On March 21, 1960, approximately 300 Black Africans gathered peacefully, chanting “Izwe
Lethu” (our land) and “Afrika,” in a rally against the pass laws and the apartheid regime of South
Africa. Robert Subukwe, leader of the Pan African Congress (PAC) – a Black African liberation
movement -- informed the commissioner of police that PAC was embarking on a non-violent
campaign. When protestors approached the police station, officers opened fire on the crowd of
demonstrators. At least 180 Black Africans were injured and 69 were killed in the township of
Sharpeville. Despite investigations, none of the police involved in the killings were convicted.
The Sharpeville Massacre, as this struggle and the brutal response of police is known,
prompted international condemnation of the apartheid system in South Africa. It also led to the
proclamation of the March 21 International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Oftentimes, on this commemorative day, we are reminded that every person has the right to be
free from racial discrimination and harassment and that these rights are enshrined under human
rights legislation in Canada.
In honour of IDERD this year, the Community and Race Relations Committee of Peterborough
(CRRC) took up the complexities of human rights legislation by hosting a public talk at the
Benedict Gathering Space in the First People’s house of Learning entitled Beyond “Rights
Talk” and Inclusion Campaigns: Grounding equality struggles in Indigenous peoples liberation
movements. The talk was given by Trent Alumni Paula Madden, author of African Nova Scotian-
Mi’kmaw Relations – the first book written on African/Indigenous relations in Canada. Paula
shared words about her current research on Rights Legislation in Canada and the United States
While I can’t recreate Paula’s sophisticated argument here, I can say that I get the gist of it:
human rights talk ultimately works to pacify social unrest and to divert political energies
into controlled arenas where the outcomes are inconsistent and difficult to enforce. Human
rights have been used as a means to dispirit people from taking up direct action organizing, by
presenting itself as the rightful and infallible avenue for seeking justice. This pathway also leads
people to rely on those in power to define, uphold and enforce human rights.
An excellent example of how some of this work was shared by a participant in the circle
at the talk: The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) of Ontario, Canada. The SIU emerged in
response to the pervasive lack of public confidence in the policing system and the integrity of
a process where police officers investigated other police officers when citizens are injured or
killed. The public outcry escalated in 1988 when two Black men were shot and killed, one in
August and one in December, by Toronto and Peel Region police forces. In response to mass
mobilizations in protest of discrimination and lack of accountability the SIU was formed. The
SIU is responsible for investigating injuries, deaths and sexual assaults experienced by citizens
at the hands of police. The ineffectiveness of the SIU is widely known, with reports hitting
mainstream media detailing bias, complacency and lack of due process. And rather than taking to
the streets, people continue to rely on a system of reporting and investigation that is inadequate,
with no opportunity for appeal or recourse.
So what does it mean to address injustices through state sanctioned avenues where those with
power continue to call the shots, and through the very institutions that systemically oppress
marginalized groups? Ultimately, human rights are enshrined by the state because they protect
the state, contribute to the pretence of benevolence, and close down pathways towards mass
mobilizations and struggles for decolonization. And what does that mean when oppressed groups
themselves are struggling for equity? Paula made no pretence of having solutions, but the first
step is one of grounding struggles in Indigenous liberation movements.
So Paula’s work begs the question, are you engaging in struggles for social justice that are really
about upward mobility? On who’s back? The Civil Rights movement was one where people
of colour, particularly African Americans, sought civic recognition and rights – including land
rights. This struggle engaged the state, thereby reproducing the legitimacy of the state’s terms
of engagement. The movement then became complicit and engrained in settlerhood because,
rather than seeking out negotiations and building solidarity with Indigenous communities, the
supremacy of the colonial state was maintained. When one fights for rights and protections that
serve and bolster the colonial state, then you become complicit as a settler.
So, if IDERD is a reminder to everyone to make active efforts to challenge and eliminate all
forms of racial discrimination in our daily lives and in our communities, then we must take
responsibility to think critically about human rights and the ways in which they are mobilized
while focusing our energies on grounding our struggles in decolonization movements in
solidarity with Indigenous peoples.