Overall, the visit reminded me that when our rights are protected, we don’t necessarily realize their importance or the weight of that right. Free speech, for example, is easy to take for granted until you are prevented from speaking, or are afraid to speak up.
Human rights protection provides choices and opportunity: to marry the person you love, to be employed, to secure a place to live, to be treated with respect…to name just a few.
I saw exhibits about residential schools and the testimonies of the survivors, a high school prom in the US that was integrated by the students after years of segregated proms despite anti-segregation laws, and the Raging Grannies. I read about how coffee, plastic bags, oil, and water undermine human rights and how we can use our awareness around these things to make choices that support human rights.
I watched a video about Mark Kielburger and marvelled that a 12-year old had so much drive to bring awareness to child labour that he found someone to take him to countries in Asia to see for himself and speak out – and that his parents let him go.
The Nelson Mandela exhibit is currently at the museum, so I took in the signs, images, and snippets of South African laws that blatantly told Black people that they didn’t belong, didn’t have a place, and were not valued as human beings.
People I know are featured in that museum – Gareth Henry, and LGBTQ, HIV/AIDS and social justice advocate who fled Jamaica, fearing for his life, and came to Canada in 2008, and two female friends whose photo is part of the wedding cake made of photographs to celebrate the legalization of gay marriage in Canada.
Four things that stayed with me the most
Four things stick with me the most from the things I saw:
- The Underground Railroad feature with quotes and songs. One observation by a new Black Canadian in the late 1800s: that being Black doesn’t raise eyebrows in Canada if Black people are providing a service (train porters, serving food), but when sitting down as equals to eat together, the unease beings. It reminds me that sometimes acceptance comes with a clearly delineated “place” and that it is held there by a thin line we don’t want the other to cross.
- In the disability feature there was a book that detailed the experiences of people with disabilities (intellectual, physical and mental illnesses) – being removed from their families, living in deplorable conditions, treated like lesser human beings. Not that long ago. People with disabilities were only granted human rights in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982!
- The many examples of displacement of Indigenous peoples in Canada (the Métis were not recognized as Indigenous until 2016!) and Blacks in South Africa – at the whim of those in power.
- And the feature dedicated to the many many murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls – whose disappearance or murders often go without being investigated. That feature was haunting. Here is a photo of the exhibit.
Does having human rights feel the same for everyone?
I left feeling grateful that I live in a country where we have a museum dedicated to human rights rather than a country where I fear for my life because my rights aren’t guaranteed.
And then I paused.
Because for some, those countries are one and the same.
For some, Canada is not a safe place. Or at least not as safe a place as it is for others.
What if, for example – we took a walk on a reservation, or through a housing project, or in a “sketchy” part of town? What would the people there have to say about the museum, juxtaposed against their everyday lives?
Would they rejoice in the advancements we have made?
Or would they be demanding we see the gaps, and work to close them so everyone can live in this country and feel seen, heard and valued?