“If you take on an issue and fight for it in a principled way, you can move mountains – and there are lots of mountains out there worth moving.”
This was the powerful message delivered to Bluewater District School Board Grades 7 to 12 students during a virtual presentation on Thursday, April 29, 2021 featuring well-known and respected humanitarian Stephen Lewis. As a precursor to Education Week, it was a unique opportunity to learn about the importance of education as an agent of change.
As a highly ranked Companion of the Order of Canada, Lewis has dedicated his extensive career to improving the human condition at home and abroad. His educational background includes 42 honorary degrees from universities in Canada and the United States. He is a former leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, and once served in the distinguished positions of Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, and UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Currently, his work involves co-chairing the board of the Stephen Lewis Foundation and co-directing the international advocacy organization, AIDS-Free World.
During the Microsoft Teams live event, students heard about the struggles of disadvantaged and racialized communities around the world, where access to education is often compromised. It was a gripping narrative depicting how children, particularly young girls, bear the brunt of suffering in conflict ravaged and impoverished countries, where abuse and inequality are consequences of the conditions faced by families. Harrowing examples of child marriage, human trafficking, the impact of HIV/AIDS, and other atrocities were provided to illustrate the tragic reality that many of these children fall victim to.
These experiences were compared to our own in Canada, where discrimination against children’s rights and lack of equitable access to education may at times deceivingly appear as non-existent. However, Lewis’ brutally honest recounting of our nation’s history and present-day examples told another story. Throughout his talk, frequent references were made to Canada’s Indigenous children, who were separated from their families and transported to residential schools, where many forms of abuse endured for a prolonged period in our history. While efforts are now underway to work towards reconciliation with our Indigenous communities and citizens, a broad public acknowledgement of the damage of the residential education system is only a recent occurrence. In acknowledging the recent passing of Thomas Berger, a former lawyer, judge, and politician, Lewis spoke of the high-profile Canadian’s historic consultation with Indigenous communities, which helped to shed light on the harsh realities of residential schools.
Another highlight of the presentation was Lewis’ study on race relations in Ontario during the early 1990s, which involved in-depth conversations with racialized students. His findings from the study revealed a shockingly common perspective among these students, many of whom struggled to see themselves, their history, and their culture reflected in our educational system and its daily teachings. While it did not occur on Canadian soil, Lewis also discussed the origins of the Day of the African Child held annually on June 16. Named after the 1976 uprising in Soweto, South Africa involving young black students, the occasion honours those who died or suffered injury as they demonstrated against the Black Education Act, which sought to segregate students by their race.
While some of Lewis’ examples evoked a darker image of Canada’s history, he emphasized the significant progress made in recent years, and how we are overcoming the denial of rights for equality of education. Attendees were encouraged by the hopeful message that students could be empowered to make a difference through education, and that these were causes they could continue to fight for.
“One of the most important ethical standards we can have, which the education system holds dear and conveys, is the question of equality and of human rights for disadvantaged, vulnerable, and racialized groups in particular ….”
In sharing this powerful observation, Lewis referenced the current crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the inequities experienced globally by disadvantaged families through lockdowns and illness. For example, in the realm of education, remote learning has posed challenges related to technology access, and in the areas of student learning and mental health.
A series of thought-provoking questions from students followed the presentation. When asked to name the most stressful world event during his time with the United Nations, Lewis spoke of the era of apartheid and racial inequality in South Africa, and Canadian efforts to impose an economic boycott.
One student inquired as to whether all countries follow the same education standards and laws. In his response, Lewis explained how there are vast inconsistencies and inequities by citing the discrimination that still occurs against girls, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and orphaned children, among other groups.
Another asked about the United Nation’s Convention of the Rights of the Child, and whether this treaty should include obligations for children when it comes to acts of discrimination toward one another. Lewis agreed that children should have obligations around bullying, harassment, vilifying, and discrimination.
When questioned about the potential consequences faced by governments who do not uphold children’s rights, Lewis shared the sad realities of inaction and unfulfilled political promises that are commonplace with many issues. Aside from democratic elections and the weight of public pressure, no measures currently exist to force governments to implement policies on behalf of children.
One student’s curiosity focused on the COVID-19 crisis and what could be done to ensure equity of learning, particularly with access to technology. Lewis’ candid response placed the onus on governments to prioritize spending on internet and education access for all families.
Lewis was also asked to explain his passion for children’s rights, to which he spoke with conviction about the tendency by many countries to treat the needs of this age group as expendable. Too often, children’s rights are relegated to the bottom of the political priority list.
To round out the question period, a student asked for information on the legendary Nelson Mandela. Lewis enthusiastically encouraged students to do some online research on the famous freedom fighter, who campaigned against apartheid in South Africa. Despite enduring 27 years of prison life, Mandela was able to emerge with decency instead of anger, and a strong desire to cure the system.
Both Bluewater students and staff benefited tremendously from the insights, knowledge, and passion expressed through Lewis’ re-telling of his many experiences and observations. Educators were also provided with materials following the presentation to take back to their classrooms for further discussion.