A letter to my son (the original)

A letter written when my first born was two days old:
October 7, 2000

My Dearest Alexandre,

I love you with all my heart, and this love will grow with each passing day, each precious moment. You’ll create your own special moments, Alexandre, but promise me you’ll do the following:

  • Travel across Canada by road and admire the beauty your country offers you, from the twisting roads of Cape Breton, to the serene beauty of the Great Lakes, to the glorious vastness of the Prairies, to the magnificence of the Rockies, to the lush countryside of the West, and the eclectic and diverse buzz of your hometown Montreal;
  • Seek out new friends in the above travels, appreciate and celebrate your differences and similarities;
  • Chase little crabs on the beach in Martinique;
  • Take a trip through the Green Mountains in Vermont;
  • Swim in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, not to mention the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas;
  • Marvel from a plane at Mount Sinai and Mount Kilimanjaro;
  • Go through a rain forest and cloud forest in Costa Rica;
  • Buy expensive bottled water at a street cafe in Holland;
  • Gamble in Las Vegas (but just a little);
  • Kayak in the Pacific, white water raft down the Zambezi;
  • Drive through the streets of Tete, Mozambique, and be thankful that the streets are now paved and no longer bombed from civil war;
  • Give money to a guy on the street who looks like he needs it;
  • Visit my father’s grave and tell him you love him even though he’s never met you;
  • Go on safari in Africa as often as possible and admire the planet’s most beautiful creatures while they’re still there;
  • Go to Area 51 and search for aliens;
  • Paint a picture of something you love;
  • Have the courage to go to Malawi and say “Zonse zili bwino” to those in need – you will see many;
  • Go to the villages of Saag-balong, Woribo Kukuo, and Yipelnaayi and see if girls and women play significant, recognized roles in their communities;
  • Climb Mount Washington, Mount Marcy, and Mount Mulanje (but not in the same day);
  • Bobsled in Lake Placid;
  • Go through the Chunnel in a high-speed train;
  • Try to waterski better than your father;
  • Take a ferry from Italy to Greece;
  • Walk through the streets of Arusha, Tanzania, knowing that thousands of refugees from Zaire fled there to safety and that tens of thousands sought refuge there from killings in Rwanda;
  • Forget about the bad things people say about you, remember the good;
  • Have scotch and a cigar with a friend (but not for a while, son);
  • Walk the streets of New York City, but don’t get shot at;
  • Walk to the rim of a crater in Central America;
  • Ride a train through Europe;
  • Dream to be an astronomer, a pilot, a fireman, a voice for social change in the world;
  • Travel to the Olduvai Gorge and view the birthplace of humankind;
  • See the Grand Canyon;
  • Go to Zanzibar and marvel at its beauty and meet its people;
  • Walk into the slave forts along the coast of Ghana and reflect on how evil and wicked people can be;
  • Write a play and direct it and star in it;
  • See the giant redwoods in California, and look up in awe at trees over 260 feet tall;
  • Scare yourself to death by trekking on the canopy walk in Cape Coast;
  • Make money and spend money, but remember that love is more important;
  • Eat peanut butter every day;
  • Appreciate Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future and strive towards it;
  • Go camping whenever you can;
  • Save a pigeon and nurse him to health in your toy box;
  • Dance, no matter how goofy you look;
  • Love your parents as much as we love you, and
  • Strive to make a difference in your life, the lives of the ones you love, and even strangers’ lives each and every day of your life. You’ll sleep better at night.
All my love, 

2012 – Suck it up and survive, or: reasons to be hopeful

I have never been one to make (and subsequently fail to live up to) any New Year’s resolutions. Although I would like to go to the gym often enough so that the cost of an average workout does not exceed the cost of a case of beer.
With a new year upon us I can best sum up my outlook as: The planet’s screwed but that shouldn’t prevent us from trying to save it, and thankfully some people are still trying to do this but more of us should get out there and do something. I know it isn’t catchy but it’ll have to do. As I reflect on the title of this blog, A Change Is Coming, I’m reminded that change (for the better) won’t happen on its own; people have to make it happen.
The end of the year is always an opportune time to reflect on the past and hope for a better future. This should happen every day, not only now, but I guess most of us are too busy. Plus if all we did was reflect on the past and hope for the future, we wouldn’t be doing anything in the present. So as the year comes to a close I’d like to take stock of things. I have every intention of making this a top 10, but we’ll see if I can manage at least five things.
Here’s what I want for 2012:

  1. As an ordinary person, I know can make a difference in this world on my own and with others, including huge numbers of strangers who are just as pissed off at how things are as I am. I should try harder to make a difference.

How this can happen: On my own, I could try to be an Internet sensation and make a YouTube video of me dancing with a penguin that would go viral and make me (or at least the penguin) popular for a week. This would make 1 million people feel good for about 30 seconds or the length of the video, but I can’t make a career out of it. So for the moment, and over the next year, I’ll try to make a difference on my own by blogging more about things related to human rights that bug me or interest me, that discourage me and enrage me or that give me hope for a better future. My Christmas wish list to Santa covered many of these issues: a Canadian government that selectively shuns human rights violations internationally while ignoring its own actions here, including its discrimination of First Nations communities; killings, detentions and arbitrary arrests in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt; African despots who have clung on to power for too long; discrimination and violence against the LGBTIQ community; and Obama reneging on campaign promises such as the closure of Guantanamo Bay. I’d add to that increasing sectarian violence worldwide, violence against women, trafficking and exploitation of children, internal conflicts around the world that kill thousands every year, violations against migrant workers and their families, human rights abuses by transnational corporations, and the shameful reality that we know we are destroying our planet but those in power are unwilling to make the right decisions for our own sake and for the lives of generations to come.

OK so I didn’t quite get to five things, only one, but I like to think of it as all inclusive.

Believing in human rights education
I believe we (collective “we” of planet Earth) can make our lives and the lives of others better by learning about human rights, so I am a firm believer in human rights education. For many people who lead a nice life and don’t need to worry about having their rights egregiously violated (like me), learning about rights is a destabilizing reality. You realize that so many others in this world do not have the same liberties and freedoms and ability to live a full life of dignity. Learning about human rights violations elsewhere leaves you feeling privileged/guilty/blessed with what you’ve got, and can also push you to act out of empathy and respect for others to help them live a life as full as yours. I specifically say empathy and respect rather than sympathy because the latter term relegates the dynamic of those who have and have not to one of pity and charity. Rights are not about charity; rights are basic obligations that states have for all of us to live equal in dignity and rights. I don’t want to help someone living in poverty because I feel sorry for them. I want to help them because it’s their right to live a better life, and we (collective “we” of planet Earth, but also “we” as in governments) have the ability to eradicate poverty and improve the lives of millions within our lifetimes.
Human rights education is just as essential, just as vital for those who live a life of dignity and equality as for those whose rights are violated. Everyone needs to know about human rights; human rights are not just a trendy topic in university classes, human rights education is not boring (at least it shouldn’t be); human rights education is unavoidable, it cannot be ignored. The events of the past year, in particular with the Arab Spring and worldwide Occupy Movement – are a clear indication that average citizens can rise up and demand their most basic rights – freedom, life, security, equality, and are ready to sacrifice their own freedom in order to achieve these rights for others. The courage of ordinary people defying guns, bullets and tanks in the streets of their hometowns to defy the oppressive despots leading their countries should be incentive enough for the rest of us to get off our collective asses and express our indignation at the failure of our political leaders.

The most impoverished are the strong ones
Worldwide, human rights violations affect those living in poverty the hardest. An estimated 1.7 billion people around the world are living in poverty – it’s an unavoidable statistic that affects everyone. I have seen, though never experienced, conditions of poverty in many parts of the world. However, the crap I see that shapes and defines people living in poverty is only a partial reality of their lives. Living in Africa for four years, I saw enough poverty to leave me incapable of facing it for the first two years in Malawi and give me a fair share of nightmares upon my return to Canada. But I also left wondering how so many people kept going with a strength I found remarkable. If there’s anything I want to learn from others less fortunate, it’s how they keep going with a strength of character to suck it up and survive. Whether through faith or will or courage or love or instinct or a mix of all that and more, the most awe-inspiring part of the human condition is found in places where living conditions are the most deplorable and those oppressed are being violated by others embodying the worst of human nature.

As I look forward to a new year, I remain conflicted as I was last year at this time: hopeful for a better future, but discouraged by the violence, poverty, human suffering and willful degradation of the planet. But the resolve of so many to stand up for their rights, to suck it up and survive and strive for a more hopeful future where their rights are respected, pushes me a little further towards the hopeful end of the scale. That’s enough to keep me going for another year. To all of you, a happy and prosperous New Year. A change is indeed coming.

Social change means…uh…umm….well…

It seems as though I was just here at the airport last week. Oh wait I was. This time I’m heading off to the West Bank and Gaza for a week, trying to find out how UNRWA schools are integrating human rights in their curriculum. UNRWA is the UN agency for Palestine refugees. Last week it was a visit to Jordan and Lebanon, and now the West Bank and Gaza. The only other area where UNRWA operates is Syria, and it’s safe to say I will not be travelling there anytime soon. 

I spent the morning at my old college, John Abbott, over in the western part of Montreal today. My organization Equitas is hosting about 100 human rights defenders for a three-week program. We’ve been doing it for 32 years now, and this will be my tenth and final International Human Rights Training Program. 

I went into one of the classrooms to discuss what “social change” means, and I’m glad I did. Social change is becoming one of those catchy development terms that loads of people are using without bothering to think what it actually means. This bugs me. “Capacity building” also gets my goat, as does “empower” when overused. Anyway, I think that if you can’t explain what you mean by social change, don’t go saying your work is about social change. So we took the time to define it. I thank my friend Bonnie for helping me clarify my own thinking in her post.

The approach was one in which small groups of participants sat down together and brainstormed what social change meant. Four groups came up with plenty to write about in ten minutes. Common terms were surfacing: democracy, personal change, governments changing, equality between men and women, change of values and beliefs, transformation, and so on. So far so good.

What we did next was to examine more specifically some realistic changes that could take place in two different target sectors, namely family and governments. The participants in the other six groups looked at INGOs, civil society, educational institutions, media, the general public, and businesses. Each group identified changes that could take place within 1) individuals and 2) their organizations or groups. For example, the government group looked at changes among civil servants and their institutions.

A lot of rich discussion ensued, and participants got the opportunity to provide feedback to each other by posting their results on an online community. I won’t share everything that was developed by the groups, but here are a couple of examples of changes they identified:

  • Among government institutions: Awareness and understanding on human rights and equality in the institution. ensuring the integration of human rights in the institution policies and implementation of human rights in practice and the legal consequences.
  • Among individual family members: – Equal participation in decision making i.e. share information, women and children have voices in discussions and decision making.
The activity was a first step at deconstructing our understanding of “social change.” Examining changes among different sectors is only the beginning. Participants mapped out individual and organizational/group changes, but this begs further questions: how do individuals transfer knowledge, skills, practices, beliefs, attitudes, and values among each other? When is there enough “critical mass” of individual changes to realize that these changes become organizational or belonging to a group? And what of the interconnectedness between the various sectors? And what are the roles that human rights defenders play in ensuring that true, measurable, definable, realistic, positive social change takes place?