2015 Cichalewska VictoriaBy Victoria Cichalewska

During Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP) here in Montreal, I have met multiple fascinating individuals from around the world hoping to develop effective and practical strategies to transform their communities through Human Rights Education (HRE).

Before my internship, I have never seriously thought about the importance of HRE for social change. However, after weeks of work at Equitas, its importance is now clear to me. Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, High Commissioner of Human Rights, also expressed the importance of HRE when he said that the most powerful instrument in the arsenal we have against poverty and conflict is the weapon of massive instruction.” (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15628&LangID=E)

After three years at the Faculty of Law, I now understand that laws are not enough to ensure peace and respect. If people do not learn to love and truly respect one another first, even the best anti-discrimination laws will not be enforced. These laws will merely give a misleading appearance of harmony and non-discrimination.

Since HRE is crucial for a healthy society, it should undoubtedly be infused throughout the programs of every school, from the earliest age. I began to wonder whether I have ever been exposed to HRE in my own education in Quebec. I am sure that most participants at the IHRTP come to Montreal assuming that HRE is part and parcel of our education system here in Canada. Yet, I realized that most of my years in school were completely devoid of any aspect of HRE.

During the IHRTP, HRE has been described as the contrary of indoctrination, since it encourages critical thinking and is based on a participatory approach to learning which starts from the experience of each individual. This is contrary to the expert model, in which one individual thought to be an expert lectures an entire group. If HRE is the contrary of indoctrination, it would therefore discourage the propagation of myths or stories that are misleading. Unfortunately, I can think of many such myths that I have been encouraged to accept during my time in school.

Throughout my years in elementary school, high school and Cégep, Canada’s racist and colonial identity has never been revealed to me. I have only heard about Residential Schools coincidentally a few years ago while doing my own research. The first time I was asked to read about Canada’s racist history was in the Critical Race Theory seminar I took last semester when we read Constance Backhouse’s “Colour Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada.” The myth of Canada as a state that has never been racist has been ubiquitous throughout my education before law school.

Moreover, present systematic oppression has also rarely been discussed throughout my education. When oppression is mentioned, it is often situated in the past. For example, consider Montreal Police’s recent commitment to improve the way police interact with First Nations people. These efforts have been described as a way to “try and combat the continuing effects of colonization,” therefore implying that colonialism and oppression is a thing of the past (http://montreal.ctvnews.ca/montreal-police-aboriginals-partner-up-to-improve-relations-1.2441359). However, many, such as Professor Glen Sean Coulthard, would say that the continuing dispossession of Indigenous land and the present pain endured by Indigenous people are not just “effects” of colonialism, but are indicative of the continuing colonial relationship between the state and Indigenous people in Canada (Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014) at 106). These are only some examples of myths that pervade our society, including our education system.

For all these reasons, I have come to the conclusion that, from my own experience, HRE seems to be quite absent in Quebec, especially in elementary and high school. Classes that resemble HRE only seem to be available in university and are not mandatory. However, as Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stated,  this model of education is important in the long-term project of rewiring how many people think. My time with Equitas has showed me that only such a project can lead to durable social change and a more peaceful world.