personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

On the G20, the government and why it's not so good to be a Canadian at the moment

It’s getting harder to be a Canadian these days. Or let me put it another way: it’s easier to be ashamed of being Canadian. There were 10 000 protesters who lined up against police in riot gear today to protest the G20 summit. This guy here is angry enough to smash a bank window (not my own bank, but still, someone’s going to have to pay to get it fixed) while other protesters lighting a police car on fire is an equally dumb act, against the law, and clearly more violent. I’m sure the majority of the protesters are Canadians, and while I share their anger at the way some world leaders are handling key human rights issues (such as the Canadian government with reproductive rights), there’s no way to justify such violence. Besides, I wonder how much the protesters actually know about the issues the world leaders are debating, and how many others are just plain angry with nothing better to do than to foment further anger.

I don’t advocate violence, I never will, and I find it shameful that a small group of protesters out of the thousands of peaceful ones present turn today’s events more into news about violence rather than news that could potentially offer hope to millions of people around the world living in decrepit conditions. But even then, Canada’s commitment during the conference to pledge 1.1 billion dollars to maternal and child health must be recognized, but greeted with scepticism. The amount is spread over five years, is still less than the total cost of security during the G8/G20 summits (that price tag is 1.2 billion dollars), and the government is unwilling to see that money go to support abortion or abortion services. In other words, we could have done a lot better. Particularly when you consider that over half a million women worldwide die of maternal mortality shortly before, during, or after birth, and we are nowhere near achieving our Millennium Development Goal to reduce the number by three-quarters from 1990 until 2015.

Canada is typically seen as a world leader in promoting and respecting human rights, both at home (OK, a few exceptions, such as the abuses against First Nations peoples past and present) and overseas. But that is changing. With the Canadian government axing funds to a number of human rights and development organizations, in particular women’s rights organizations, other folks from around the world are looking at us and asking us, What’s going on? And it’s not simply a cut in funding to organizations working in Canada, but Canadian organizations working overseas. Back in March, a good friend of mine from Palestine looked at me and said: “What’s happening? Why are you doing this to us? We used to look to Canada for assistance, and now our funding is being cut, and there is no explanation. We always used to count on you, there were always Canadians who would come and help us when every other country let us down. We do not understand.”

Talk about making me feel this small. When I first began working and living overseas and introduced myself as a Canadian, I either got a warm handshake or a big hug, and always a genuine smile. If someone asked first, Are you American? I would tell them my nationality and they would apologize profusely for labelling me in such a manner. It was good to be Canadian, I felt proud to be a Canadian in that typical I’m-modest-about-it-because-I’m-Canadian-and-that’s-how-we-are way.

Now that the organization I work for ended its three-week annual human rights training program a few minutes’ drive from my house, I’m thankful that the 120 or so participants from about 60 countries had a wonderful time. Some participants are amazed at our country’s beauty, the peace we enjoy, our multicultural environment here in Montreal, our respect for gender equality, and some of our more progressive laws. But having the G20 violence rage in the background, angry at a government making questionable decisions about human rights when in fact it should be a leader among nations, makes me squirm. (You can take action in many ways, one of which is to read and sign a declaration asking for increased accountability and transparency by the government.) I want to be proud of saying I’m Canadian when someone from another country asks me where I’m from. I’m getting tired of being told, “What’s wrong with you? You used to be so nice.”



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