A milestone year for Canada

As Canada celebrates 150 years since Confederation, Amnesty International Canada calls on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this year to take decisive action on human rights at home and abroad.

Significantly, 2017 is also the 35th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the 40th anniversary of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Don Wright, activism coordinator of Amnesty International Canada, is urging all Canadians to press for concrete action in advancing human rights. With right-wing politics on the rise in large parts of the world, Wright believes that the fight for rights and freedom is more important than ever.

“[The fight] needs to be encouraged and celebrated so that those who want to incite hatred have fewer and fewer spaces to work in,” he says.

From left to right: Paulina Pietilainen, Don Wright and Ken Kellington. | Photo by Betty Shea

Concrete action in a renewed relationship

In December 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau promised a renewed relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples. Wright says that despite the progress made, there remains much to do. As an example, he points towards the inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

“We’re happy that the inquiry is underway. We’re not happy that the scope is narrower than expected,” says Wright.

He would like the inquiry to also investigate police activities, police responses and the role of the police in the lack of attention on the issue over the years.

Concrete action is also missing on identified issues.

“We already know that there’s inadequate funding for shelters for indigenous women and girls, inadequate funding for education and inadequate attention to making sure that there is a standard protocol across the country when it comes to reports of missing or murdered indigenous women,” says Wright. “So lots of promises but limited action.”

In British Columbia, the Site C hydroelectric dam that is being built in the Peace River region is an area of focus for Amnesty. The project is currently underway without Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). FPIC is an international standard to ensure that indigenous people are involved in projects that affect their access to land and resources. To Wright, foregoing FPIC in the Site C dam project contradicts the promise of a renewed relationship between Canada and indigenous people.

“That’s not how you start a new relationship, by doing the same old thing, by continuing to displace First Nations,” he says.

Canada’s role at home and abroad

There are seven areas of focus and 35 recommendations in Amnesty’s 2017 Human Rights Agenda for Canada. One such area is gender equality and one of the recommendations is the implementation of Bill C-16. The bill, passed by the House of Commons, but not by the Senate, makes it illegal to discriminate based on gender identification. Amnesty urges people to write and call their senators for the bill to be adopted.

Another area of focus is the response to the global refugee crisis. Amnesty’s International Report 2016/17 states that Canada resettled more than 38,000 Syrian refugees last year. Wright would like to see more work done to reunify refugees with their families, but he stresses that the report acknowledges Canada’s exemplary efforts against a global trend of increased intolerance. He believes that Canada can be a beacon of light.

“That’s why it’s very important for us to be vigilant about what the Canadian government is doing,” says Wright. “Because we need Canada to be that beacon and to show what’s possible.”

Activism for all

Paulina Pietilainen and Ken Kellington are interns at Amnesty International. Pietilainen’s personal interest lies in indigenous rights while Kellington is an advocate of gender and LGBT rights. Both use social media to promote Amnesty’s message through projects such as the Just Film Festival, a three-day event that Amnesty is running in collaboration with CoDevelopment Canada and Village Vancouver. They offer advice for the public on how to stay engaged.

“It’s important not to fall into despair. Turn your anger and frustration into action. Find out who is worthwhile to support,” says Pietilainen.

With the upcoming BC general elections, Amnesty is preparing a series of public awareness events in April. They will be calling on candidates to indicate their positions on local and national human rights issues.

Kellington, who participated in the Vancouver Woman’s March in January, believes in the importance of being out protesting. He also advises contacting one’s MP.

“Write them a letter, email them, call them, go to their office,” he says. “They may brush you off but at least you’ve made your point.”

“Activism starts somewhere,” says Pietilainen. For those who are discouraged by recent political events, she notes that there have always been human rights violations in the world as well as those who oppose them.

“So keep your eyes on the prize,” she advises. Kellington agrees. “It’s a marathon and not a sprint.”