by Jolene Waugh
On March 21, 1960, 69 people died in Sharpeville, South Africa when police opened fire on peaceful demonstrators protesting “pass laws”: a repressive tool of apartheid that prohibited free movement of black South Africans. Today, the world recognizes March 21 as the International Day for the Elimination of Racism and Discrimination.
The Sharpeville massacres are a defining event in our global history of racism and discrimination. There are so many more: slavery, the Holocaust, human trafficking, genocide, and murdered and missing aboriginal women, all based on differences in ethnic background, skin colour, religious belief, gender and sexual orientation.
The international community took notice of the Sharpeville massacre and demonstrations took place in many countries, condemning the act of the South African government. Canada supported the expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth and denounced apartheid by taking a leading role in forcing economic sanctions against South Africa.
Historically, Canada is seen as a leader in the advancement of human rights: it was a Canadian, John Humphrey, who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson who mapped the way for international peacekeeping bodies and Canada was the fourth country to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2010, Canada also supported the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Here at home in Yukon, many organizations strongly voice the need to eliminate racism and discrimination in our own community. We applaud the City of Whitehorse for recently joining the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination and establishing its first advisory committee.
However, Canada is not without its own human rights violations. Written into our history are the Chinese head tax and various prohibitions against Chinese-Canadians in the late 1800s, the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, the turning-away of Jewish refugees seeking sanctuary from Canada at the height of the Holocaust and the forced relocation of Inuit citizens into the High Arctic in the 1950s to protect Canadian sovereignty.
Systemic racism and discrimination in Canada was manifested in the government policy of “aggressive assimilation” under which aboriginal children were taken from their families and made to endure the tragically ill-conceived system of residential school. The ongoing effects of residential school are traumas many still live with daily.
In a report published in 2012 by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Canada was commended for endorsing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. However, there was also deep concern over long-standing issues that still need to be addressed, particularly for aboriginal people.
Among the 31 concerns set out in the UN report were the continuing rise of racial profiling and disproportionately high rates of African Canadians and aboriginal people in the criminal justice system.
The United Nations’ highest body for combating racism and discrimination is strongly pressing Canada to take more comprehensive action to end racism and discrimination.
It is time for Canada to restore its role as a world leader in challenging racism and discrimination.
At the same time, here in the Yukon, we must also take the opportunity to learn from our own community’s diversity and embrace our differences. It is the only way we can grow as a human family.
If we acknowledge that diversity is an asset for the advancement and welfare of our community we are in a unique position to enrich our territory – politically, economically, socially, culturally and spiritually.
Come to the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, from 5:30 p.m. – 7:00 p.m., Friday, March 21, on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Join us in celebrating diversity, promoting equality and building a territory where racism and discrimination are not accepted.
The Yukon Human Rights Commission is an independent commission created by the Yukon Legislative Assembly. Our mandate is to promote equality and human dignity through research, education and enforcement of the Yukon Human Rights Act. For questions or concerns call our Help Line at 667-6226 or 1-800-661-0535.
Jolene Waugh is a member of the Yukon Human Rights Commission