an organization called Canadian Roots Exchange. It’s an organization that does those kinds of intercultural conversations between newcomer youth and Indigenous youth, and really trying to tap into I think some of the common experiences that newcomers face that are similar to those of Indigenous youth.

[Karen]: I can’t speak to high school education, but I can tell you a little bit about law school education. I am an Associate Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, and law schools across Canada are starting to take up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action number 28, which calls on all law schools to implement a course on Indigenous laws and Aboriginal laws, and to make that mandatory for all law students. Recently, Osgoode Hall Law School, our faculty unanimously approved our requirement for this. What we’ve done is we have identified a basket of courses that would meet this requirement, and before our law students graduate, every one of them will have to take one of those courses. And other law schools across Canada are now starting to do something similar as well.

[Maurice]: And thank you for the question. Starting this fall, Indigenous education is mandatory in Ontario schools, for, Juliette correct me, is it grade 10 and a couple of elementary grades. It’s hard to imagine, and to me, it’s hard to imagine that the things, the roles that Indigenous people have played in Canada, and again, not just the horror stories, the residential school, but the roles in helping people get established, to not starve or freeze to death. Being instrumental in fending off an American invasion. The only war ever fought on Canadian soil, the army was Indigenous.

It’s hard to imagine that it’s been so long in coming, but that is going to be mandatory this fall. For me, as someone who has Jewish ancestry, for anybody to graduate from a school in this country, and not know about residential schools, is like a student graduating a high school in Germany not knowing about the Holocaust. To me, it’s the same thing. So it’s changing.

And educators, one of the reasons that I said earlier that they are very nervous is that they’re further ahead in the game than most politicians. They’re out in front, and believe me, they get blowback from parents, parents who are uncomfortable and embarrassed that these sort of things could happen in their country. When their kid comes home from school, and they talk about, “What did you learn today at school?” And they’re, “Well, we learned today that, you know, 6,000 kids died at residential school, and that it was more dangerous to go to residential school than it was to be a soldier in the Canadian army in World War II.” The parental reaction to that sort of thing is not always rosy.

There is a resistance on the part of all of us to be given Buckley’s cough syrup. It’s tough medicine. So teachers, they’re in the forefront of that, and it’s going to be tough for them for a few years because we’re in that middle generation. And I tell teachers, “Hopefully when the children you’re teaching now are parents, they won’t give the problems and the hassles to their kids that you’re seeing with some of the parents now.” But educators are leading the way.

[Elizabeth]: Okay, we’ve got at least four questions lined up from the floor, so we’ll start here.

[Melissa]: Hi, good afternoon. My name’s Melissa Atkinson. I’m a member of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, which is out of the Yukon. My question to you is an issue of access to justice question. Sometimes it’s difficult, as you talk about the law, and how you see yourselves within the definition of Indigenous Peoples is a complex one, of course. Along with rights come responsibilities, and we still have the Indian Act in existence, which is a piece of legislation that actually is trying to legislate Indigenous people out of existence.

My question to you is, because of some of the issues, and you just touched on it briefly, about federal jurisdiction, it’s a big country, and to see ourselves within it, and to be defined by race, or personal colour, or ethnic, for Indigenous people to seek services, how do you see yourselves fulfilling that role to bring services to a larger sector of, which is largely falling into federal jurisdiction — but how do you see improving that access to justice question?

Largely, if you’re not aware, if you face that, then you’re probably pressing one or two or largely being dealt with, and I can see a lot of Indigenous people just saying, “Why bother? Are my human rights that important, if it’s not that user-friendly? And in addition, even the definitions, I don’t even see, and talking about the discourse of that, definitions — do I even fit in that, and where do you even start there?

[Renu]: Thank you. That’s really an insightful question, and something obviously most mainstream organizations that are committed to this work struggle with. The first thing that I’ll say is, part of why we started to travel around the province and meet with different communities and do circles in different communities and meet with people incarcerated was precisely because we know that they don’t come to us.

So when you look at the statistics at the Human Rights Tribunal, Indigenous people rarely make complaints to the Tribunal, even though we know that the levels of discrimination are so high. So when I went and talked to people about that, they’d tell me really deeply disturbing stories, and I’d say, “Well, have you thought about filing a complaint?” And most often, they would say, “Well, no because this is just my whole life. Things like that happen to me every single day, so what am I going to do, just file a whole complaint about my whole life’s experience?” And that’s why I think the Commission has a real role to amplify what people have been telling us, and to actually be an active participant in that.

And a good example is — we were just in Timmins, and the things I heard from people were just daily experiences of racism. And when I said this in a CTV interview, that racism seemed normalized in Timmins, the rest of the townspeople just lost it. They were like, “What are you talking about?” And, “You were there for five days.” And like, “How could you say this?”

But then what also happened is Indigenous people started to talk about their experiences with racism in Timmins, and it actually became like a bilateral conversation between citizens in Timmins, and other people in Timmins, who finally felt like somebody in a position of power had said that their experience was real and that it mattered, and it opened up a whole commitment on the part of the city to do better on reconciliation. So first of all, I think it’s that we have to stop depending on Indigenous people to publicly tell their stories in order to have action on the ground on these issues, and that organizations like the Commission and the government need to actually just start taking action without requiring the filing of a human rights complaint.

Secondly, though, I would say, we have two other agencies in Ontario responsible for human rights, so that’s the Human Rights Legal Support Centre and the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, and you know, the Human Rights Legal Support Centre has been really progressive in putting forward a model for legal services for Indigenous people that actually means that they will be connected with an Indigenous lawyer and have the resources of an Indigenous person on their file throughout the whole application process, even up to and including representation at the Tribunal. So I think there’s a lot of different ways that institutions can make Indigenous people feel more comfortable, that there is access to justice and that the person that’s serving them is going to have a deeper understanding of their issues.

But I also think that we shouldn’t be seeing the solutions as having to come from legal processes. I think that there’s a lot that organizations can do to actually amplify community concerns and move forward based on those without requiring Indigenous people to file a human rights or other complaints. Anything else that you want to add to that?

[Karen] : I’ll maybe just touch on the Human Rights Legal Support Centre. In addition to the program that Renu mentioned, [the Centre] has also been working with Ontario Indigenous Friendship Centres to provide training, to provide workshops in order to help Indigenous Peoples there be able to identify human rights issues. And also to acknowledge that, as Renu was saying, the human rights system, which is based on an adversarial system, is foreign for many Indigenous Peoples. This whole notion of zealous advocacy on both sides, that we’re going to fight it out, and then the truth will somehow emerge from that. And so acknowledging that, but then offering the support in the form of having an Indigenous staff person at every level there to help them throughout the entire process.

[Maurice]: And just to add, and thank you for the question. The jurisdictional issue, everybody has, it’s a Canadian joke, “Is it a provincial or a federal responsibility?” And Indigenous Peoples were always regarded, initially regarded as a federal responsibility because we’re nations, nation-to-nation.

But there’s going to have to be a lot of creative political thinking in the next few decades because, in Ontario, an estimated 75 to 80 per cent of the Indigenous Peoples do not live on reserves. They live in Toronto. Toronto has probably the largest Indigenous population. It’s dwarfed, of course, by everything else, but there may be more Indigenous Peoples living in the city of Toronto than any other single city in the country.

And those people are requiring services that are normally considered the responsibility of the province, education, health care. Homelessness is a huge problem for Indigenous Peoples who are leaving communities that are under-resourced, in which there’s, in many cases, no visible means of economic support to raise families. But that whole jurisdictional issue is one that’s going to be at the forefront, and that’s why our political leaders, hopefully, are in a higher pay grade.

[Audience member]: We have a piece of legislation in Ontario called the Excellent Care for All Act, and as you just said, largest number of Indigenous people live in the city, urban area. We also know that the healthcare of Indigenous and Blacks are the worst that there is in the province. And we also know that a lot of the people in incarceration are there because of lack of access to mental health services earlier on in their lives. So at what point, and what is required, to begin then to call government agencies into account for the failure to deliver on that piece of legislation?

[Renu]: I would just echo that whenever I travel to Indigenous communities and talk to people in urban Indigenous centres, health care is almost always the number one priority. So either it’s racial profiling in healthcare, whether doctors assume that all of your problems are related to addictions or mental health issues, or it’s about the apprehension of children in maternity wards.

And then sometimes it’s just about the quality of care overall, that many of these hospitals are underfunded, under-resourced. They can’t retain professionals to stay in the hospitals for any amount of time, and I think if you’re Indigenous, it’s only normal for an Indigenous person to expect to travel for a full day in order to get any specialist appointment. If you live in Moose Factory, and you need to go to a specialist, you actually go to Kingston. That’s a pretty difficult trip to make if you’re not feeling well. And if you’re an Indigenous child who gets apprehended in those communities, you actually get shipped to Sarnia. So these are massive systemic issues and actually issues that the Commission is pretty actively committed to working on at a systemic level.

But what I would also say is that – a good first step for example would be to start collecting demographic data in health care. And if anybody follows the Anti-Racism Act and regulations as closely as I do, health care is not one of the mandated organizations to collect demographic data. So right now, under the current Anti-Racism Act, even though they may be collecting data related to policing and child welfare, they aren’t collecting data related to health care, which would be essential to understand, for example, if I’m in Toronto, and I go in because I have problems breathing, what happens to me? Versus if I’m in northern Ontario, and I go to see the nurse to complain about the same issue? Right now, we don’t collect data that allows you to understand the trajectory of different people through the system, and that would be a very important first step, I think, to understanding the systemic problem.

[Audience member]: My name’s Hilary Martin. I work at the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre, at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson. We have the largest undergraduate business program in Canada. We have about 11,000 undergraduate students at any time. We also have an MBA program. I’m working on a project around call to action 92 around education and learning in business management, developing an infusion model through the Leadership Centre to try to develop case studies around Aboriginal issues in business and building interactive fiction games. So we have a game-based learning lab, and I’m really lucky enough to work with Angela Nardozi as an advisor. She did Indigenous education at OISE.

So I am a white settler woman. I’m lucky enough to have access to people who can help me as I try to make my little drops of syrup, and it’s important to be collaborating with Indigenous people as we develop this program, that hopefully over time, and with some funding, can you know, actually develop maybe a bucket of syrup.

The thing is, maybe I’m not a very good cook, and I haven’t been to cooking school. And so one of the things that’s really important to me is understanding or kind of gaining access to three things. One is a better understanding of protocol. Another one is access to advisors. I can’t keep going back to my one friend all the time. So understanding who those advisors are, who are really good at making the syrup. And the third thing is an understanding of, what are the really great dishes that people have cooked, when they’ve gone out and done their work. Where can I find, so that I can learn more closely and in detail and in terms of process and structure, and understanding outcomes, and things like that. Like, where can I go to cooking school?

[Renu]: I can maybe start, and then I’ll pass it along. First of all, I think, I don’t know who’s giving you your marching orders. Obviously somebody in leadership who wants this to happen.

[Hilary]: Me, I established it.

[Renu]: Okay, because I was going to say, I think one of the mistakes I’ve made maybe along the way is coming with a predetermined plan for what I want, and then asking Indigenous people to give me the information I need for the thing I want. And so I think it’s first communicating, and maybe you’ve done this already, I don’t know your full situation, but sort of saying, “We want to do something on call 92. What should that look like?” And, “We have no set ideas. We just want it to be meaningful, and we want it to be real, and we want it to expose people to what they need to know.” So first just starting with the understanding that they actually have the knowledge that you probably need.

And secondly, we’ve found, Indigenous people right now in this country, and I will sort of say this for Maurice and Karen I think, there is such a demand on their knowledge, that they are literally asked every single day to tell somebody how to do the right thing. And so I think it’s also being willing to pay people for their expertise, and pay them well. They aren’t volunteers. They’re actually central to your program, and you won’t be able to deliver it without them in a meaningful way.

Maurice introduced me to a traditional knowledge keeper from the Mississaugas of New Credit, a woman named Nancy Roe. Nancy Roe didn’t ask to be paid, but once it became clear that I’d be calling Nancy and seeking her advice on protocol, on things to do, on the next steps, what I said to her is, “I want to be able to pay you for your knowledge and your time, and so if you give me your knowledge and time, we will compensate you for that.”

So I think it’s also recognizing that this is, Indigenous people right now, the demand on their expertise is huge, and often, there’s an expectation that they should want to do this for free because it’s good for them. But actually, it’s not about them. Whatever you’re doing, it’s about your own thing and your mandate, and you will ultimately get the credit for it in the end, and so for me, it’s about how do you actually come with no formed idea about what this is going to look like, and even if you have a formed idea, you got to be willing to change it if it needs to change, if that’s the advice you get. And then secondly, that you need to be willing to compensate people and make them part of the leadership for the project. Really see yourself more as a conduit for them, and then be willing to compensate them for their willingness to share their knowledge with you.

[Karen]: I can really relate to how, the other part that you’re asking I think is that you want to learn yourself, that you have your own interest in learning these teachings and these protocols. And you know, like I said, I’ve had to learn the little bit that I know myself as an adult. And I should have qualified from the very beginning that I don’t purport to know very much at all. I know the tiniest little amount. Like that story I told you is pretty much the whole thing.

But, so how do you go about doing that? Well one way is to, and this is actually literal, go out and make maple syrup. So for instance, one way I’ve learned is I’ve gone and done maple syruping. So actually going out to a First Nation, and working with the members there, and making maple syrup. Going to ceremonies, going to sweat lodges. And then taking courses. So even traditional Western methods of learning as well can be helpful, so even just taking courses that Indigenous Peoples offer to teach.

[Maurice]: Were you talking about a business-type context?

[Hilary]: Yes, it’s a school.

[Maurice]: I’m glad you raised that because, when I said earlier that we have to stop waiting for politicians to have all the answers, corporate Canada is a mighty force, and some cynical people would say they really pull the strings about what happens politically. I won’t say that, though, I’m apolitical. You should maybe, if you want some ideas, you can contact organizations. I think they have a head office based in Toronto, Canadian Council on Aboriginal Business.

I can tell you that on June 1st, there’s going to be a film that’s going to be premiered in Toronto at the old stock exchange called Reconciliation on Bay Street. And there’s going to be some prominent members of Canada’s business community talk about why they don’t feel this country can succeed in any way until, as Perrin Beatty, the former PC cabinet member and now President of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce says, “until the education and training of the fastest-growing segment of our population, Indigenous youth, becomes the priority for Canada.” But there are organizations out there —probably CCAB, Canadian Council members.

[Elizabeth]: Okay so, this doesn’t ever happen. We’re right up to the line. It’s two minutes to 2:00. That just gives you a sense, I think, of the level of energy, interest, in this room. They have outdone themselves.

Please join me in thanking Karen, Renu, and Maurice. At this rate, we’re going to have to have you guys back. That was just terrific, and I think you’ve given us, when we first spoke about this, there was some hesitation about, I don’t know that we can really bring this down to five good ideas. And again, I think there was a lot of wisdom in how you took us through that, so thank you very much.

This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.

Karen Drake

Commissioner, Ontario Human Rights Commission

Karen Drake is an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University (formerly at Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, Lakehead University), a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario, and a Commissioner with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Her teaching and research interests include Canadian law as it affects Indigenous peoples, Anishinaabe law and Métis law. She previously clerked with the Ontario Court of Appeal and the Federal Court, and currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Human Rights Legal Support Centre. She previously served on the Board of Directors of the Indigenous Bar Association, as a commissioner with the Métis Nation of Ontario’s Commission on Métis Rights and Self-Government, and on the Thunder Bay Métis Council.

Renu Mandhane

Chief Commissioner, Ontario Human Rights Commission

Renu Mandhane was appointed Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in October 2015. She is the former Executive Director of the award-winning International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. She has an LL.M in international human rights law from New York University. Renu began her practice focused on criminal law, and in that capacity she represented many survivors of sexual violence and prisoners. Renu sits on the Canada Committee of Human Rights Watch, and has appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada and the United Nations. Most recently, Renu was recognized by Canadian Lawyer magazine as one of Canada’s most influential lawyers for her advocacy related to solitary confinement.

Maurice Switzer

Commissioner, Ontario Human Rights Commission

Maurice Switzer Bnesi is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He is the principal of Nimkii Communications, a public education practice which focuses on the treaty relationship between First Nations and the Canadian government. He has served as the director of communications for both the Assembly of First Nations and the Union of Ontario Indians. Commissioner Switzer was also the first Indigenous publisher of a daily newspaper in Canada and currently resides in North Bay.

stories of change
Five Good Ideas
Latest publications