Everyday rights

January 22 marks the anniversary of my mother’s death. Sucks. It’s been four years now. But it’s not a day to mourn – at this point, being sad would no longer be because I mourn her, but because I’d be feeling sorry for myself. Not going to happen. If I did that, my mother – had she still been kicking around – would tell me to stop being such a sissy.

Don’t mess with me, Buster Boy.
At any rate, I want to remember her on this day by looking back at her take on human rights. She was a secretary, a receptionist, a stay-at-home mom, and eventually an old woman who occasionally went bowling and gambling with other old women. Her perception of human rights was essentially created the same way it is for most people: learned through experience, not through any formal education or training on international human rights conventions. So here’s what she knew, written up as “everyday rights” that guided her life, and if you know nothing about human rights, think again, because you probably do. For each “right” below, I’ve put in references to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other human rights conventions.

1. Speak up when you’re pissed off (Sure it’s a right. Think Art. 19 of the UDHR: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”)
In retrospect, I realize she did this quite frequently. If ever she felt she was not being treated fairly (by a mechanic, a salesman, anybody), she’d go on a rant in French and accuse the person of discriminating against her because she had an English name. Those on the receiving end of her vitriolic attacks always ended up on the losing side of an argument and acquiescing to anything she said. Even at the ripe age of 65, she went down to the local mall and protested with a bunch of other demonstrators and wound up speaking on the radio. I can’t remember why she demonstrated – must have been to protect the English language of the rights of seniors – but I do remember her fiery attitude afterwards. She was pumped at getting mad for a cause. Her demeanour unquestionably screamed, Don’t mess with me, Buster Boy.

2. Always look after the best interests of the child (Think Art. 18 par. 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child: “Parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child. The best interests of the child will be their basic concern.”)
This one’s a no-brainer. She was a pit bull when it came to defending my rights and my brother’s rights. A good education, good health, enough food, water, you name it, there was nothing we went without. There were limitations, however. She made me ingest an unacceptable quantity of lima beans in my youth. Every single bite was disgusting. There had to have been a more palatable alternative.

3. A woman can do anything a man can do (and should never be discriminated against because she is a woman. Think Art. 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women that defines discrimination: “…’discrimination against women’ shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”)
She was a single mother with two boys. No further explanation required.

4. Don’t discriminate. But if you do, try your damnedest to change. (Art. 2 of the UDHR on non-discrimination: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”)
I like to believe that we – the collective we of planet Earth – are becoming gradually more tolerant and accepting of our differences. I’m more tolerant and accepting than my mother was, and hopefully my kids will be more accepting than me. Here’s an example of the way she thought: when the Rwandan genocide began in April 1994, I phoned her from my home in Malawi to reassure her I was fine. Her response: “Are you getting along well with the natives?” I cringed at the outdated reference, but I know she meant well. It’s not to completely fault her – she was influenced by her generation while also shaping her own values and attitudes. When it came to accepting others, well…it was best not to talk about gays and lesbians; no taxi driver who was a “foreigner” could possibly know the streets of Montreal as well as a real Montrealer; all [insert ethnic minority] were cheap; every [other ethnic minority] was smelly; [those others] were rude; and as for me having a Chinese girlfriend – yikes that was a conversation-killer. The years passed and she did mellow out a lot. Perhaps mellow isn’t quite the right word. As she learned more about different cultures, either through TV or the changing ethnic landscape of her neighbourhood, ignorance manifested as subtle racism evolved into uncertainty, understanding, tolerance, and eventually acceptance. Most of the time.

5. Give (making sure that you do your part so that strangers live in dignity, Art. 1 of the UDHR).
I know, giving isn’t a human right. In the final years of her life, my mother decided to give money to charitable organizations that did humanitarian relief work. It was the first time she’d done so. A small gesture to be sure, but it symbolized a recognition that, despite living a life with a fair amount of significant hardships, she found room to give to others less fortunate. The gesture was Article 1 of the UDHR, plain and simple: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood […and sisterhood].”

So far, these everyday rights have worked just fine for me.

Speaking out against pieces of sh*t in Canada and abroad

Matt Price of the Huffington Post recently wondered in a blog why more Canadians aren’t losing it like Trudeau. The reference was to Trudeau’s recent outburst in the House of Commons calling Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent a “piece of shit.” The guy who stole my wallet last month is a piece of shit; Peter Kent is not. At least he shouldn’t have been called that in the House of Commons. Mr. Kent was more cowardly than shit-like. He was in no position to criticize NDP environment critic Megan Leslie for not attending the Durban climate conference. It was his government that prevented any delegates from other parties to attend the conference.

While I don’t think the House of Commons is the place for such language, I applaud Mr. Trudeau for bringing more media attention to the policies and practices our government is taking, apparently without much objection from many of its citizens. The Canada that the current government is creating is not one to be proud of, from reneging on the Kyoto Protocol, cutting funding for abortions, scrapping the gun registry, passing a crime bill that will likely do more harm than good, losing a seat on the UN Security Council, and systematically marginalizing aboriginal rights. For that last one, the UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples James Anaya contacted the Canadian government about the “dire social and economic condition” about the Attawapiskat First Nation. The response from the government’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister: the special rapporteur’s statement “lacks credibility.” Smells like shit, and it’s not coming from the UN.

How does this “lack credibility”?

Don’t think this is going unnoticed, here in Canada or abroad. Fifteen years ago, I travelled to other countries and could be assured of a smile every time I said I was Canadian. Nowadays, most people frown, hesitate before speaking, and finally ask me: “What’s wrong with your country now?”

There’s plenty wrong with our country, but I’m also aware (and deeply thankful, but not thankful to this government) for the liberties I have. I can criticize the government because it’s my right. I don’t live in fear of being arrested or assaulted by the police if I say something against the government. I have freedom, I have liberty, I have freedom of expression, and I realize as I reflect on the realities in other countries that I don’t exercise my freedom of expression enough. I might not get to the point where I start name-calling government officials, but I should be more vocal about the things I care about. When it comes to respecting the human rights of all Canadians (and our right to a clean environment is intricately linked to our human rights as individuals and groups), it is shameful that the government dismisses any criticisms, from opposition parties to public outcry to the United Nations, and ploughs ahead with its own agenda. This is not a Canada I am proud of. This is not my Canada.

Blatant disregard for basic human rights – Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states we all have the right to life, liberty and security of the person – continues to tarnish progress in Canada and elsewhere in the world, even in this year of the Arab Spring. The death toll in Syria is over 5000 since protests began, violence has erupted again in Egypt following elections, and the oppression continues in Bahrain. When I think back at the year’s events, as so many of us do as the year’s end approaches, there is one issue above all that upsets me the most, and recent events have only made things worse. I am still angry at the arrest, imprisonment, mistreatment, and unfair trial of my friend and human rights defender Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, currently serving a life sentence in Bahrain for defending the rights of others. His daughter Zainab, clearly demonstrating very peacefully against the government at a roundabout last week, was handcuffed, dragged into a police van, and arrested. This is wrong. His arrest was wrong, her arrest is wrong; both should be free. Her lawyers were told yesterday, “What trial?” as they appeared in court. The leadership in Bahrain should think of implementing the recommendations put forward by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. When will the violence end, when will the common denominator that bonds us all – our humanity – be enough to stop the hatred? When will those in positions of power admit to their weaknesses, mistakes, and human rights violations so we can move on with our lives and focus on bettering ourselves and helping each other rather than oppressing those who dare to speak of human rights for all?

To those who have fought to claim your own rights and protect the rights of others, I respect and envy your courage. You are the voice of the fed up, the tired, the pissed off, the oppressed, the violated, the hurt. Speak up so that more can be inspired.