Pearl Eliadis – Montreal, Canada
This story is part of the series We are human rights changemakers to celebrate Equitas’ 50th anniversary (#Equitas50). All through 2017, we invite you to discover stories of 50 inspiring human rights changemakers. These are but a few of the hundreds who have changed lives around the world through human rights education with Equitas’ support.
“What sets Equitas apart from other human rights organizations is its focus on education, rather than advocacy, to promote equality, social justice and respect for human dignity,” said Pearl Eliadis, human rights lawyer and former President of Equitas, and a current member of the Honorary Board. “No other organization does what we do in the way that we do it.”
Pearl is a lawyer and author, with a private law practice based in Montreal, Quebec, focusing on international human rights law, human rights institutions and democratic governance. With more than 20 years’ experience in human rights law and public policy, she works extensively with civil society organizations, social movements and human rights institutions in Canada and countries around the world.
Pearl became involved in Equitas, previously known as the Canadian Human Rights Foundation, when she attended its International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP) as a McGill University law student in 1982. “At the time, there were very few substantive courses on human rights at the law faculty. The Prince Edward Island lecture-based summer session filled the gap.”
The real shift within the IHRTP happened in the 1990s when Pearl was Board President. “There was a need for the organization to become more modern and relevant,” she said.
“We needed to move away from a pedagogy focused on law professors coming in and telling people about human rights laws and how they should be applied. We needed to become more inclusive and participatory. It meant thinking about groups from marginalized and vulnerable communities and how we could best support the critical roles they play within their communities.”
A more inclusive Board of Directors was recruited, and a new Executive Director was brought in to steer the organization towards these new horizons. A completely new curriculum was written, facilitated by people who had a human rights background from a variety of countries, not just Canada. It was built around dialogue among participants on issues affecting their lives as well as personally held beliefs and values, practical application and the development of strategies for action in line with human rights.
“It isn’t as much about the transfer of knowledge as it is about the coalescing of diverse ideas, beliefs and experiences. So people adjust their own attitudes and assumptions about what is right and wrong and sometimes that creates a real challenge,” she said.
“For example, we may get people from countries where homosexuality is not accepted and we have to deal with those people in a course where LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex) rights are given pride of place. That’s partly [about] participant selection, and partly about making sure we know who is coming through the door.
She went on to explain that in a peer context, people have to be sensitive to what it means to be a human rights leader. If you are excluding people because of who they are, how does that impact your own legitimacy, your own credibility within your peer group. “That to me that is much more powerful than lecturing them. It’s part of the journey.”
Another innovation was to ensure continuity and support after the IHRTP program, so that participants become part of a global network of past participants. Through these networks, they stay connected and share resources, tools and ideas. More importantly they provide solidarity to each other on a regional and an international basis when they go back home into what is quite often dangerous work.
Networks provide Equitas with an opportunity to follow participants’ work within their communities, helping to ensure the IHRTP remains relevant and that it continues to meet their needs. In the 37 years since the program started, more than 3 600 human rights defenders have been trained in Montreal, Canada.
As a result, Equitas is deeply connected to the grassroots movements of countries around the world. “Over a period of 15 years, I travelled a lot for my work and go to some pretty remote and isolated communities,” said Pearl. “In virtually every country I visited, the first thing people wanted to know when they found out I was Canadian was if I knew about Equitas. To me, it was amazing evidence of how connected the organization had become.”
Another area of focus was to look at the role women played in the organization. “The very early governance of the Foundation was like the rest of the Canadian Civil Rights Movement. It was very male and very white, with women in supporting roles.” A concerted effort was made to ensure gender representation within the organization and on the Board. In addition to Pearl, two other women stand out for their contributions.
Pearl gives a great deal of credit for the organizational and curriculum changes to Ruth Selwyn, past Executive Director of Equitas. Her career spanned a lifetime of engagement in the struggle for equality. “Ruth worked for over a decade with the Board to completely change the organization’s focus and to make it more relevant in terms of engaging women and LGBTQI activists. She did a lot to lay the groundwork for the IHRTP and for it becoming the world’s preeminent human rights training program.” Because of her leadership, she was able to recruit outstanding educators and staff to the program.
Beatrice Bazar, who passed away five years ago, was a founding member and one of the sparks of the organization. Not one to be in the limelight, she was very focused on bringing the United Nations vision of equality and human rights – its Universal Declaration of Human Rights – into Canada and into the organization. A lot of what the organization has become is the result of her commitment and effort during the early years, efforts that are not always acknowledged in the official histories.
So it’s a growing-up story. A story of Equitas becoming much more sophisticated and in tune to human rights as a broad and evolving concept. “To me, it’s amazing evidence of how an organization can transform itself to become the thriving organization it is today. As Canadians, we should all be very proud of the progress it has made and the key role it plays in advancing human rights for all people especially the most vulnerable and marginalized through education.”
Pearl Eliadis – Montreal, Canada
President of the Equitas Board of Directors, 1990-95
Member of the Honorary Board of Directors, since 2001
Story prepared by Marnie Hill Communications, Life Story Writers
Member of the Association of Personal Historians
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