Human Rights Day begins Congress with a sense of hope 

A day to reflect and look forward

By Russ Cooper

Photojournalist REZA conducts a master class for grad students on May 29. Magnifying glass

Photojournalist REZA conducts a master class for grad students on May 29.

It was a day of powerful stories, of striking images, of solemn perspective.

The first day of Congress 2010, Human Rights Day on May 28 attracted nearly 700 attendees (many of whom were Congress delegates). This was the most fitting way to kick off the biggest event in Concordia’s history.

“Human rights issues directly or indirectly affect every person on the planet,” said Dean of Graduate Studies Graham Carr. “Concordia is a focal point in Canada for research and student training in this area and we wanted to create a forum that would showcase that reality to Congress delegates and the public at large.”

Human Rights Day was the third edition of the President’s Conference Series (see Journal, March 19 and Nov. 12, 2009), and followed the same three-session, moderated discussion panel, Q and A format.

However, this edition saw a few changes. In addition to featuring members of the Concordia community, organizers invited numerous external speakers involved in various aspects of human rights issues in an effort to expand the scope of the discussion. As well, in keeping with the overall Congress theme of Connected Understanding, audience members were able to access simultaneous translation from a professional translator via audio headsets.

Charles Martin, Contemporary World teacher at Westmount High School, talks with students at the ePearl exhibition in the LB Atrium during Human Rights Day. Magnifying glass

Charles Martin, Contemporary World teacher at Westmount High School, talks with students at the ePearl exhibition in the LB Atrium during Human Rights Day.

Despite the changes, many things stayed the same from previous PCS editions; the depth and breadth of the presentations was extraordinary, the audience was remarkably engaged, Mountain Lake PBS returned to gather further footage for an upcoming special, hundreds watched via webcast, and, by all accounts, the event was a complete success.

During the morning session, entitled Denounce: The Abuse of Children, the panel featured Applied Human Sciences Professor Natasha Blanchet-Cohen, Communication Studies Professor Elizabeth Miller, Trudeau Scholar and former child soldier William Tayeebwa, as well as University of Utah Psychology Professor Cecilia Wainryb.

In stating graphic details of her research surrounding child soldiers, Wainryb observed that there are currently 300 000 to 500 000 child soldiers under the age of 18 in the world who “are not very different from the children we all know.”

The afternoon session, Reveal: A Witness to Pain, featured humanitarian and photojournalist REZA. The session, moderated by Concordia University Research Chair in Art History Professor Martha Langford, was a potent display of REZA’s photos spanning his career of 30+ years.

Describing the trauma that war inflicts on children as, “the main focus of my work,” REZA interspersed his presentation with powerful film and photographic material covering different zones of conflict he has visited. “Seeing all this pain and sorrow has allowed me to be more optimistic about humanity,” he said.

The evening session, Declare: Equal Rights for Women, welcomed Radio-Canada journalist and anchor Céline Galipeau to share her experiences from years as a foreign correspondent in some of the world’s most turbulent areas.

Presented in French and moderated by CJAD broadcaster Anne Lagacé Dowson, Galipeau’s talk focused on her reflections as a journalist covering women’s and human rights. The talk naturally segued into an autobiographical introspection, focusing on her experience as a female journalist in a professional field that was predominantly male and her desire to break the mold of a traditional foreign correspondent.

The following day, May 29, the university presented a day of Master Classes for 21 leading graduate students from 17 universities studying human rights issues; a series of four 90-minute sessions, facilitated by many Human Rights Day panellists (Miller, Blanchet-Cohen, Wainryb, and REZA) as well as Canadian Centre for International Justice Executive Director Jayne Stoyles, and Frank Chalk and Kyle Matthews from Concordia’s MIGS and the Will to Intervene project.

REZA Master Class attendee Erin Jessee, who’s recently defended her PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities under Frank Chalk, said, “I especially appreciated that the organizers took the time to bring in not just academics, but professionals and activists who address the impact of human rights abuses on a daily basis. Without a doubt, the class was my most rewarding experience at Congress.”

“What struck me during those two days is the further need to speak on these issues and the need to bring these things into the open. We need to move away from anger and revenge and into reconciliation,” said Vice-Provost, Teaching and Learning Ollivier Dyens, chair of the President’s Conference Series organizing committee. “If there is one hope for the day, it’s our wish that initiatives such as Human Rights Day contribute towards breaking the cycle of violence.”


Concordia University