The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: human rights

Enduring in Epic Times

It was the first bold political development of the new millennium, full of cautious hope and promise, and it’s now flirting with disaster.

We were in South Sudan as international observers in 2011, as people voted by a huge margin for the right to establish their own independent state. Subsequently, the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest nation. The mood within the country was euphoric, but the caution felt by the international community was well placed. It was one thing to form a united southern front against the northern government of Sudan in the decades-long great war, but would the southern tribes, many historically at odds with one another, be able to hold it together to enable the successful birth of the new nation?

We now know that the answer to that question is no – at least for now. Soon after independence, the two main tribes fell out with one another and a new southern civil war has ravaged the country for almost three years. Attempts at peace have failed and the cost to the average people of the south now borders on the epic.

The numbers are staggering. Nearly 7.5 million people are now living in desperation. According to the United Nations, some three million have fled their homes due to conflict and starvation and are now living in other parts of the country. Slightly more than 4,000 have been forced to leave for neighbouring countries every day. And 6 out of 10 South Sudanese refugees are children. Recently we learned from the UN that half of the entire population will face extreme hunger by this coming July.

These are the events we hear of everyday through news reports. Yet we rarely come across the remarkable stories of endurance, dedication, and even survival that occur on an ongoing basis in South Sudan. They are worth remembering.

Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan (CASS), for which I’m volunteer executive director, has been in the Aweil region of South Sudan for the past 18 years. It has never been easy, but amply uplifting to the human spirit. In all that time, Londoners have been in the area helping to rehabilitate former slaves, building public schools, developing women’s programs, clean water initiatives, supplying medicines to rural clinics, and training women leaders.

The organization has been there in times of war and peace, but nothing quite prepared CASS representatives Carol Campbell and Denise Pelley for what they encountered two months ago. Veterans of numerous support trips to the region, they reported back that, despite accounts of bloody conflict in other parts of the country, the Aweil region has remained peaceful, permitting the organization’s programs to remain active and effective.

Such encouraging news was accompanied by some troubling realities, however. The very Southern Sudanese champions of these CASS initiatives were on the cusp of starvation – both for themselves and their families.

“This journey was more difficult than my first visit during the war with the north,” Carol Campbell observed with emotion. “Those were terrible times, but what made this visit so difficult was to see how the lack of food and medical care has devastated the women leaders we have known from the beginning. It was heartbreaking.” Denise Pelley concurred.

During that first trip to South Sudan that Campbell was referring to during the war (1999), rebel commander Salva Kiir was assigned to protect us, his image captured fittingly by London Free Press photographer Derek Ruttan, who accompanied us. Now he is the President of the country and his failure to protect his eleven million people from the ravages of war has led to a troubled age.

Yet his intransigence doesn’t typify the actions of the average Southern Sudanese, who simply want to get on with building new lives and opportunities. The chief pursuit for men and women, boys and girls, is education, and even during these troubling days the desire for knowledge hasn’t abated. The high school completed by CASS last year is now full of curious boys and girls despite the chaos in the rest of the country.

With 800% inflation in the area, many can’t afford the price of food.  Mary Adeng Akot, walked with her grandson Garang, for two days to ask CASS for help.  “I am old.  I have nothing.  I ask for my family.  During the earlier war we ate leaves to live.  Now we are eating them again.”

How can all these remarkable programs go on in the midst of terrible, seemingly senseless conflict? The answer is that the Southern Sudanese accomplished all those things for half-a-century previously during the broader conflict with the north. They not only survived but prevailed. And they can again.

But can success be achieved when you and your family are on the doorstep of starvation? Recently my wife Jane Roy and I were asked to present to the Human Rights Committee in Parliament regarding the stakes in South Sudan. We reminded them that Canadians have been there for years and that millions of dollars of investment from this country have empowered the people of the south, women especially. Should we stop now, all that investment will be lost.

Admittedly these are difficult times for donors, too, including Western governments. And when all the news is negative and overlooks the Mary Akots, it remains an easy thing to lose hope. But faith in the people of South Sudan, struggling against the failure of their own political leaders, is now more important than ever. We must champion the champions, invest in their survival, and equip them to lead the women’s development programs.

“You must continue to come to us,” said Deng Deng Akuei, the governor of the region who had been schooled in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with a certain urgency. “Your presence reminds us that the world still cares for us. We still have high hopes that our country will succeed. Your being with us helps us endure.” And so the call to “be there” continues.

A National Tragedy

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WE ALL COME FROM SOMEPLACE – NOT JUST PHYSICALLY, but emotionally and psychologically. For many, such origins involve pain, sadness, even trauma. Some of them take the inner turmoil and turn it outward, inflicting pain on others as a way of dealing with their own. But others pull that pain inward and become prisoners in their own world.

The latter point is important if we wish to begin to comprehend the recent slate of youth suicides in our aboriginal, metis, and First Nations communities. We watch in horror upon hearing of the suicide pact reach recently in the Attawapiskat First Nation community and confess our utter inability to either comprehend or provide solace in such a situation. Recently in an interview with the Huffington Post, Dr. Rod McCormick, an indigenous mental health expert, spoke directly to this issue of inner trauma:

“There’s a lot of unresolved trauma and unresolved grief and loss. A lot of people in the community are containing their pain and emotions through drugs and alcohol, through disassociating, and sometimes all it takes is one trigger when people are vulnerable.  It could relate to childhood trauma; there’s abuse that occurs, be it physical or sexual.”

For young people especially, that sense of a lack of belonging, of alienation, of being misunderstood can be an awful thing to overcome. And so, in their pain, they attempt to take their own lives – a national tragedy.

This is all just another way of saying that where these troubled individuals and communities come from very much determines how they might see the world. For example, they all, to greater degree or less, have lived under the shadow of Canada’s Indian Act. Enacted in 1876, this Act was to determine how the rest of the country interacted with the indigenous communities, if at all. Here are just a few examples of what it contained according to the Working Effectively With Indigenous Peoples blog:

  • Reserves were instituted and residential schools introduced
  • Given new European names to replace their historic ones
  • Any part of indigenous reserves could be used for anything the government saw fit, such as roads, railroads, waterway diversion, etc.
  • Informed indigenous peoples that they couldn’t form political bodies
  • Forbade communities from speaking their own language
  • Denied women status and forbade any indigenous person from voting

Some of these clauses were amended in the ensuing years, but this is where our original people came from and it has defined them for generations. Any of us brought up under such limitations and outright prejudicial racism would likely have turned inward as well and felt cut off from all that we might value. In such a world, suicide can become a cultural phenomenon, and that just what has transpired in places like Attawapiskat.

When asked his thoughts on systemic racism, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said tersely: “No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them”

Tough words, but historically accurate. It’s one thing to hold racist tendencies but be unaware of it. It’s another thing altogether, especially in an era of supposed intellectual awareness, to allow such blindness in our own time. We all share the guilt. We must all share in making it right.

Raising the Floor

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TUESDAY OF THIS WEEK WAS EQUAL PAY DAY – a date missed by millions.

We have the four main kinds of wages: minimum, subsistence, living, and fair wages. But the most important one is missing from this list – equal wage. According to Statistics Canada, women over 15 make up 48% of our national workforce. Yet when you add it all up, women working full-time make 72 cents for every dollar made by men undertaking the same responsibilities. So, yes, efforts at improving wages are vital for those in low-income situations, but our ultimate efforts must seriously embrace an equal wage between the genders.

It’s one thing to recognize gender equality and elevate women’s issues in public consciousness and in politics, but until equal pay for equal work is achieved our words will ring hollow.

This emptiness has endured for decades – a reality acknowledged by the United Nations in 2015 when it recognized that out of 34 countries, Canada maintained the 7th highest gender wage gap. That put us at 27th on the list. The UN Human Rights Report concluded that “the persisting inequalities between women and men,” including this high level of pay gap, had a disproportionate effect on low-income women, visible minority women, and indigenous women.

Okay, so this is a bit embarrassing, but the real discomfort we might be experiencing is that we have yet to make significant headway. As with the concept of a Living Wage, implementation will take time, especially due to all the complexities that will impact equal pay for equal work. It takes time for us to get our heads around the problem. We understand that. But the needle has moved so little in recent years, even as gender issues have take on increased prominence in the public, political, and policy arenas.

Talk to most people in any coffee shop today and you’ll find near unanimous agreement with the idea of equal pay for equal work, yet we somehow never get around to it, either to study it or level the economic playing field. For sure, it will be a costly advancement, but so is defeating climate change, poverty, or unemployment – challenges upon which societies move ahead.

Another excuse for inaction has been that what is going on right now is legal – no one’s breaking the law. As my friend Tim Carrie posted on Facebook yesterday:

  • Apartheid was legal.
  • The Holocaust we legal.
  • Slavery as legal.
  • Colonialism was legal.

There’s a lesson in this – namely that legality is primarily about power, not justice, and the longer we permit these legal paradigms to linger the harder it will be for the human race to make any effective advancement. Laws must be changed.  Or as author Farshad Asl plainly stated: “Leadership is the act of serving others and has no gender preference.” But we do have this preference and it infests so much of our collective life. It’s expensive. It’s hurtful. It’s inhumane. And if our aspirations mean anything, it’s unCanadian.

Hillary Clinton has been fond of saying American’s primary season that it’s time to break through the glass ceiling in regards to women’s role in society and in leadership. Agreed. But as Sheryl Sandberg has written: “We must raise both the ceiling and the floor.”  That can’t be done without equal pay.

Tomorrow:  More about equal pay and how to take action

50 Years Ago, Martin Luther King Jr. Said We Had the Resources to End Poverty. What Happened?

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ALL THIS WEEK WE’LL BE LOOKING at the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and if it still has a prevailing effect on the modern era. He had certain core principles he stuck to, elaborated upon, and ultimately died for. We respect him. We quote him. Some even venerate him. But in so many ways we have refused to walk the path he led.

The day following his receiving of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King delivered his famous Nobel Lecture titled, “The Quest for Peace.” His reasonings didn’t go in the direction people anticipated. He wondered how we can really have peace, or even maintain it, if we continue to leave large swaths of our populations in poverty. Then he delivered a stark admission:

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”

He was greeted with a huge round of applause on that occasion over 50 years ago, but we must ask ourselves: what happened? How, after the explosion of the global economy, the movement of so many nations towards democracy, and an era of relative peace among nations, can it be that the needle has moved so little on the poverty file? Recent estimates claim that 30% of the world continues to live in poverty and that, in the affluent nations, people suffering in low-income situations are actually on the increase.

The biggest problems faced by the world’s poor are actually lack of the most basic things required for survival – clean water, food, health, shelter, safety, social inclusion, and the opportunity to participate in their own solutions. And yet, for all the wealth presently generated in this world, we can’t deliver on these most fundamental of resources.

If King was right and we had the resources a half-century ago, what do we say now that the world is flushed with cash that accrues increasingly to a small minority? It’s truer now than in his time that the resources are there, and yet we haven’t progressed as a civilization to the point where we can solve the most basic and durable of human problems.

A month prior to his tragic end, King busied himself with planning the “Poor People’s Campaign” – an effort that was predicated upon the belief that civil rights can never be achieved and guaranteed as long as people, especially the vulnerable, don’t have the means to live peacefully and productively. King seemed especially concerned about those living in hunger. Since then we have had the proliferation of food banks, monumental starvation in developing nations, billions of dollars of good food thrown into garbage dumps, and child poverty at stubbornly high levels. What are we thinking? How do we justify it? If King couldn’t do so in his generation, surely we can’t in our own.

Franklin Roosevelt noted during the Great Depression that, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” In all honesty, we have failed that test – which then puts the lie to our belief in inevitable progress.

Martin Luther King Jr. would surely have agreed with Roosevelt’s observation, as he would with that of author John Green: “There is no Them. There are only facets of Us.”

It’s time to stop quoting King and start moving forward on the ethical foundations of what he fought for. Our greatest regret as a generation might be the understanding that in failing to take the road not taken that King offered us, we will never discover the fullness of life that might have been ours if we had learned to share the wealth. Fifty years on and little has changed. Time for a civilization reset.

Forgetting to Remember

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IT’S BEEN A YEAR AND … NOTHING!  It was all the rage back then, nicely summed up in a hashtag – #bringbackourgirls. A year ago this week, April 14th, the sounds of gunfire near a village in northern Nigeria woke hundreds of girls at a boarding school, filling them with fear. Many were spirited away by the militant group Boko Haram. Naturally, they were terrified.

A global response quickly developed that channeled the outrage at such an occurrence. News of the girls’ fate was everywhere. The hashtag became universal. Governments promised action, including Nigeria’s, and the media were all over it. Individuals and groups around the world picked up the cause.

And then they dropped it. In a world where events are reported by the second, it was just too difficult for those interested in the fate of the schoolgirls to stay focused and they moved on to other causes – not all, but most.

So, what’s changed in a year? Almost nothing concerning their fate, but the bungles and failures in the effort to assist them have been significant. Three months after they were taken, U. S. surveillance planes spotted the girls but they couldn’t be located a short while later. The Nigerian government warned the international community that any effort to rescue the girls could risk their lives. Boko Haram released a notice that some of the girls would become wives to their fighters.

Incredibly, the Nigerian government paid a Washington public relations firm $1.2 million to help them “change the channel” regarding the fate of the abducted girls and the firm took them up on it. Weeks after their abduction, the United States, Canada, France, the UK, and Israel sent in special forces but the girls couldn’t be found. And then, only last month, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS, spreading even more alarm about the girls’ safety.

All of this in just one year – all to no avail. But one, or rather, 58 stories of hope emerged from all the failure and tragedy. Shortly after being taken a year ago, 21 of the young women escaped and were granted scholarships to the American University of Nigeria. The university offered the opportunity and others around the world donated to the cause. One of the escapees, Sarah, told her story but then turned it into a larger narrative:

“We have not been broken by the attack. We see ourselves as the people who have been chosen to make positive future changes not just in our village Chibok, but in our country and the world.”

The world must never give up in their search for the others, and the need to help them rebuild their lives once discovered. And yet they have already been mostly forgotten. As David Campbell has written: “Discipline is the remembering of what we truly wish to see.”

We can’t let these women fade out of mind. One of the ways to accomplish that could be to help those that escaped  and are attempting to rebuild their lives by making new memories. If you want to help them, go to http://aunf.org. That small act alone could keep the plight of the others alive in our minds.

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