Racism 'normalized'

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."

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