Racism still exists in the Yukon.
March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, reminds us that it still exists in our world and in our territory. In 1960, on that day, police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against the apartheid “pass laws” in Sharpeville, South Africa. Proclaiming the day in 1966, the United Nations called on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.
So what makes this day important to us in the Yukon, as well as the rest of the world?
After all, you may say, we have strong human rights laws and systems in place to address discrimination.
But 68 per cent of Canadians who responded to a survey said they had heard a racist comment in the past year, and this rose to 81 per cent among 18 to 24 year olds. In the same age bracket, 50 per cent of them said they had witnessed a racist incident in the past year, compared to 31 per cent overall. The results are part of a public opinion poll on racism conducted by Leger Marketing for the Association of Canadian Studies and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.
Human rights law in Yukon is still relatively new.
It is only through the hard work of past legislators and human rights advocates that the act came into being in 1987. Recently, the Yukon legislature made some welcome improvements to the Human Rights Act. This came about through a consensus-based, all-party consultative process. It resulted in effective changes which have already provided more balance, quicker and better service and efficiency in the Yukon’s human rights process. Law reform will continue throughout this year. All of us, as Yukon citizens, have the right to be heard and a responsibility to be involved in making our 22-year-old act the best it can be.
Canada is often seen as a defender of human rights. However, the Yukon Human Rights Commission and other human rights organizations were disappointed when Canada failed to sign the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Yukon Human Rights Commission wrote to the prime minister encouraging him to support the declaration in the global movement to respect human rights.
As part of recognizing these rights, the commission recommended that “aboriginal identity” be added as a new protected ground in the act. Aboriginal people have told the commission that they do not see themselves reflected in the terms “colour” or “race,” which are presently used in the act. The commission says this change would make the Yukon’s human rights law consistent with the Canadian Constitution and its protections for the rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada.
Canada and Yukon have a history of racism, particularly towards aboriginal people, as well as Africans, Asians, South Asians, Jewish, Muslim Canadians and other racialized people. This history has shaped the foundation of many of our systems and structures to this day. Stereotypical beliefs, attitudes and values may in some cases be unconsciously held, and over time can become embedded in systems and institutions as part of what is called “systemic discrimination.” The commission has also recommended changes in the act to provide an understandable definition of systemic discrimination.
Marking March 21 is part of the commission’s education mandate. It is now well established in international human rights law that education about human rights is a necessary part of the rights themselves.
In a Yukon survey of 142 youth (age 13 to 25 years) in the spring of 2008, 40 per cent said they knew “nothing” about human rights and 62 per cent said they experienced discrimination mainly at work or school. During recent law-reform public consultations, Yukoners said there needs to be more education about human rights, especially for students. The commission recommended that education about human rights and responsibilities be a part of the required school curriculum in the Yukon.
According to Statistics Canada in 2001, approximately 23 per cent of our Yukon population is aboriginal. There are also increasing numbers of racially visible people living in our community. Anti-racism and human rights education are essential elements in maintaining positive and inclusive work and learning environments, where each of us has an equal opportunity to contribute, each according to our ability.
Let us all work toward the elimination of racial discrimination through our individual actions, and law reform and support of international human rights declarations.
Melissa Atkinson, chair
Yukon Human Rights Commission