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February is Black History Month

February 1, 2017 Black History Month

Each February the Clinic honours Black History Month by presenting a series of posts that reflect on the contribution of the Black community in Ontario as it relates to our social justice work.

 Since last year much has happened.

 First of all, last February Ontario passed legislation to formally recognize, on an annual basis, February as Black History Month. 

 In our work at the Clinic, we have been aware for some time that racialized communities are over-represented and subject to different treatment in the areas of law we practice. In past years, a number of high profile reports have recognized this over-representation in the justice system as a whole.    

New Initiatives

 Recently several initiatives in the human rights/legal sphere have come, or are coming, to fruition offering promise of change and providing important context to Black History Month.

 Legal Aid Ontario (LAO), for example, is developing a strategy to identify the legal needs and protect the legal rights of racialized communities in the justice system. A consultation paper which will serve as a starting point for province-wide consultations is being drafted.

 Then there is the Law Society of Upper Canada’s (LSUC) comprehensive Report on Systemic Racism.  LSUC governs Ontario’s lawyers and paralegals. Their role is to ensure that the people of Ontario are served by professionals who meet high standards of learning, competence and professional conduct. The LSUC report concludes that racialized lawyers and paralegals face widespread longstanding and significant barriers within the professions at all stages of their career.

 The Law Society pledges to take leadership “in giving legal workplaces reasonable deadlines to implement steps that are important to bringing about lasting culture change.” They’ll do this by “prescribing minimum standards of equality, diversity and inclusion that are consistent with the — obligations already required by the Human Rights Code.”

 Let’s take a brief look at the work of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) as well.  The OHRC has developed a new strategic plan.  The plan notes that we are at “crossroads” in Ontario “a point where our society must make crucial decisions that will have far-reaching consequences for the human rights landscape.”

 The plan calls for all of us to work for an inclusive society.  An inclusive Ontario would be a place where everyone takes responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights; everyone is valued and treated with equal dignity and respect; and human rights are a lived reality.

 Further, the OHRC report notes that:

 “As our society becomes even more diverse, the lived reality of people with privilege and power is easily contrasted against people who continually find themselves on the margins. In 2016, the voices of people who were once silent (or silenced) have grown louder in their demands for a most just society – and not tomorrow or sometime in the future, but today.

 Inclusive Justice

For forty years, clinics have practiced poverty law aspiring to provide equal access to justice for those without limited financial resources.   Now, this social justice/poverty law work is evolving towards something perhaps better described as “inclusive justice.”

 So, what is inclusive justice?

 Inclusive justice means all members of society are meaningfully engaged in their communities. Individuals and communities are empowered to influence the legal and political processes that impact them.

 Looking at inclusive justice from our Clinic’s perspective, it means focusing on systems and practices that create poverty, exclusion and inequality. It means working with communities to change the underlying social and legal arrangements that create and perpetuate marginalization and exclusion. This is a shared responsibility for all members of society and our collaborative journey to fulfill.

 Racism is still Well-Rooted

 Turning more specifically to Black History Month, we’ve found the comments in  Race & Well Being The Lives, Hopes and Activism of African Canadians* to the point.

 The book is the product of academic research that looked at the impact of racism and other stressors on the health and well being of African Canadians.

 Some may believe that anti-black racism is in decline. Blatant racism like that experienced in 1946 by Halifax born African Canadian Viola Desmond has declined. (Desmond, as most readers will know, was dragged out of a movie theatre and jailed for refusing to leave the better seating on the main floor reserved for whites to sit in the balcony.) Nevertheless   racism remains well-rooted throughout society.

 “There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that that racism has the persistence of ragweed in a spinach patch. It has an insidious daily effect on people of colour – and by extension all people in our society,” write the Race and Well Being’s authors. 

 An interesting idea within the context of human rights emerges as a conclusion of the research. That is that racism should become listed as a social determinant of health.

 “If attaining the highest standard of human health is a universal human right, then Canadian society as a whole needs to take that crucial step in recognizing the impact of racism on the health of racialized people.”

 This is the backdrop to our weekly posts that will look at education, white privilege, African immigration to Hamilton, police carding and more.

 *Race & Well Being The Lives, Hopes and Activism of African Canadians- Carl James, David Este, Wanda Thomas Bernard, Akua Bethan Lloyd and Tana Turner Fernwoood Publishing, 2010

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