Last weekend, tens of thousands of Americans marched to commemorate that event. Many people, including King’s oldest son, spoke of the need to keep moving forward, even though there are many examples in the U.S. where civil rights laws are moving backwards (E.G: since the US Supreme Court erased protections under the Voting Rights Act, some American states have blatantly put roadblocks in the way of Black, Hispanic and poor voters, while painting the road to the ballot box with gold for white and well-off voters.)
When I think of moving forward I’m reminded of something many years ago… I believe it was 1987 when I was sitting in the viewing gallery of the Manitoba legislature. The NDP government was passing amendments to their Human Rights Code, trying to include protections based on sexual orientation. Pretty tame stuff today, but back then it was receiving a filibuster of sorts from the Progressive Conservative members of the legislature. My Mom was a PC MLA who also opposed that amendment and while she voted against it during the 2nd reading, she wasn’t willing to stay up till the wee hours to vote against it on the 3rd and final reading.
When I asked her what her party would do if they got into power, she simply said, “you don’t go backwards on these types of things.” While she died more than 20 years ago, this is something I remember her telling me, clear as day. At that time she didn’t know her son was gay and at that time, I hadn’t come to grips with being gay. But she knew that progress moved forward, not backwards and she, like many others, would catch up.
Today, while we see a lot of progress moving forward, sadly there are too many examples where issues of human rights and human dignity are moving backwards.
For weeks now, there has been a lot of talk of Russia’s homo-hatred legislation which is supposed to “protect children” when it’s actually a recipe to incite hatred against gay and lesbian people. It’s laughable to think the International Olympic Committee is going to move the Olympics over a piece of legislation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t demonstrate our displeasure in other ways.
Make sure you don’t buy any Russian products. I don’t see a lot of “made in Russia” clothing, but I do see a lot of Russian vodka. When at a bar or restaurant, be sure to ask for non-Russian drinks. Money talks and if a country wants to pass hateful legislation, they can do so, but we don’t have to support their economy while they do it.
Of course we don’t have to go as far away as Russia to find horrible legislation, meant to single out people for discrimination. The Quebec government’s proposed “Charter of Quebec Values” is unbelievable. There has been a lot written about it, with more eloquence than me, so let me narrow this down to these questions: Do you think for a moment that a Jewish teacher who has worn a kippah all his adult life (or longer) is suddenly going to take it off to go to work? Do you think a Sikh police officer is going to cut his hair, just so he can be a cop? Do you think a Muslim nurse is going to remove her hijab (scarf around her hair) just to keep nursing?
It aint gonna happen.
Instead, these people will either leave government jobs, or leave the province. How is that going to support a multicultural society respecting freedom of religion??
Sure, people can challenge the law and I’m certain the Supreme Court of Canada will quash it as a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, the equality provisions of the Charter are subject to section 33, which is the override provision (often referred to as the notwithstanding clause), and since Quebec has overridden another decision of the Supreme Court, another Quebec government might just do it again.
As a gay atheist, it would be easy for me to get on board with the Quebec government’s plans. After all, there are some religious people who aren’t that happy with my “lifestyle”. And why would I want to allow people to spread more religion when I don’t believe in it?
Here’s the reason. Stripping people of their long-held and important beliefs goes against everything human rights are about. If I don’t stand up for you, then you don’t stand up for me and we either leave everything to the lawyers and judges, or we start duking it out in the streets when we see a religious symbol we can’t relate to.
In recent decades, the oppression of people didn’t start with firing squads and catapults of boiling oil. They started with stripping the rights of law-abiding citizens, bit by bit. The public began to accept that these “others” weren’t as good as the rest of us and weren’t in need of protections. Then it went downhill from there to horrible and disastrous consequences. It happened in Germany, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, just to name a few.
Of course we are nowhere near any of those examples, but people who care about people have got to stop the erosion of rights at the first opportunity. By the way, I gave examples of a Jew, Sikh and Muslim. Since Quebec’s new law is going to limit Christian crosses to small sizes, will the government begin sending inspectors to measure the crosses around people’s necks?? It’s lunacy.
But then, what can I do? Here are some suggestions:
• If you live in Quebec, contact your MNA and tell him/her to oppose the legislation. It’s a minority government, needing the support of other elected members.
• If you live anywhere in Canada, call your MP and tell her/him to speak against this. I called my Member of Parliament (NDP MP Murray Rankin) to ask why the Leader of the Opposition isn’t speaking up on this while Justin Trudeau spoke up right away. He called back to say "I am with you 100%" but they are waiting to see the "actual document" before "shooting from the hip". I'm glad to hear it. Don't think you can't call your Member of Parliament - if they hear a message strong enough, they know where their constituents stand. I'm glad to hear he doesn't just think this is a 'provincial thing'.
• If you don’t understand the principle of “reasonable accommodation”, read up on it or ask someone to explain it. Sometimes accommodating religious practises can be complex and frustrating, but just look around the world where this isn’t being done and suddenly our frustrations don’t seem so bad (this includes many Western countries doing a horrible job of integrating immigrants).
• Hug your neighbour or co-worker who is “different” than you. Ok, maybe not that far and avoid a sexual harassment claim, but go out of your way to let people know they are welcomed and supported for “the content of their character”, not by what they wear or who they love.
Martin Luther King’s “dream” and my mother’s words of “not going backwards” are an inspiration to me. Everyone can find their own inspiration and take their own actions to keep us moving forward.
Last skill testing question: Dianne Richards of Vancouver won my book for telling me that on July 28, 1755, Nova Scotia Governor Charles Lawrence ordered the removal of thousands of Acadians, fearing they would join others to take up arms against the British. Congratulations Dianne.
Today's skill testing question: On August 28, 1963, who, on the platform in Washington, DC, was supposed to have said to Mr. King, "Tell them about your dream, Martin", prompting him to deliver his famous words? The first person who can tell me who this was, will win a copy of my book, Managing Human Rights at Work: 101 practical tips to prevent human rights disasters.
This blog: http://www.humanrightseachday.com/
My website: http://www.stephenhammond.ca
My Podcast: Type in “HumanRightsaDay” to the iTunes store and listen to each day's event from my book, Steps in the Rights Direction, or just click here.
My Twitter: http://twitter.com/Rightstoday (each day has historical human rights info)
Stephen Hammond, B.A., LL.B., CSP, is a lawyer-turned professional speaker. He’s written two books, Managing Human Rights at Work: 101 practical tips to prevent human rights disasters and Steps in the Rights Direction: 365 human rights celebrations and tragedies that inspired Canada and the world. Managing Human Rights at Work can be purchased on his website www.StephenHammond.ca
copyright - Stephen Hammond - You don't move backwards on human rights