Category Archives: Human Rights

Becoming Aware of My Ableism

So I have this friend. Let’s call her Laura. And she has cerebral palsy. She’s probably my first close friend with a physical disability, and she uses a motorized wheelchair to get around.

We met a few years ago, and I’m still stunned by the types of interactions I witness between her and other people. There was the time a woman with a dog stopped us in the street – Laura has a helper dog, a gorgeous black lab – and started speaking to her and petting her dog. Laura had to explain that the labrador was working, which you think would be fairly self evident with the harness and everything (though I admit, it is hard for me not to pet him when he’s wearing his harness as he’s the sweetest thing ever). When she left, I turned to Laura and asked, “Do you know her?” Laura’s sarcastic response? “No. But we all look alike.”

Then there are the comments about her being heroic or an inspiration. They happen often. This TED talk by Stella Young can tell you a lot more about inspiration porn and the objectification of disability than I ever could.

And of course there’s often – I can’t even count the number of times – a patronizing “You can do anything you set your mind to!” from well meaning people. I often want to respond with “Yes, thank you, she knows that.” But then I’d be speaking for her, and that’s not something I want to do.

Which brings me to this past summer’s World Pride parade in Toronto, when the patronizing and infantilization was the greatest I’d ever witnessed while being out in public with her. We went to one of the accessible sections along the parade route to watch the floats go by, and I was treated like the all-knowing (probably paid) helper, and Laura like the young child who couldn’t speak for herself. There was one woman in particular, who was there with her elderly mother who couldn’t stand through the whole parade, who would only speak to me. Asking me what happened to Laura, for example – was she born that way or did she have a stroke? Because she looked just like this person she knows who had a stroke. (Ugh)

I remember one point when she turned to me and said, “Oh I’m so glad they gave her some beads” referring to one of the people in the parade who walk along the floats handing out stickers or buttons or cheap glittery beaded necklaces.

I wanted to snap back with, “She’s not a child!! She’s twenty-fucking-six. She’s getting her Masters degree!! FUCK.”

But I didn’t. I was polite. I just smiled and gritted my teeth.

The most recent situation was earlier this month during the Toronto International Film Festival, Laura and I saw Margarita with a Straw, a movie from India about a young girl with cerebral palsy who moves to the United States for school and falls in love with another girl.

The movie had its faults, and many of us were surprised when the main actress walked onto the stage with no signs of any disability. As the Q&A progressed, we realized that she didn’t even have a mild form of CP. She was an able-bodied actress portraying someone with CP. Even Laura was convinced she had CP while she was watching the film. And that brought up a whole litany of issues like – why aren’t disabled actors used to portray their own stories? Is it ok that an able-bodied actress played the role flawlessly, with realism and depth? Is it ok to view the movie differently just because the main actress is able-bodied in real life?

I don’t know the answers to these questions; they’re great discussion questions, and Laura and I did discuss them as we walked out of the theatre, along with a couple of other friends. That’s when we passed a TIFF volunteer, an older lady, who stepped in to filter the traffic around us, with these incredible words:

“Please step aside for this poor lady.”

I wanted to respond with, “Ok, see that movie we just came out of? You need to go see that and then get some sensitivity training.”

For fuck’s sake.

It’s only when I’m with Laura that I truly see how much of an ableist society we live in. And how much privilege I have being able-bodied. The examples above are only the examples I’ve experienced of real, blatant ignorance when it comes to disability . And I’ll admit, before I met Laura and before I started to read about disability and ableism, I fell into some of those categories discussed above.

But I haven’t even mentioned things like accessibility. That would be a whole other blogpost – or 10. I try to notice how many times I use stairs to get into a building or an event. But really, it doesn’t usually cross my mind unless I’m with Laura. Because I don’t have to think about it in my everyday life, when I’m going about my business alone. Take the TTC for example. This map was recently posted of what the TTC looks like if you’re using a wheelchair.

And this is just my experience, as an able-bodied person with a friend who happens to have cerebral palsy. I can’t even imagine the frustration that my friend deals with on a daily basis. If you’re intrigued by what I have to say, please check out some of the disability activists who blog like Glenda Watson Hyatt, Dave Hingsburger, and Stephen Kuusisto.

Do you have some favourite writers in the blogosphere? Let me know in the comments!

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Chipembi – A School Without Books

This post is adapted from an article I recently wrote for my church (Trinity St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto) newsletter, the TSP Times. I’ve added some more photos and descriptions.

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The mural painted on the side of Chipembi basic school

This summer, I spent three weeks travelling through southern Africa – Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. While the first three countries were vacation, I was in Zambia for another reason. Namely, to visit TSP-er and recently retired Executive Minister of the Partners in Mission Unit at the General Council Office, Omega Bula – and to take her up on her offer to “come and see” Chipembi, in central Zambia.

Chipembi is a beautiful place with beautiful people, but it’s also a place of poverty. The focus of this piece is on Chipembi Basic School – the primary school in the area; I visited one of the Grade 4 and Grade 9 classes there. The Grade 9 class was full of young teenagers eager to get out into the world, to become doctors, teachers, lawyers, and nurses. But looking at the history and current state of the school, it was heartbreakingly difficult to imagine those dreams coming true. In the history of the school, I was told, only 2 students have gone on to university; some others have gone to college. And, most disturbing, and likely the reason for this low number, many if not most of the children do not know how to read.

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Helen attempting to read simple sentences

The problem is not a lack of qualified teachers, or committed parents. Though the reasons for this lack of literacy are many and multi-faceted, the main problem, teachers explained to me, is the lack of textbooks. Each class has one book – for the teacher to use as s/he then transposes words on the chalkboard to instruct her/his students. And many of these limited textbooks are old and falling apart. What the classes need are Zambian curriculum textbooks, one for each student in a class. Students need books in order to learn, especially to learn to read.

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Bonaventure

This is Bonaventure. He walks 10 km each way to school, which takes almost 2 hours. He lives with his parents. As they have a low income, he has not yet paid the 20 kwacha ($4) in this semester’s fees. When I showed him his photo on my camera, he broke into one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen.

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Helen

Helen is 13 years old. She walks 45 minutes each way to school. She moved to Chipembi a few years ago after her mother died, to live with her father. Her grandmother pays her school fees. She cannot read.

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Phinious

Phinious is 10 years old. He walks almost 2 hours each day, to and from school. He lives with his grandmother; they have money issues and he has not yet paid for this semester. He cannot read.

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Manasse

This is Manasse. She is 12 years old, and repeated a grade. She stays with her aunt and uncle at the Farm College in Chipembi, so has a short walk to school. She can read very basic sentences.

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The fourth grade class

Benjamin Whitney, from Ottawa, recently visited Omega with his parents. When he returned to Canada, inspired by the people he met and the community he witnessed, he and two others – Jennifer Van De Vooren and Sebastien Wardell – federally incorporated the non-profit Literacy for Africa. You can find them on Facebook. They will start with ensuring there are adequate textbooks in Chipembi, but not stop there; Chipembi will be the pilot project of a hopefully successful relational program that moves beyond that community.

Trinity St. Paul’s United Church is well-known for its social justice advocacy. The goal of this initiative is to support systemic change through education, namely through literacy. By supporting Literacy for Africa, TSP would be working in partnership with the Zambian education system to ensure students in Chipembi have regular access to Zambian textbooks. If we focus on getting the Grade 1s textbooks, and then the Grade 2s, and so on, we are helping to equip an entire generationof Chipembi children for a solid future.

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Fourth grade class

Many of you who have visited communities like Chipembi know how important literacy and education is, as it is for Canadian children. All children deserve a solid education, so I encourage those of you who are interested to consider donating to or volunteering with this very worthy cause. The fundraising has begun and is going strong, but more is needed to support all the grades. You will behelping to affect positive change, in one individual and one community at a time.

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I love this photo. I love the defiance on her face, the strong stare. I hope this kid goes far.

* Note: All of the children were asked for their permission before taking their photo, and copies of the photos have been sent back to them and their families.

Focusing on the Positive

I’ve let myself down to a certain extent. There have been some more quite negative situations occurring at the conference, and I’ve let them tarnish my experience here. I have let certain people, who are in the minority, control my experience of the conference and distract me from all the wonderful people and ideas that are floating around me. I will list them, purge the negative, and then move on.

First, we had one speaker a few days ago come to speak to us about the use of social media to start a movement. In his case, it was a movement against FARC in Colombia. One of our young leaders, also from Latin America, began to ask him a question, and obviously had a slightly differing approach to the situation. The speaker immediately cut him off, attempting to shut him down. He said, “I’m not answering your question! I’m not answering your question! Next question!” And basically called him a Communist. The rest of us young leaders intervened, saying he had the right to be heard. Our moderator stepped in, calmed the speaker, and the young leader was allowed to finish his statement. The speaker did apologize towards the end of the session, but then told the young leader that he shouldn’t bring up things like that because he’ll start fights.

Right.

Then we have had some sexual harassment issues among the young leaders. One male young leader in particular, the same one who told me that gay people are spreading disease throughout society and it’s the greatest sin of all sins etc, has been sexually harassing many of the girls here. Even the girls who haven’t been directly affected say that they feel uncomfortable around him. His attacks have ranged from unwanted attention, telling girls he wants to take another wife, calling girls sinners for drinking, etc, and then on the extreme end, telling a girl that her “problem” is that she’s not a virgin. When she told him to f*** off, he got very aggressive, telling her to “watch her tongue” and that “if she wasn’t a girl, she would do something to her.” Later that evening, he told his roommate that he “wanted to f***” this particular girl. And he said this three times.

As would be understandable, many of us are outraged by this behaviour. I will speak for myself right now, but I feel that this behaviour is not the behaviour of a young leader. I feel that he should not be able to call himself an Echenberg Fellow nor should he be part of the network we will be creating afterwards. Of course, I will experience people who disagree with me everywhere I go, but there is a difference between disagreement and outright offensive and aggressive speech and behaviour. Those types of things, while we may encounter them, should not be tolerated.

A third thing that is getting on my nerves is the founder’s constant use of the words “facts and context.” You have to have “the facts and context” before you make any statements, they constantly say. And this is obviously a code for Palestine/Israel. It was even said at the opening of the “adult” conference that the worst offender of political correctness, double standards, selective facts, etc was the UN Human Rights Council. Man! Can we even have a conversation about Israel and Palestine? Like an actual conversation?!?

Phew! Ok, I’m done. Will write again tonight, post some photos, and concentrate on trying to get the most out of this amazing opportunity, even though it’s not perfect.

But don’t worry, I will continue to speak Truth to Power.

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?

Beginning Again

I’m starting up this blog again, just in time for my journey to Montreal, where I am participating in McGill University’s Global Conference on Democracy, Human Rights and the Fragility of Freedom, the third Echenberg Family Conference on Human Rights. I’m attending as a “Young Leader,” along with 24 others from around the world.

I’m currently on the train, on my way to Montreal, a city I’ve never visited before. And yes, I realize the ridiculous fact that I’ve been to Rwanda but somehow haven’t made it to Montreal, even though I’ve lived in the GTA for most of my life!

Anyway.

I’m excited for this conference! It’s an amazing opportunity, a chance to network with prestigious people from around the world. I hope to blog regularly, to share my musings while I engage in sometimes difficult debates around human rights. I’m sure it will be an adventure!

in other news…

Check out the video I created about the connection between fossil fuels and human rights, when I was working at KAIROS this summer. Of course, I just strung together the many years worth of research given to me by the ever-fabulous KAIROS staff!! (I was but a tiny cog in the KAIROS wheel…lol)

(and a shout-out to Noelle for the music!!)