Nov 23, 2010

Panel discussion highlights current human rights challenges

RICHMOND—CUPE BC’s human rights conference got down to business on November 19 with a compelling panel discussion that explored current challenges in the field of human rights.

Arthur Manuel, spokesperson for the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade (INET), began the plenary with a talk on aboriginal poverty and its legal and constitutional implications.

Manuel’s presentation offered constructive advice to the labour movement on how unions can work with aboriginal communities on issues such as the loss of land.

UBC global politics and international law professor Michael Byers spoke about racial profiling. The so-called global war on terrorism has had particularly severe human rights implications for Canadians of Muslim descent, he said.

“Racial profiling is not only wrong but counterproductive,” said Byers. “It alienates people in groups that we need on board to address the challenges that racial profiling creates.”

Recognizing diversity within our cultures

Geoscience educator and gender identity activist Erica Williams spoke about the gender continuum. On the eve of the international Transgendered Day of Remembrance, Williams urged delegates to recognize the diversity within all communities.

“For between one and a half to two per cent of people, their biology is mixed up to some degree,” she said. “It’s not just about one or the other (gender identity), it’s a whole continuum—and we should be proud of that (diversity).”

Williams said that students and teachers have responded positively to talks on the gender continuum that she has held as part of a new Social Justice 12 course offered in B.C. high schools.

The final panelist, occupational health and safety professional Lesley Maisey, spoke about the role of the nurse advisor in accommodation, particularly for workers with disabilities.

“One of the biggest reasons I’m here is that there are a lot of barriers to understanding how nurse involvement can help all parties, including employers,” said Maisey. “My focus is on disabilities and increasing the worker’s performance and function. So one of the questions I ask myself is: what can I do to improve the health and welfare for the worker?”

Speaking up for refugees

During the Q&A session, CUPE 1004 delegate Frank Lee asked Byers what could be done to improve the dignity of Tamil refugees and other political exiles who are subjected to abuse and suspicion by the mainstream media the moment they land on Canadian shores.

Byers referred to a column in Macleans magazine by Andrew Coyne (“one of the most right-wing people I’ve ever met”), which was surprisingly progressive in its support of the Tamils.

“He said that we need to have a ‘bottom of the boat’ test for refugees—a test that would recognize the fear motivation of people who come to Canada, that these people have a legitimate fear of persecution,” he said.

The UBC professor drew applause when he praised the entrepreneurship and principle of the Tamil refugees, calling them just the kind of people that Canada needs.

“It’s the nature of the current Canadian government to be cold and calculated in playing to its base, and we have to challenge that,” he said. “To single out these boat people for special treatment and subject them to these stringent standards and discrimination is simply unacceptable.”

COPE 491