Human Rights Day: why it matters

December 10 is Human Rights Day, a global celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. In Halifax, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission will give awards to outstanding human-rights educators during a multi-community celebration at Cole Harbour Place.

According to communications adviser Jeff Overmars, the Commission is consulting with many communities in preparation for the event, including Mi’kmaq. Tracey Williams, the CEO, has made the Mi’kmaq community a point of focus, and recent meetings have taken place in Mi’kmaq communities.

As University of Manitoba’s Native Studies professor Peter Kulchynski points out, it’s important not to conflate human rights with Aboriginal rights. The concept of human rights is European in origin, pulled from the wreckage of the Second World War.

The rights of Indigenous peoples are the rights of the original occupants of lands across the globe, determined by moral reasoning and legal treaties, and recognized in international law and our common law system. In Canada, these rights have constitutional protection.

In Halifax, these pertain to the Mi’kmaq, are specific rights beyond universal human rights, and include among other things the right to traditional hunting grounds and practices and the right to be consulted on land and water issues.

Having said that, the rise of human rights as a concept has had a profound and complex impact on Mi’kmaq-Nova Scotia relations. In my book, Indian School Road: Legacies of the Shubenacadie Residential School, I detail how some of these played out at the Maritimes only residential school, which ran from 1930 to 1967. Below is a compressed, edited excerpt.

After the Second World War, the global human rights movement was born, and with it the concept of respecting all cultures found legs in the mainstream. The colonial idea of assimilating “lesser” cultures became disturbing. Aboriginal leaders and activists, many of whom had survived residential school and were aware of the changing sentiments of European-Canadians, pushed the federal government for change.

As a result, the Sisters of Charity nuns who taught at the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School found themselves on the defensive as public attitudes toward their work changed. In November 1958, a busload of mostly Mi’kmaw social workers arrived at Shubenacadie to see, according to the teachers’ Annals, “whether or not it was worthwhile sending children here.” The writer felt she and the rest of the staff did the best they could with what they were given. “We get only the problem children,” she wrote, “whose parents cannot possibly manage them; also, an occasional orphan case.”

Curriculum was also evolving. Ironically, in a school designed to assimilate, new social studies texts urged “friendly fellowship [toward] people who live otherwise than we do and thus to counteract the tendency, natural to all children, to consider such peoples queer, strange, or inferior.”

By the early 1950s, white academics and activists began questioning the very concept of race, and of dividing classrooms and schools based on this flawed concept. The change in public sentiment provided the perfect chance for Indian Affairs to move day and residential school students to provincial schools, where provincial governments could ultimately pay the cost of education.

But the aim—assimilating Indians into white society—was the same. Indian Affairs’s 1959 annual report made this goal crystal clear: “The task of education is to assist acculturation.”

Around 1966 two prominent Mi’kmaw Chiefs, Ben Christmas of Eskasoni and Noel Doucette of Chapel Island/Potlotek, paid a visit to the regional Indian Affairs office and complained about the Shubenacadie school. Doucette, who was only twenty-nine years old, was a survivor of the school, having lived there from 1946 to 1951, and would go on to found the Union of Nova Scotia Indians.

Indian Affairs saw them as radicals, but was willing to listen: Canada had signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Shubenacadie school was a black mark on Nova Scotia. The United Nations was now watching. In February of that year, it was Doucette who successfully motioned at the Grand Council of Nova Scotia Indian Chiefs meeting that the school be closed.

And yet, it wasn’t until 1991, a quarter century after the school was closed, that the provincial government included the Mi’kmaq under the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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