TORONTO — Racism against Indigenous people in the northeastern Ontario city of Timmins appears to be both pervasive and normalized, the province's chief human rights commissioner said this week.
Speaking after a fact-finding mission to the region, Renu Mandhane said everyday incidents experienced by First Nations people include being unduly scrutinized in stores or at the mall, hassled when using status cards, being called "dirty Indians," or being yelled at by motorists to go back to their reserves.
"We did get the sense that there is a pervasive level of racism that Indigenous people experience in Timmins," Mandhane said. "We (also) heard a lot about discrimination in housing: If your name sounds First Nations or you look stereotypically First Nations, that would impact your ability to get housing, especially because there is such a housing shortage."
Mandhane said she was struck by the lack of the kind of formal or informal channels that exist in other places for discussing and addressing issues around racism. Timmins police, for example, do have an aboriginal liaison program, but Mandhane said it didn't appear to be a "meaningful" initiative.
"There really is no forum where First Nations leaders and municipal leaders are meeting regularly to talk about issues and resolve them," Mandhane said.
Timmins Mayor Steve Black, who met Mandhane during her visit, said the recent police killing of a young Indigenous man and death of an older Indigenous woman after her arrest have highlighted the need to talk about issues of race and discrimination.
"I don't know that I'd say racism is normalized," Black said in an interview. "All organizations need to sit back and have a review of what service they're providing and how they best provide that in a respectful way to all their clients, regardless of their race."
An estimated 10 to 15 per cent of the city's permanent population is Indigenous. Many other people arrive from remote First Nations communities on James Bay to access health-care and other services. Still, Mandhane said, the First Nations population and its needs appear to be largely invisible at institutional levels, and services in Cree are hard to come by.
"To varying degrees, there just seemed to be a lack of awareness of the need to prioritize service delivery to First Nations people in a culturally competent way," the commissioner said. "Lack of awareness among mainstream institutions and leaders of the needs and requirements around cultural competency was quite striking and unique in terms of my engagement in other communities around the province."
While the recent incidents involving police have led to more discussions between First Nations and municipal leaders, Black said a regular forum would be useful.
"Any time you can have dialogue and discuss issues face to face...and not just discuss the issues, but discuss solutions and steps to make improvements in future would be beneficial."
The Ontario Human Rights Commission developed a five-year plan last year that includes promoting reconciliation and trusting relationships with First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities. Part of the plan is to deal with systemic racism and discrimination against Indigenous peoples.
During the five-day visit to the area last week, Mandhane also flew to the James Bay communities of Moosonee and Moose Factory. A key concern in those remote communities is access to justice. Lack of resources, for example, results in infrequent court sittings — sometimes just once or twice a month — which makes it difficult to obtain bail in a timely fashion, she said.
The commission now plans to offer advice and recommendations to various institutions based on conversations from last week, and is looking at whether it can broker a formal dialogue between Indigenous and civic leaders around racism and discrimination.
It also plans to return to Timmins within the next year to provide training on the human rights code and cultural competency.
The city's mayor said such training would be useful.
"There's definitely some cultural awareness training that can be done to completely understand the differences between cultures, between governance structures," Black said. "One of the challenges that the community as a whole does have is a lack of understanding."
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press