My 2015 Human Rights Wish List to Santa

Dear Santa,

Let me get this out from the start so I can move on: you were 1 for 12 in making my 2011 wish list come true. Even then, the one wish that came true was a little snow, and I’m not even sure you can take credit for that one. But getting rid of all the human rights violations stuff – numbers 1 to 11 on the list – well that continued, and in some cases got a lot worse.
I was waiting, Santa.

But enough about unfulfilled wishes of past lists and the inevitable sorrow on Christmas morning! We all know things got worse in Syria (#3 on my 2011 list was to remove president al-Assad) and I never did get that Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center (somewhere in the middle of my list, circa 1978). On with this year’s list. With today, December 10, being International Human Rights Day, I thought I’d write my list based on a few goals that are rights-related.

First, a little background to bring you up to speed: The UN chose its annual Human Rights Day theme in honour of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the adoption of two main covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. I know what you’re thinking – laudable but astoundingly boring. They tried to spice things up with the slogan “Our rights. Our freedoms. Always.” I think Coca-Cola might have a gripe against them because they used “Always” in an ad campaign a while back. But enough about slogans and on to substance. The two covenants do set out a number of rights that people ought to have by simple virtue of being human (right to a nationality, education, a fair trial, innocent until proven guilty, health, freedom to practice religion, freedom of expression, and so on). Along with the enjoyment of those rights you’ve got obligations that states have to help realize them. Peachy. Problem is – and I know you know where I’m going here, because if you watch children sleeping I’m sure you have a rather sophisticated/creepy surveillance system – this doesn’t happen everywhere. Sure there are some countries where rights are respected; my country is pretty good though far from perfect, but there are plenty of other places where people struggle to achieve a modicum of human dignity, like pooping in a clean toilet, having enough food so as not to starve, and being able to walk around town without fear of being shot. If I were in any of those situations, I’d wish for a few basic things that would make me feel more…human, I guess. I wouldn’t even bother setting my expectations to “Our rights. Our freedoms. Always.” but probably aim for something like “A few rights. Some freedoms. At least sometimes.”
So let me get on with my list:
  • At the national level, make sure our new Prime Minister continues to govern properly and respects our rights (a site like TrudeauMetre can help guide you). So far, he’s off to a pretty good start: the government is moving ahead with a plan to welcome 25000 Syrian refugees, there will be a long-awaited national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls, the government’s serious about climate change, scientists in Canada can speak up once again, and the long form census has been restored. If there’s one thing that bugs me about him, it’s that he keeps saying “Canada’s back.” Honestly, I never left, neither did my neighbours and pretty much the rest of Canada. We’re not back; we were just governed by someone for 10 years who, in opposition to most intelligent Canadians, did not value inclusiveness, acceptance, diversity, equality, openness, transparency, and international cooperation. 
  • At the provincial level, knock some sense into Premier Couillard with respect to demands from public sector workers, in particular the education sector. To be completely selfish about this – and let’s be honest, most kids writing to you want stuff for themselves so why should I be any different – I’m sick of the teachers’ strikes from the past few months. And for that I don’t blame the teachers, but the government. My wife’s a teacher – a damn good one – and has given her all to hundreds of children for over thirty years. Nearly a week of strikes has left us with a lot less money at the end of this year, and if we’re hurting financially, so are thousands of other families with parents who are teachers. Her profession has continuously been marginalized and undervalued by every government we’ve had since she’s been teaching. Like many teachers, she spends long days with young children – a number of them with special needs – and time during evenings and weekends correcting kids’ work and planning new lessons. Some kids have driven her bonkers over the years (I won’t name names, but you probably have a nice-naughty database you can cross-reference with class lists), but she still cared for all of them. The ill-informed, ignorant and dumb among the masses scoff at teachers’ demands for salary increases and reasonable class sizes, citing pensions and summers off as perks that outweigh any hardships, but such scorn makes no sense when you consider the work teachers do with the resources they have. And again speaking selfishly, my kids – now spending another strike day at home – are missing out on their education, like thousands of other kids across the province. By the end of this week, they will have lost six days of school. While I’m all for having my children improve their high scores on Super Smash Bros. on the Wii during those days off, I’d much rather they attend school. I know what you’re thinking at this point: Getting the Premier to agree to a deal is beyond the scope of your mandate! Well, technically, yes. However, it’s in your best interests to move things forward. The more kids stay at home, the more video games they’ll want for Christmas (this entails a greater expense for you, more work for your elves, and added weight on your sleigh). So send them back to school!

Let me get to a few other points:

  • On a global scale, make sure kids in certain places get a few more hugs than usual from their parents and loved ones. I know hugs aren’t included in international human rights law, and I also know not everyone around the world believes in you, but there’s no point in excluding anyone, so go ahead and make this an all-inclusive wish. Top of the list are children who are living through war, conflict, and situations of violence on a daily basis. Think of the children living in war zones like Syria or living in refugee camps, or who have lost family members to violence, or who are forced to become child soldiers, or who are kidnapped, exploited and sold. They’ve suffered as no one should. And I have to add more to the list as well: children living in poverty, who are gravely ill, living on the streets, forced into early marriage, unable to attend school, discriminated against because of their sex or race or sexual orientation – unfortunately the list goes on. Feel free to consult Benedict Cumberbatch’s letter to you for further guidance. 
  • Get rid of ISIS. Not part of your mandate, I get it. But you can’t blame me for asking. I fear another “Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center” letdown, so I’m bracing myself for the worst on Xmas morning. In the event of a letdown, could I at least ask you to whack some sense into convincing anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to be part of a violent group intent on killing innocent people to instead consider a life directed towards peace, non-violence, and kindness towards others (as in, all others, everywhere, and let me say it, “Always.”).
  • Down south in the US, give Donald Trump a brain and a heart. Once again I realize this is likely beyond your mandate, but I am also betting you have a wide-ranging list of famous people in your Rolodex, so maybe you can drop a line to the Wizard of Oz and see if he can work his magic on the Donald the way he did with the Scarecrow and the Lion. I’m tempted to say the guy’s not worth it, but everyone is entitled to the full realization of all their rights and freedoms (remember the UN slogan, “Always.”) and Trump is jeopardizing that by fomenting distrust, racism, xenophobia, and intolerance on a massive scale. My friends to the south deserve better than him.

Crap this list has degenerated into a depressing set of unrealistic aspirations. I might as well wish for stricter gun laws in the US. I’m feeling the need to watch a TEDTalk to cheer me up and restore my faith in humanity.

OK we’re a few minutes later and I did watch a TED Talk and it did give me an idea. So let me wrap it up with something I know you can do:

  • Give children the ability to believe they’ll make this world a better place than the one plenty of adults are screwing up now. To take but one example on how to achieve this, Sweden plans to provide each 16-year old student a copy of the book We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Sweden is arguably not the weakest country in terms of achieving gender equality – there are worse places – and yet they want every 16 year-old to read that book. So pack a few extra copies in your sleigh and pass them around the planet (try to get your hands on different translations. Again, you have contacts, so I’m not worried.). The book probably weighs about the same as a video game (it’s under 70 pages) and would likely have a longer lasting effect on its readers than playing a video game. As we wrap up a global 16-daycampaign to end violence against women, it’s pretty clear that we still have a long way to go, so please help out.

Thanks Santa.

Peace (always),

Violence against women: From This isn’t supposed to happen to Never again

Twenty-three years ago December 6 I walked into my home at the end of a school day and found my mother in the living room staring at our crappy RCA television. There was a live report showing ambulances parked near a building with sirens flashing in the dark. Fat, wet snowflakes blurred the TV screen. My mother didn’t turn to say hello; her eyes stared at the images unfolding, her left hand placed flat on her chest.

“There was a shooting at the École Polytechnique,” she whispered.
The rest of the evening was a blur. We barely spoke, absorbing the images of police officers and paramedics unused to dealing with this level of tragedy, the somber commentary of the newscasters and reporters telling us that, once the last bullet was shot, a lone gunman killed fourteen women. This isn’t supposed to happen here, I thought over and over in my head.
Anne-Marie Edward. Photo courtesy of the Edward family.
When the names and photos of the victims were released in the local paper, my heart sunk further as I recognized Anne-Marie Edward’s smiling face. We had a friendly rivalry in a calculus class we’d taken together the previous year in college. She was sweet, always smiling, and solved some math problems a fair bit faster than me. After graduating from college, I went to one university while she went to the Polytechnique to be an engineering student. Now all that she was, and the lives of 13 other women, were wiped out.
As the anniversary of the massacre is marked December 6, my thoughts once again wander to what happened, what could have been had this never taken place, and what fulfilling lives the victims would have had. A tragedy like this shifted my thinking from This isn’t supposed to happen here to This can never happen again.
Unfortunately, violence against women is still pervasive and knows no boundaries, and it is inextricably tied to violence using firearms. Anne-Marie’s mother, Suzanne Laplante-Edward, in an articleurging for stricter gun-control laws in Canada, points out that “Studies have shown that rates of homicide in domestic-violence situations increase significantly when there is a firearm in the home. Rifles and shotguns are the guns most likely to be used in domestic violence. Women’s groups have repeatedly said that strong controls on guns are needed to enforce court orders, and ensure vulnerable women’s and children’s safety.”
At issue of course is a lot more than gun control. Violence against women in its many forms – physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, financial, spiritual – must be tackled by tightening guns laws, enabling girls and women to understand and claim their rights, providing girls and women with resources and support to live in safety and dignity, and educating boys and men about equality, respect, and kindness. Many forms of violence against women remain hidden, unreported, hushed aside as a family matter not to be discussed. Efforts like the current 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign aim at raising awareness of this issue, but 16 days isn’t enough, it has to be 365.
December 6 is Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women. As we remember the victims of violence against women, the “action” part of this day cannot be neglected. Given the prevalence of violence against women, everyone – and I really mean everyone – knows someone who has been a victim. Sign a petition, read more about the issue, support a women’s group, talk to your friends about it, do something. This stuff is everybody’s business, and it’s got to go away.
To learn more:

Quebec Student Protests: It’s about Everyone – A Citizen’s Changing Views

Didn’t someone famous once say If you don’t change your mind, it’s a sign you haven’t got one? I don’t know, at this time of night I can’t find it on Google but I’m sure someone at some point said something to this affect. Whoever may have said it, it’s applicable to me in the case of the student protests that have consumed my city for months.

When the protests began a few months ago, my first thoughts were probably not dissimilar from many others my age who went to university twenty-odd years ago here in Quebec: tuition has not increased since then, it’s perfectly normal for the cost to go up, students today can spend their money on iPhones, iPods, and iEverything else, live at home and barely pay any taxes, drive fancier cars than I ever drove… so why not, jack up the tuition. “In my day” – oh how many of us my age started their arguments this way? – I worked and got student loans to get through my education and I’m fine. Spoiled brats, get off the streets, stop messing up traffic, get your damn education so you can buy a house, raise a family, put yourself in debt for a quarter century and sit at home and watch the news only to complain about young people who have the huevos to speak up and say This isn’t right.
Photograph by Dario Ayala, The Gazette.
At this point the spoiled brat argument utterly fails, and it’s where much of the media coverage has remained in other parts of Canada outside Quebec (here’s a great article worth reading on the subject). Students were right to say the tuition increase was unfair. Even though university tuition in Quebec is the lowest in Canada and has been the same for the past twenty years, that’s no excuse to raise the cost. Low tuition is not a privilege; it is a human right. Art. 13 par. 2(c) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ratified by Canada in 1976 is unambiguous: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education…” Progressive realization of the right to education means that the Quebec government must take gradual, concrete steps to ensure the full realization of that right. If it can’t do that, it has some serious explaining to do. The government must work towards free education, not charge students more for it. In this respect, the government has failed its citizens. This is nothing new, but often times when they screw adults like me, I shrug my shoulders and take it. They increase my municipal taxes, I take it. My public services get lousier every year, I take it. The roads I drive on get worse every year, I take it. I wait four hours in a hospital emergency room to see a doctor for five minutes, I take it. The government tries to screw young people, they don’t take it. They go to the streets.
As a result of their movement, mistakes have been committed. And this is where my view on the protests wavered from Spoiled brats to They’ve got a point to Don’t mess it up and act stupid. With student protests reaching in the hundreds of thousands on the streets of Montreal, it’s only normal to assume that there may be a little bit of chaos on the fringes and that violence ensues. These are huge crowds, and we Montrealers are known for making much bigger messes of our streets after a hockey game. So the occasional broken window is regrettable, but not uncontrollable and, most importantly, not in any way indicative of the actions and sentiments of the vast majority of those protesting peacefully. But, as noted in the Huffington Post article mentioned earlier, “When students forcibly attempted to prevent non-striking students from entering their classes, they temporarily lost me. You can’t rally on the streets in defense of your rights, and then turn around and deny others theirs.” No you can’t. But the repercussions of the demonstrations extend beyond students being prevented from attending their classes. Montreal’s economy will take a severe beating as tourists question whether or not they should spend their money here. When it comes down to it, those suffering the most in this case will be merchants who depend on tourist revenue at this time of year to keep them going.
My mind changed again thanks to the government’s response to the protests. I went from Spoiled bratsto They’ve got a point to Don’t mess it up and act stupid to The government is really clueless and finally This is bigger than tuition. However inept the Quebec government has been at handling the protests over the last few months, in many ways I have welcomed its creation of Bill 78 because it so fantastically breaches our country’s international human rights obligations, it is so un-Québécois, it is so Kossé-ça-on-est-au-Quebec-ostie (apologies to non-Quebecers for my vernacular), that it is bound to blow up in the government’s face. And it looks well poised to do just that, with the bill being challenged by student groups in court. The outcry around the draconian measures alluded to in the bill have only served to galvanize other segments of the Quebec population who are saying Enough. The casseroles banging away every night in Montreal and other suburbs are not clanged solely by students. There are plenty of other people who have taken to the streets including, I am sure, ones who thought the students protesting were spoiled brats a few months ago. The protests have taken root in Quebec’s culture, our demands for an accountable and fair government, our call for social justice, and fundamentally our need to participate in the decisions that affect our lives. The movement is a movement québécois and as such has taken on a momentum that seems to surpass the Occupy one that eventually fizzled out last year as the cold seeped in.
I admit I’d probably go bonkers if I lived downtown and had to be subjected to night after night of pot banging. I hate noise; I’d get annoyed, my kids wouldn’t be able to sleep be cranky every morning, and life would be generally miserable. I’d probably lose my mind just enough to start having a phobia of pots and spend a few years cooking exclusively in microwave-safe dishes. But the pots are banging for a reason, and that reason is not only a tuition fee that will continue to increase well after most of the student protesters have graduated. The pots are banging because le peuple québécois has had enough with the current government. A people’s participation has to extend well beyond banging pots and walking in protests; it needs to vote, it needs to be consulted, and all the voices, young and old alike, need to be heard. The government has got to stop thinking that measures like Bill 78 are a means of protecting its citizens. The only true revelations of Bill 78 have been to further distinguish the Quebec government as inept and to rouse a people who’ve tolerated this ineptitude for far too long. And the protests have gone on long enough for people like me to realize that this is so much more than higher tuition in universities. If an average citizen like me can change his mind over these protests and the underlying reasons behind them, is it too much to ask a government to do the same? Isn’t it supposed to act in my best interests?