By Song-Ly Tran
With two-thirds of my internship behind me, I made my way for the first time to the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights’ office located in a nondescript building of grey stone slabs across from the Plamondon metro station. On the second floor, I followed thin black arrows printed on standard eight and a half by eleven sheets of paper taped to the walls toward door 205. Upon entry, I took notice of the vacant reception desk, the silence and, most immediately, the frames, documents and memorabilia amassed in every corner of the space completely bathed in sunlight.
Through to the hallway was Professor Irwin Cotler’s, the Centre’s founder and International Chair, appointment certification to his post as the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, a copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms signed all along its borders, and articles written by or about Cotler: “Still getting it wrong on wrongful convictions”, “Cotler stays on the case”, “Falun Gong practitioner set free”, “Cotler plans crackdown on human trafficking”, “How Canada Can Combat The Iranian Threat”, “Comment juger un juge”, “Cerebral justice minister shows off athletic prowess” (subheading: “Cotler takes on Israeli pro in table tennis match at Maccabiah Games”), and “New hope for peace: Cotler”, among countless others. Mid-wandering, I met Brandon Golfman, legal and communications associate, who told me over a more formal tour that Colter kept everything and remembered everything; he has a photographic memory. The professor’s office is piled high with papers, apparently labelled according to placement (top right corner of desk or chair on far left side, for instance). This filing method is unique to Colter who, as Brandon attested, can precisely recall the composition of each stack.
Recollection skills aside, what struck me was the office in its entirety which presents as a collection of Cotler’s work throughout the years. This dual museum exhibition and storage unit offers glimpses into his life as a constitutional and comparative law scholar, parliamentarian, international human rights lawyer, mentor, advocate, and friend to many. Having yet to meet him, the place seemed to me as a physical proxy of a one-of-a-kind individual so remarkably dedicated that his efforts have materialised and been recorded and commemorated by writers across the globe. Truly inspiring. And the work continues. With Brandon Silver, director of policy and projects, Colter tirelessly (and successfully) advocated in Parliament and across the Centre’s network for Vladimir Kara-Murza, Russian political prisoner, to be granted honorary citizenship in Canada.
Later in the day, my fellow legal intern, Ella Johnson, and I were surprised and delighted to encounter the professor, arms full of various documents, who was stopping by the office before heading off to Ottawa. Despite his tight schedule, he took the time to greet us and ask us about ourselves. And as he chatted with Simone Hanchet, communications director, Jeremy Assaly, communications and operations manager, and both Brandons down the hall, a humorous slice-of-life interaction — and testament to Colter’s kind and sunny disposition — unfolded. I paraphrase below:
Prof (as he is referred to around the Centre): He can call me today, even on my way to Ottawa.
Simone: He can’t call today; he’s in a bunker.
Prof: They once tried to get me in a bunker to read a document. Nothing in that document was secret. Anyone could have read its contents in the New York Times. If it was published tomorrow, no one would be surprised…
During a meeting the next day, Gila Cotler, the Centre’s chief executive officer and the professor’s daughter, told us we were the highlight of his day. Without a doubt, he was the highlight of ours as well. Over these past eight weeks, under the supervision of Mutasim Ali, legal counsel at the Centre, Ella and I had the chance to research and draft a targeted sanction submission to the Government of Canada addressing the current war in Sudan, more precisely in hopes of halting funding streams to the belligerent parties. I intend to elaborate and reflect on the substance of this work in my second blog post… But, for now, I would like to note the grandeur of this relatively small (in size) organisation, the breadth and impact of its work, and the exceptional people at and building upon its foundation. I can wholeheartedly affirm that any law student would be lucky to count themselves among them, even if only for twelve weeks.