I Wonder: Am I at a Human Rights Conference?

I warn you: this is the blog post in which I vent. The blog post that is controversial, is quite critical, and I admit is biased. It’s how feel about all that has happened, and what my emotions are.

First, yesterday, we had a conversation about the blogs we wrote before coming here and the Facebook discussions we had about them. The facilitator asked me if he could use a conversation I had with another young leader, since it garnered the greatest number of comments. It started out as a blog post about the voices of homosexuals in Uganda being silenced. It elicited a very positive response re this human rights issue, with both me and another young leader “coming out” to the group. In fact, I said I was a bit worried about attending this conference because I’d been to a similar “young leaders” conference where I experience some homophobia, and now I felt silly about that because the response was so positive.

Then someone else jumped in. Someone who said LGBTQ people are spreading disease throughout society. And quoted those infamous Bible passages. Ignorant, yes. And I was surprised and saddened that I had to deal with this at a human rights conference based in Canada! Once I arrived here, I learned that said individual is not in fact Christian, but is Muslim. Which angers me to no end, that someone is using my holy book, when he is not of the same religion, to say that I am a sinner of one of the gravest of all sins!! And the Qur’an doesn’t even say anything about homosexuality!!

Then, today I did a presentation on Idle No More. In a very short amount of time, about 10 minutes (this was part of a larger workshop), I tried to give some context as to why Idle No More was founded and grew. I stated the fact of colonization, of genocidal policies that saw the deaths of the majority of the Aboriginal population in Canada. I began by asking if anyone knew who’s land we were currently on. Of course, no one did. I didn’t know until I looked it up myself, that this land is Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. I spoke of the residential schools, of cultural genocide, and tried to give a balanced approach by speaking about how my church, which happens to be the organization I work for, was complicit in these schools. How both the UCC and the Canadian government apologized for these schools, but that an apology is not enough in either case. What happens after the apology, to restore right relations, is what counts.

I tried as best I could to not speak on behalf of Aboriginal people. I showed videos of young people speaking about the movement, including an awesome rap video. I spoke about how I, as a white settler, enjoyed more funding for my education and my health care. I spoke about the amazing Cindy Blackstock and the government’s efforts to spy on her and derail her case against them, rather than actually look at the issues she raised. And I talked about Bill C-45, the women who started Idle No More, and stated INM’s vision as stated on their website.

I’m the only Canadian young leader at this conference. I carry this as a badge of honour and as a serious responsibility. It is not my job to put on a good show for the visiting young leaders, to pretend that Canada is this perfect example of democracy and respect for human rights when that is not the case. So I chose to do a case study on Idle No More, and to explain the situation as best I could, from what Aboriginal people have told me. Not to come up with solutions, not even to critique the movement at all. My part of the presentation was simply context-setting.

So I began my part of the presentation with a caveat. I said that Canada is a great country, that it does, by and large, a good job when it comes to human rights. But it is not perfect. And I hold it to a higher standard because (1) I am Canadian, so who else should do it? and (2) Canada is a democracy. It is not Syria or the DRC. It is a First World democracy and if it purports to be that, it should be that for all citizens.

Afterwards, one of the funders of this conference, a Canadian, who had been sitting in on this workshop told me that my presentation was “offensive as a Canadian.”

Like, whoa.

I was obviously upset when I heard this, as I was expecting some disagreement but not that my presentation was “offensive” to my country or as a Canadian. It smacked of the nationalistic sentiment that one should not criticize one’s country, out of loyalty or patriotism or whatever. I wish I’d said, “Y’know what I find offensive as a Canadian? The average standard of living for Aboriginal people.”

This person did apologize to me afterwards, twice. I understand that this person may get their back up when they hear criticism of Canada, but it still makes me wonder – this is a human rights conference, correct? It’s not a conference about how the rest of the world is violating human rights and Canada is so awesome. It’s a conference about the human rights of all citizens of all countries and, I thought, to acknowledge how minority groups in those countries are the most vulnerable to human rights abuses.

The other young leaders generally supported me. One of them even sent me this article after. I’m glad they were listening; I’m glad they got to hear a snippet of the truth and not only the “official party line.”

Finally, I recently discovered that the Centre for Israel & Jewish Affairs is one of the sponsors of this conference. Basically, they do not like the United Church of Canada, and have told Canadian Jews to have nothing to do with “The” United Church or United churches because of the recent decision to take economic action against Israeli settlement products. And I work for the UCC. So this could be interesting.

It hasn’t come up yet, but I sense there is a fear to bring it up. I’ve spoken to others who work/study at McGill and those attending the conference, and there’s a general feeling that speaking about the conflict in Palestine and Israel would be uncomfortably controversial, based on the opinions of some of the conference’s funders and sponsors. I hope Palestine comes up soon. I won’t be bringing it up, as I feel I need to fly under the radar a bit for my own sanity and emotional health. But if it is raised, I will not back down from what I feel is right – that Israel has a legitimate fear for its safety but that that does not justify collective punishment against the Palestinian people. Maybe throw in the fact that it is Canadian foreign policy that the settlements are illegal. And I hope that when it is raised, there will be calm discussion, rather than personal attacks or accusations of anti-Semitism.

So, this brings me to my final questions: Is this a human rights conference? Or is it a human rights conference for everyone except maybe LGBTQ people, Aboriginal people, and the Palestinians?

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About kbardswich

Writer. Photographer. Activist. Lesbian. Feminist. Traveller. Voracious learner. Part-time shit-disturber.

Posted on March 19, 2013, in Human Rights, Israel/Palestine, LGBTQ, Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Well said Kaitlin. Sounds like you are dealing with this situation in a reasoned and sensible manner. However, I agree that there is cause for emotional distress.

  2. It sounds as though you handled yourself with grace under pressure. Hearing criticism about one’s own identity is always hard… so maybe two apologies from an offended audience member means that it just took them a while to process things?

  3. Thanks for sharing and for sticking to the truth. It sounds like you have pushed some hot buttons, which is partly the point of such a conference. Stand your ground (if that is not too militaristic). And take care of yourself. You don’t have to shoulder the guilt for bad Canadian behaviour entirely on your own:))

  4. Margaret Sumadh

    Kaitlin – you are surely in the right place .Eat right, sleep well and your good mind and heart will see you through the intensity of it all. Well done.

  5. Thanks for “representin,” Kaitlin, on the Idle No More movement. If everything you shared was received without quarrel or consternation, that would probably mean you weren’t saying what needed to be said. Certainly a peculiar Human Rights conference, though.

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