personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

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.




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