By Kelly Anne Smith
NORTH BAY – “We need more awareness, that’s what it takes. We will get to the point in time where that is not acceptable.”
These words are from Maurice Switzer, a newly appointed Ontario Human Rights Commissioner.
A citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation, Switzer has lived a life analyzing human rights. “I have Indigenous heritage and Jewish heritage. Those heritages, at best, can be seen as an outsider in a Euro-centric society. Historically, the Canadian Supreme Court said that Residential Schools represented an act of genocide.”
Switzer is calling for change away from racist behaviour and hurtful commentary in society.
“I want my children and grandchildren to live in a Canada and in an Ontario where to be guilty of hate speech or a racist act, are considered more of a crime against society than jaywalking or double-parking. There is no accountability. Take the case of a uniformed police officer in Ottawa who felt comfortable making comments about the discovery of the body of the Inuit artist. The comments were that it was her own fault and typical of Indigenous People. His chief said it shouldn’t be grounds for dismissal because everybody does that. We have to get to the point where those kinds of crimes are at least as serious as jaywalking. You can get fined for jaywalking. Canada has a way to go in that regard — transforming from a largely European based society to one that’s much more diverse. If Canada wants to brag about multiculturalism, we have to be prepared to walk that talk.”
Since starting in June with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Switzer has been working with other commissioners on providing advice on race-based data in the Children’s Aid Society (CAS). The Commission is accountable to the people of Ontario through the legislature.
“They are requiring that every Children’s Aid Society in the province start keeping accurate statistics about the culture and the heritage of the people they are apprehending to validate the charges that indeed certain populations are over-represented.”
Switzer explains that the government agreed to the change based on the policy papers that the Commission developed.
“You have to have data if you are going to analyze the over-representation of certain communities, of any system, whether it’s jail or child welfare.”
The commissioner calls it a great honour to be working with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
“They knew of the work I was doing [with the Union of Ontario Indians] and I knew the work they were doing. When I was asked if I would consider an appointment, based on what I knew of them, I was really pleased.”
Appointments are for two years, with reappointments common.
“We were involved in our strategic planning process a couple of weeks ago in Toronto. They made it very clear that the priority for the next five years is going to be working on Indigenous issues.”
Switzer says it’s appropriate to make Indigenous issues a priority.
“This represents such a change because for so long First Peoples have thought of themselves as only having a relationship with the federal government and its agencies. Probably two thirds of Indigenous Peoples in Canada don’t live on reserves. We’re an urban population. Our education, our healthcare, child welfare, and social services are all provincial responsibilities.
There are more Indigenous children in the care of Children’s Aid Society than were ever in Residential Schools at any one time. There has got to be a systemic reason for this. It’s not because Indigenous Peoples are worse parents than anybody else. It’s because the rules don’t take into consideration that say, housing conditions are different for First Nations Peoples on reserves. In the Toronto area, African Canadians are over-represented in the system. A one-size fits all system doesn’t work. Communities such as Markham, Ontario have a majority of people not born in Canada.”
Switzer meets with other commissioners, usually on a monthly basis, and is readily available via tele-conference to give input to the chief-commissioner.
“Our job mainly as an organization is to create more education about race-based issues and discrimination, and conduct inquiries.” The Ontario Human Rights Commission can force the government to hold a public inquiry.”
Maurice Switzer remembers his grandfather who was Chief twice in the early 1900’s. He ran away from residential school in grade 3. “He taught himself how to write. Even though it was hard for him with his shaky hand, he used to write letters to the editors of newspapers about native rights. He thought it was really important. I used to spend a lot of time with him as a little boy.”
Switzer was the first Indigenous publisher of a Canadian daily newspaper – the Winnipeg Free Press. He first started as a journalist in Belleville, moving up to managing editor. He was also the managing editor of the Oshawa Times. He was first a publisher with the Timmins Press.
“My primary responsibility was making sure the news product that we delivered to our readers was the best that we could be. I ended my career as a publisher with the Winnipeg Free Press. About 12% of the population was Indigenous but when I got there was no Indigenous presence in the newspaper or its staff. I did hire a journalism graduate who was First Nation.”
Switzer feels blessed to have had great co-workers. “Women can have a greater understanding of rights based issues than men because they have often been the target of discrimination themselves.”
As a journalist, newspaper editor, publisher, communications director for both the Assembly of First Nations and the Union of Ontario Indians, Switzer did create more awareness.
“I was allowed to do public education. That involved staging conferences; regularly writing about issues that mattered; hold cross-cultural workshops and create awards for excellence. All of these experiences have helped me, informed me because it’s a learning experience every day, to continue rights advocacy. When you are talking about Indigenous Peoples, Treaty rights are human rights. We want to be seen as survivors who are doing what we can to make the world a better place for everybody, not just our own peoples.”