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  • Volume Eight, Number Eight: December 2003

    Human Rights Symposium

    People Speak Their Own Minds

    Tom Sandborn  
    Children, the old patriarchal slogan runs, should be seen and not heard. These days in Vancouver, with squeegee kids under police assault and city council passing resolutions to authorize raids on squatter camps  on city property, while the province gets ready to drop thousands off the welfare rolls, it looks like the ante on this matter has been raised.  The poor of all ages are not only meant to be silent, but invisible. They are unwelcome in the city’s parks and streets; perhaps our political masters would prefer if everyone so feckless as to not be able to afford a Volvo and dinner out remain tidily out of sight in the alleys of the Downtown Eastside. Even when policy wonks and relatively well paid social service workers gather to discuss the problems of poverty and marginalization, the voices of the actual people who live with these conditions are often unheard.

    Not everyone agrees this is a good idea. A Symposium held last month at Simon Fraser’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, “Seeking Justice: Human Rights in Our Communities” provided a forum for members of marginalized and oppressed groups and to encouraging them  to speak their truths about the human rights abuses they and their communities experience everyday. The symposium was hosted by SFU’s Community Education Programs of Continuing Studies, and sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University, the School of Criminology, the Naramata Centre, the BC Federation of Labour, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the the Poverty and Human Rights Project.
    Debby Bell, director of Simon Fraser’s Community Education Department and one of the symposium’s key organizers, said frankly that the impulse for the forum arose out of significant problems with earlier attempts to address these issues. 

    “ Our recent Future of Poverty series was a success in many ways, but it failed as outreach to people at the grass roots. We got a good turn out, but it was mainly the usual suspects- professionals, academics and service workers, all articulate, all comfortable in public meetings. Not too many folks living in poverty.  We’re trying to structure this event, and the follow up symposium we hope to hold in April, if our federal funding comes through, in ways that encourage grass roots participation. We know that poverty is in itself a human rights issue, and we want people who live with it to have an opportunity for dialogue. As citizens, we have both a right and a responsibility to dialogue with other citizens about the policies that shape our lives, but many communities find it difficult to engage in that dialogue. We are creating over twenty on-going discussion groups led by members of communities that experience human rights abuses- women, first nations, people of colour, and the poor.  We have designed this  symposium and its follow up groups to encourage the kind of public policy conversation that makes democracy and human rights progress possible.”

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