The Grand Council of the Crees

Commemorating the Abolition of the Slave Trade

The Right to Truth and Duty of Memory

Posted: 2007-03-27

Governor General's Students' Forum:
Abolition and the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
Rideau Hall
Ottawa, Ontario
March 21, 2007

Good Morning, Governor General, fellow participants, ladies and gentlemen. I am honoured to be a panelist today at the Governor General's Students' Forum. I would like to warmly thank the Governor General of Canada, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, for hosting this important event.

I commend the Governor General for providing this occasion to highlight both the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade and the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Clearly, there is an inseparable link between slavery and racial discrimination. As the U.N. General Assembly unanimously emphasized last November:

... the slave trade and the legacy of slavery are at the heart of situations of profound social and economic inequality, hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice ...

Under international law, the prohibitions against slavery and against racial discrimination are peremptory norms. Therefore, no derogation from these norms is permitted.

The U.N. General Assembly has also urged member States "to develop educational programmes ... designed to educate and inculcate in future generations an understanding of the lessons, history and consequences of slavery and the slave trade". This Students' Forum can serve to raise our national consciousness and provide much-needed human rights education on slavery-related issues.

It is worth noting that March 25, 2007 has been designated by the General Assembly as International Day for the Commemoration of the Two-hundredth Anniversary of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Within UNESCO, August 23 is International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. These commemorations can prove highly significant, if accompanied by initiatives that help us to document the truth of slavery in different parts of the world and address its traumatic impacts and legacy.

After almost two hundred years, slavery and the slave trade have been acknowledged by the international community as "crimes against humanity". In order to combat impunity for these crimes and to ensure effective remedies, it is important to highlight the inalienable "right to the truth" of past events and appreciate its crucial link to the "duty of memory". The United Nations is continuing to study and elaborate a set of principles relating to both this right and duty.

The duty of memory reminds us of our collective and individual responsibility. We have a duty to speak out for voices that have been forever silenced or are otherwise unheard. It is our solemn obligation to establish the truth and embrace it. Truth is our common reference point and it must be resolutely sought out. Memory and truth are key elements in ensuring accountability.

It is evident that abolition of the transatlantic slave trade contributed significantly to the abolition of slavery - but it did not end it. In Canada, slavery continued until 1833, with the enactment by the British Parliament of the Emancipation Act. Before that time, slavery occurred in Canada in relation to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

It is important to underline that the abolition of slavery is not only about the past. In recent years, international human rights law has begun to focus on what are called "contemporary forms of slavery". These include such practices as trafficking in persons, especially women and children.

In relation to Indigenous peoples, contemporary forms of slavery or slavery-like practices (such as "debt bondage" or "serfdom") have been documented in such areas as Amazonia, Brazil; Chiapas, Mexico; Amazonian Peru; Bolivia; the Central African Republic; Botswana; Indonesia; India; and Nepal. These dehumanizing practices result in or perpetuate a vicious cycle of debilitating impoverishment, denial of dignity and human rights, and racial discrimination.

Last June, the Human Rights Council adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Although there is no specific reference to slavery or slavery-like practices relating to Indigenous peoples, the Declaration includes a wide range of Indigenous human rights and State obligations that could prove highly useful in this context. In particular, the Declaration affirms: "Indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination".

Other relevant rights include: the right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples; right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for exercising their right to development; and right not to be subjected to any discriminatory conditions of labour.

Further, it is the obligation of States, in consultation and cooperation with indigenous peoples, to "take specific measures to protect indigenous children from ...performing any work that is likely to be ...harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development".

In regard to Indigenous peoples, it is widely acknowledged that we have suffered horrendous wrongdoings and continue to do so in contemporary times. The adoption by the General Assembly of the U.N. Declaration would be a major step towards reconciliation, dignity and well-being for more than 370 million Indigenous people globally.

More generally, in regard to all victims worldwide, Judge Richard Goldstone of the Constitutional Court of South Africa has commented on the various choices that States have made in dealing with the massive violence and injustices of the past. In this regard, he states:

Some countries simply forget the past and attempt to induce a national amnesia in its people. Of course that is bound to fail - the victims do not, indeed cannot, forget. ...

In other countries wiser leaders recognized that in order to lay a foundation for an enduring peace, measures had to be taken to manage the past. It was acknowledged that history has to be recorded, calls for justice have to be heeded, and perpetrators have to be called to account.

In my respectful view, it is these latter approaches that take us from a mindset of helplessness and despondence to real possibilities for forgiving, healing and new beginnings. It is also the latter approaches that can help create a lasting culture of peace, truth, and respect for human rights - as well as a genuine hope for the future.

Meegwetch. Merci. Thank you.