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On the Path, Together

2015 Blashko MichaelBy Michael Blashko

It’s hard to believe it’s already been over a month now that I’ve been working at the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society in Ottawa. I have had the opportunity over this time to work on some interesting things, to consider some important questions and compile a lot of information. There are times where it feels like I’m waiting for my true work to begin here, which would likely occur if the decision for the Caring Society’s case in front of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal actually comes out while I’m here. But it is neither my current, nor my potential future work that I want to talk about today. Instead, it is the work of the past that I would like to focus on. I always find the best place to start with is the past, and it is something that has been occupying my mind of late.

When I first started working here, I did a lot of reading and researching to get caught up as much as I could on the history of the case, the projects that the Caring Society espouses, and context in which the original complaint was filed. Throughout all of this, I felt overwhelmed at what I had just stumbled into the middle of. The amount of time and work that had clearly gone into all of these initiatives was intimidating, from the lawyers in the court case, to the children who have participated year after year in the annual events the Caring Society helps to organize. Factums had been written, awareness raised, partnerships and alliances created, and steps had been taken (both literally and figuratively).

It was around this time that I realized that this internship never really was, and certainly never would be just about gaining professional experience and course credits. I can’t help but feel as though the work, passion, and sacrifice of all the people that have contributed to these initiatives and continue to do so, impose a responsibility on those who come after them to match that effort, to see their work continued and hopefully one day completed. The fact that I am only here for three months does not diminish this feeling; in fact it intensifies it in that I hope in this short time that I am able to make some sort of meaningful contribution in turn.

The Caring Society itself is made up of people who fit this description of hard work and an intense passion. It is an organization that operates nationally, that plans and coordinates events, that conducts research, that coordinates with other organizations, participates in conferences and events, and that throughout it all still manages to engage those for whom it advocates, children and youth. All of this with only three permanent staff members. Even considering all of this, I think that they would agree with me that it is actually this last group, the children and youth, that most incite this feeling of responsibility. They have so much to contribute and in too many cases, have sacrificed too much already.

The main focus of my time here so far has been to examine and engage with Jordan’s Principle. Briefly, Jordan’s Principle was created in memory of Jordan River Anderson from Norway House Cree Nation. Jordan was born with multiple disabilities and lived all five years of his life in a hospital because the Federal and Provincial governments could not agree on which one of them would pay for his home care. This Principle is meant to resolve such jurisdictional disputes by putting the child first and was unanimously endorsed in the House of Commons in December 2007 but the government’s implementation of it has narrowed its applicability and ultimately failed these children.

I have also had time to look into another initiative known as Shannen’s Dream, named in memory of Shannen Koostachin who was a strong advocate for the right of Aboriginal children on reserve to safe and comfy schools, and a culturally based education. These two Aboriginal children and others like them have become the true inspiration behind the Caring Society. The statistics on First Nations child welfare services, education and health care are abysmal and show that Aboriginal children are facing a dangerous mix of systemic issues and inequitable treatment. The need for their voices and experiences to be heard in all of this is significant.

There are young people who have stepped up and certainly others who will do so in the future. I have met a couple of them already and it is clear to me from what I have seen so far that their years (!) of being involved with the Caring Society have set the bar quite high in terms of their commitment, energy and the impact of their message.

I would like to conclude by saying that over the last week or so I have had the privilege to attend a few of the events related to the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work over these last seven years. Perhaps this is part of the reason for my recent thoughts on the past, whether it be mine own, my family’s, that of the Caring Society or of Canada’s. It is the perfect example of a lengthy body of work by dedicated and intelligent people through which they have made an incredible contribution to our society, expanding our knowledge and with time, hopefully our collective understanding. I am hopeful that in light of this report, that many people across the country are now feeling this same sense of responsibility that I have had since I first started here and which has continued to grow, especially now.

It is not and should not be a feeling of responsibility rooted in guilt or pity, not one that was created out of the negative of the past even while it must recognize what occurred and the ongoing effects that were caused. Instead, I think it is a responsibility based in the work, struggle and courage of those who came before, each within and defined by the context of their time and their personal circumstances, it is a responsibility sustained by the hope of a better future.

Perhaps there are others who are feeling this same sense of responsibility in their own organizations around the world, working on different issues, in different contexts with different histories. I doubt however that there are many that lack a similar history of passion and commitment as I have experienced. I guess what is really resonating with me at the moment is the current sense of hope, that all of the effort and sacrifice may actually be leading us somewhere positive, and that we’re gaining momentum on that path.


Here are some links to sources that may be of interest. The Caring Society website will provide more information for anyone curious to find out more about Shannen’s Dream or Jordan’s Principle. The focus of the Caring Society has historically been on First Nations Child welfare issues. I have attached a link to the Wen:De report, which provides some of the statistics and issues relating to First Nations Child welfare in this country.

For those interested and who have not already seen, here is the link to the TRC’s findings that they released this past week. They released their executive summary, their 94 recommendations, their principles for reconciliation and excerpts from testimony of some of the survivors, all of which can be found at this link.

Notes à moi-même

2015 Chenevert SarahSarah Chênevert-Beaudoin

Première journée de travail, deuxième journée à Rabat, capitale du Maroc. Je suis toute fière de moi – je prends le tramway. Quarante-cinq minutes plus tard, perdue, je prends un taxi. J’arrive finalement, en retard, à ma première journée au Conseil National des droits de l’Homme du Royaume du Maroc. Quartier chic de la ville, complexes immobiliers qui brillent, cafés et restaurants de sushis. À la porte du CNDH, des personnes font une grève de la faim – ils veulent être indemnisés par le programme Instance Équité et Réconciliation. Note à moi-même : parler du travail de cette instance remarquable dans un prochain billet.

Le Conseil National des Droits de l’Homme (CNDH) est accrédité comme un Institut National des Droits de l’Homme (INDH)et a pour mission la promotion, la protection et la contribution au discours et aux débats sur les droits humains. Indépendant, jouissant d’un statut constitutionnel, le Conseil accompagne, propose, soutient et critique parfois les politiques législatives et gouvernementales du pays. Note à moi-même – les bureaux chics, ça aide la légitimité. La légitimité, c’est fondamental pour pouvoir à la fois accompagner et critiquer.

À mon arrivée, le Maroc tout entier parle du film Much Loved, réalisé par Nabil Ayouch. Interdit par la censure, le film parle du travail du sexe. Le débat sur les réseaux sociaux fait rage – à l’heure du diner, avec les collègues, on parle de mœurs, de liberté artistique, des droits des travailleurs et travailleuses du sexe. Mais forcément, on parle aussi du parti au pouvoir, de la richesse de l’oeuvre cinématographique marocaine, de la montée de l’islamisme. Note à moi-même : aller au cinéma.

Mon premier choc culturel survient à la lecture de l’excellent rapport que vient de publier le CNDH sur l’état de l’égalité et de la parité au Maroc. Les statistiques sur la prévalence des violences dans l’espace public urbain sont organisées en fonction de la tenue vestimentaire de la femme. J’imagine les interrogatoires – ‘Madame, comment étiez-vous habillée? Tenue moderne courte? Djellaba? Tenue moderne longue sans voile? Voile ou burqua?

Le soir, alors que je marche pour retourner au quartier de l’océan, ou d’ailleurs le ciel est plein d’hirondelles, je pense à ces statistiques. Le nombre d’agression et leur classification me choquent et pourtant, je porte des vêtements longs. Je porte une tenue moderne longue sans voile. Les femmes, leur corps, l’espace public. Les statistiques. Les mains aux fesses.

Le document sur lutte contre la violence et la discrimination à l’égard des femmes rappelle l’importance de combattre les préjugés et les stéréotypes. On y parle bien sûr de réformes du curriculum scolaire, de l’institutionnalisation de l’approche genre et de parité institutionnelle. Mais on y parle aussi de règlementer les médias. On suggère d’obliger les opérateurs de communication audiovisuelle à refuser tout les contenus qui incitent les comportements préjudiciables à l’intégrité et à la sécurité physique ou psychologique des femmes. J’imagine une règlementation à cet effet. J’imagine l’argument qui, en vertu de ce règlement, permet de censurer le film de Nabil Ayouch.

J’imagine toutes les questions que je vais me poser cet été.

On first impressions and perceptions

2015 Wettstein AnnaBy Anna Wettstein

Africa has some of the most progressive human rights legislation in the world. This is what made me optimistic and hopeful when I came to The Gambia to work as a legal intern for the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA). I was ready to learn more about human rights in the region, and excited to apply this to prospects for human rights development in other parts of the world where such instruments do not even exist.

Indeed, many people seem surprised when I tell them just how progressive human rights are here – on paper. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, for example, which has been ratified by 53 countries (all AU member states except for South Sudan) guarantees that “[a]ll peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favourable to their development.”[1] Such a collective right would likely never exist in the European or North American context – and indeed, it does not (yet). In addition, the Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on women’s rights guarantees the right to a safe abortion.[2] The African Youth Charter also sets out the duty for the state to “institute comprehensive programmes including legislative steps to prevent unsafe abortions.”[3] No other major human rights instrument even mentions abortions.

The realities on the ground, however, are quite different. I was asked by the IHRDA to draft a document on prospects and challenges for litigation of sexual and reproductive rights in Africa. Despite the codified right to a safe abortion, it has been estimated that only 3% of abortions in the region were safe in 2008.[4] In the same year, 14% of maternal deaths were due to unsafe abortions,[5] and around 1.7 million women in the region are hospitalized annually for complications from unsafe abortions.[6]

Similarly, despite the collective right to a generally safe environment, in addition to the rights to property and housing guaranteed by numerous human rights instruments, many people are forced off their land thus deprived of their entire livelihood. Whether this is in the form of expropriation or the government turning a blind eye to police action or the actions of private parties is irrelevant. Depriving someone of their land is often to deprive a person of every material and non-material good in the world. Children cannot go to school, families have no source of food or clean water, and people lose their right to dignity. The harm is compounded by the lack of possibilities for redress. All of this is tolerated despite clearly and unequivocally violating core human rights instruments.

They call The Gambia “the smiling coast”. I can imagine this name is pretty self-explanatory. People here are in good spirits. Make no mistake, The Gambia is a developing country and there are many problems. But the people I’ve met are kind and happy and incredibly helpful. There are a few phrases that you’ll hear Gambians tell you, repeated as if refrains of the country’s unofficial national anthem. Countless times I’ve been told ‘you are welcome!’, not in response to my ‘thank you’, but as if to usher me into their country and culture. I’ve also heard ‘black or white, it doesn’t matter, we are all people’ and ‘you know, here in The Gambia, we are poor but we are happy.’

I met a friend on my way to the beach the first week I was here. A few days ago I was having a JulBrew (local Gambian beer) with him on that same beach in the evening. He is an autodidactic Gambian from a small village. His life was not easy growing up and he did not have many opportunities, so he taught himself about books and politics by poring over whatever he could get his hands on until he understood every word. In a moment of uncharacteristic despair that night, he told me: “you know, they call it the smiling coast. People seem happy and carefree. But people are hungry. There are a lot of people that you meet who will go home and be sad. Life is not easy here.”

It was a heartbreaking moment of honesty that reflected much of my work experience at the IHRDA. It may seem trite to say ‘not everything is as it seems’, but maybe sometimes we need to be reminded of that, especially in the field of human rights where grandstanding and self-congratulations are rife.

This is not to say that I am pessimistic – far from it. I believe human rights can and has made huge differences in countless peoples’ lives. (For a dash of optimism, check out this article on the reduction of famine around the world.) But I have found that it is important to constantly remind myself that human rights work deals with just that – humans. A legal instrument is only as effective as the people who enforce and respect it. And a human right is only as powerful as the life it has changed.

[1] African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, 27 June 1981, 1520 UNTS 217 art 24 (entered into force 21 October 1986).

[2] Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, 13 September 2000, 1 Afr Hum Rts LJ 40 art 14(2)(c) (entered into force 25 November 2005).

[3] African Youth Charter, 2 July 2006 art 16(2)(i).

[4] S Singh,Abortion Worldwide: A Decade of Uneven Progress” (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2009).

[5] World Health Organization, “Unsafe Abortion: Global and Regional Estimates of the Incidence of Unsafe Abortion and Associated Mortality in 2008”, 6th ed (Geneva: WHO, 2011).

[6] S Singh, Hospital admissions resulting from unsafe abortion: estimates from 13 developing countries (2006) 368 Lancet 1887.

Jenner and Residential Schools; ‘Call Me Caitlyn’ and Call it Cultural Genocide


By Dan Snyder

“Have you seen the photos of Caitlyn Jenner?” posed one of my colleagues to the rest of us gathered around the lunch table the other day. Jenner’s transition had garnered international attention, and at the Ateneo Human Rights Center in Manila, my co-workers and I wondered if this would translate into more dialogue for LGBT rights here in the Philippines as well. The country is devoutly Catholic – over 90%. Even for myself, I remember worrying if revealing my sexual orientation would be a problem here since I’d be working at a Catholic university for the summer. (It’s not an issue.) Incredibly, one of my first projects will be to create a “SOGIE and the Law”[1] module that would be taught here at the school and replicated in workshops. I think my background has helped prepare me to work on LGBT rights in a Christian environment such as this.

While browsing Facebook the other day, the two major topics in my news feed were Caitlyn Jenner’s debut and the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s summary report on residential schools. The following post by a friend was quite jarring to me:

There is something very evil about this whole ‘Caitlyn Jenner’ thing. The bible speaks of the unnatural and otherworldly phenomenon we will encounter towards the end, and I’m gonna go ahead and lump this in with that category of events.

I received clarification from the poster that the status was not ironic and that they were indeed serious. Though the comment really irked me, it also got me thinking about how around the world, religion is still a major influencer of people’s worldviews. Admittedly, I may forget this while studying at the “secular bastion” that is a university in Montreal, but it comes to the foreground in a place where communal prayer before lunch is second nature.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence of the jumble that is the News Feed, but the juxtaposition of the Jenner and TRC stories really stuck out to me.

In Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission just issued their summary report after 6 years of interviews. (I implore you to devote time to read it.) It is heartrending; thousands of children died during a residential school process that amounted to cultural genocide. I found this line from one of the commissioners particularly haunting:

Children were buried at schools that often had graveyards but no playgrounds.

In the past century, where were the Christians saying: “these residential schools are a sign of the end times, let’s work to stop the evil going on there?” The TRC report is clear that some church denominations were in fact complicit in perpetrating this violence.[2] If some people want to use a Christian worldview to guide their lives (and the lives of others), what does the Bible say about how God will judge people? In the New Testament, it says that the King will ask if you treated the oppressed and marginalized as if they were Jesus himself.[3]

Now how about Caitlyn Jenner. Trans individuals are some of the least understood and most marginalized people in our societies. Many spend most of their lives uncomfortable with the gender that society has attributed to them which may not line up with their biological sex. For most people, gender identity is not something that they ever think about because they are comfortable with the status quo paradigm. But for trans people, the status quo can be so oppressive that in the US, the rate of attempted suicide is almost 10 times the national average.[4] What puts them at such a high risk? Contributing factors include: family rejection, bullying, violence, poverty, homelessness, and unemployment.

In order to begin to comprehend someone else’s lived experience, it requires empathy and an attempt at putting yourself in another’s shoes. No one wants to be socially ostracized or be rejected by their family. For many trans people, transitioning is dangerous because it makes one a target for increased discrimination. They aren’t doing this for fun, for attention, or because they are ill. From what I understand, they seek to more honestly be themselves and are risking a lot to do so — when the alternative is staying in a false reality that is unbearable. (I don’t want to speak instead of trans* people, please see the links below for more accurate educational resources.)

When faced with topics we don’t like, or people we don’t understand; our response must be based in compassion. Everyone deserves respect and we need to value the inherent dignity of each and every person.

“Evil” is a term I rarely employ, but I would apply it to the cultural genocide that occurred through the residential schools program and Canada’s federal assimilationist policies.

“Beautiful” is the word that I would use to describe Caitlyn’s debut. Hopefully those of us in Canada and around the world can come to admire her courage in transitioning so publicly as she journeys toward more holistic authenticity. Whether it’s the treatment of Aboriginal peoples, or learning to embrace trans people, some issues require more compassion, awareness, and understanding no matter where you are in the world.


More trans* resources can be found here:

[1] Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression

[2] Some of the denominations involved released a statement responding to the TRC report, acknowledging their role in what was done and supporting the recommendations, “…we know that our apologies are not enough.”

[3] Matthew 25: 31-46

Ahoy, Mateys!

2015 Meredith Carly

 By: Carly Meredith

       Knowing that my 24th birthday would be celebrated just hours after my arrival in Colorado and far  from all the people I knew, my mother made an effort to add thoughtful elements to my going-away/early  birthday party. Our kitchen ended up looking very similar to what one would find if they were  to attend  the birthday party of a 6-year-old child. The tablecloth featured a cartoon depiction of pirates,  complete  with the skull head and words such as “arr!” and “ahoy” printed across it.  The serving jugs  were adorned  with eye patches and the cupcakes equally decorated to reflect the pirate theme. The point I am making here has nothing to do with my mother’s talent for throwing themed parties. Rather, it is to show how pirates have been depicted so as to ignite the romantic imagination. Our images of pirates include men with eye patches, pegged legs, and parrots perched on their shoulders. We think of pirates as adventurous and daring seafarers; people from the distant past who braved the harsh waters in search of the infamous “X” that marks the spot…

        It would be untruthful for me to say that modern day pirates lack the brave and  daring  qualities historically associated with them, because they are both of these things  in the boldest  sense. Pop culture has also bestowed on pirates a certain heroic persona.  And, despite the  barbaric and violent nature of pirate attacks, this quality is one that the  pirates of today continue  to lay claim to. Pirates are not heroes, but their motives are  complex. Some pirates have claimed  they are simply protecting their internal waters  from the disastrous effects of illegal fishing, while  others say their criminal activity  allows them to provide necessities for their families whose  survival would otherwise be  threatened. I do believe that modern day piracy grew in part out of  these concerns;  extreme poverty and lack of job opportunity made piracy an attractive option for  many  young men. However, while these justifications for hijacking ships are still cited by many  pirates, piracy has since developed into a multi-model business enterprise.


       The players, targets and locations are always evolving in an effort to secure additional profits, just like any other commercial activity. Incidents of piracy occur in internal and international waters alike. Seafarers traveling in commercial vessels, dhows, local fishing vessels, cruise ships and trawlers are all potential victims. While piracy used to occur mainly off the cost of Somalia, it has now extended its reach across East and West Africa as well as through South East Asia. The buccaneers can be seeking commercial goods, personal property, knowledge or hostages for ransom. Pirates are violent, unpredictable, and innovative. My image of piracy has been completely revolutionized and hopefully yours will be too; there is nothing mythical about them.

       Before I left for Colorado, so many people would ask me: “What does Colorado have to do with piracy?” Well, I’m happy to say I finally have an answer. The impact of piracy is so vast and so widespread in terms of its effects on seafarers and international transit that it qualifies as a global problem that requires a global response. Ocean’s Beyond Piracy may be operating out of the small town of Broomfield, Colorado, far from pirate-infested waters, but it has recognized the devastating potential of pirate activity and the urgent need to respond to it both on location and all away across the world.

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