Vancouver Observer: Human rights not a right for all, even in Canada

Don Chapman holds up a copy of the first Canadian Citizenship Act during a talk to students at the University of New Brunswick Law School, Fredericton, NB, November 6, 2010.

by Don Chapman

Sixty years ago, the United Nations adopted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights– dubbed by Eleanor Roosevelt to be the "International magna carta of all mankind." The principal author was none other than Canadian human rights activist John Peter Humphrey. It was one of Canada's proudest moments, from one of its finest citizens. In a sense it helped define Canada to the rest of the world as a country which not just respected human rights, but advocated for them.

Mr. Humphrey championed all kinds of issues, far before they were embraced by others.

Freedom of the press. Racial and gender equality. Equal pay for equal work. Prisoner rights. Amnesty International in Canada. The Canadian Human Rights Foundation. He represented Korean women who were forced to act as sex slaves. He fought for the rights of POW's, as well as the interned Japanese Canadians of WWII. He believed in the "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family." That's the Preamble to his Declaration. No one could have written it better.

Fast forward sixty years, when on August 10, 2008, Parliament gave the go-ahead for our newest national museum- the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Opening next year, the purpose is to explore human rights, with special reference to Canada, to enhance the public's understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others, and to encourage reflection and dialogue.

It was the image, if you will, of what Canada is supposed to stand for.

In 2003 while in Winnipeg I attended the initial public announcement for the museum when it was still just a concept. Unlike other museums where visitors are simply viewers, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights wanted to engage by challenging people to think. The idea was to influence minds and behaviours. The resounding question they wanted the visitor to ponder was, "what would you have done?" It was a challenge, so to speak, as if you had witnessed atrocities as they happened. Would you be silent? Would you speak out? What side would you be on?

Its founder, Izzy Asper said, "If you don't guard against (abuse) by stomping on abuse every time you see it, if you don't know about it, then you don't know enough to fight it."

The theme was not just to educate and enlighten, but to make Canada a truly 'just' society- a global example with enlightened leadership in human rights.

All remarkably worthwhile goals, all worthy of our support. But if we as Canadians are to be the shining example to the world, then let's remember that actions speak louder than words. Regrettably, Canada's actions 62 years after John Humphrey's Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly prove we haven't yet achieved "enlightened leadership."

Three years ago Canada was featured as an "offending country" as reported by the UN Human Rights Commission magazine, Refugees. Their September, 2007 issue was titled, "The Excluded: The Strange, Hidden World of the Stateless," and Canada was highlighted over a two-page spread, specifically talking about the Lost Canadians. Vancouver Observer won a prestigious journalism award for last summer's investigative reporting on the issue, yet amazingly they seem to be one of just a handful in the Canadian media willing to speak out and educate the public.

Right now, Stephen Harper's government is violating two Supreme Court decisions, three UN Conventions on human rights, our Charter, and our rule of law. Not only are most Canadians unaware, but after discovering the atrocities they often look the other way. Governments exist to protect their people. Bad things happen when governments are allowed to turn against their own- history is littered with examples. So when Harper's government justifies stripping away one's status because they were born out-of wedlock, or in some cases because they were born in-wedlock, or because they were born prior to 1947, or because of gender (women are still being discriminated against), having babies born to Canadian parents who can be rendered stateless, and people who have lived and worked in Canada all their lives now having their pensions questioned, something has gone terribly wrong. What kind of nation has Canada become if this continues? For you, the reader, will you speak out or be silent? Which side are you on?

June Callwood, one of Canada's most famous social justice activists, founded or co-founded over 50 Canadian social action organizations, including youth and women's hostels, Casey House, PEN Canada, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and Feminists Against Censorship. To me one of her most striking comments was, "once you know about the (human rights) abuse, you become a part of it." Combine that with what Dr. Martin Luther King once said, "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good."

Please, go spend a few moments, first on my web page, , then go back and read the Vancouver Observer's award winning articles on the Lost Canadians. Be enlightened. Don't allow Mr. Harper to stomp on anyone's human rights. Equal should be just that. John Humphrey and June Callwood would have had it no other way, and neither should you. Engage yourself, contact your MP, let them know that 'every Canadian counts.'

If the Lost Canadian abuse is allowed to fester, then our country becomes just another hypocritical nation that simply speaks lovely words. To really change the world, others must witness our actions, and it all starts with you looking into the mirror.

Quoting Izzy Asper, "The message you come out of this with should be, we have to be vigilant. We can never rest on the subject of human rights."

62 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, much work remains. Are you listening Stephen Harper?