Sian Griffiths is a freelance writer and volunteer with the Salvation Army homeless programme in Ottawa.


Sian Griffiths is a freelance writer and volunteer with the Salvation Army homeless programme in Ottawa.

No celebration of colonization

Amid the throng of flag-waving Canadians wearing red and white on Parliament Hill on 1 July 2017 was a solitary teepee. The Canada Day bash – which featured U2’s Bono, the acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil, a dazzling fireworks display and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as one of the MCs – was the biggest in a year-long celebration that has cost half a billion dollars. The event being commemorated was the 150th anniversary of confederation, when former British colonies united to form the country we know today as Canada.

The teepee dwellers were indigenous activists there to camp and practise traditional ceremonies on unceded Algonquin territory, never given up to the Canadian government. They had faced a five hour stand-off with armed police to defend these rights. Their presence forced Canadians – whom the activists refer to as ‘settlers’ – to consider another narrative, one of national shame rather than pride embedded in Canada’s foundations.

 Indigenous rights activists after the ‘Unsettle Canada Day 150 Picnic’ in Toronto, Ontario.
Indigenous rights activists after the ‘Unsettle Canada Day 150 Picnic’ in Toronto, Ontario. Photo by Mark Blinch/Reuters

Justin Trudeau called for understanding. Some indigenous people may not wish to celebrate, he told Canadians, and acknowledged that Canada had ‘failed indigenous people’. Despite the conciliatory words, a visit by Trudeau and his wife to the teepee seemed an unwelcome distraction.

‘Suddenly it became all about Mr Trudeau,’ said one of the organizers. The teepee members were there to educate the public about the historic mistreatment of indigenous people, she said.

‘It’s our turn to talk and it’s time for you to listen,’ another member told the press conference.

Canadace Day Neveau, who was also in the teepee, asked: ‘How can I celebrate Canada 150 when our children live like they do?’

Some 60 per cent of children on First Nations reserves live in poverty; they receive 30 per cent less educational funding than their non-indigenous counterparts; many live in households with poor heating, lacking access to clean water. Suicide rates among First Nations youth are soaring. Ninety per cent of the members of one First Nation, Grassy Narrows in Ontario, report symptoms of industrial mercury poisoning.

The fairy tale is false

For more than 100 years (until 1996), 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their homes and sent to government-funded, church-run residential schools. Stripped of their language, culture and identities, many were emotionally, physically and sexually abused. Some were used in spurious experiments leaving them malnourished or deaf. Thousands died of disease and neglect. Today some of the high rates of domestic violence, alcoholism and addiction in indigenous communities have their roots in such mistreatment.

Fresh research is unearthing further historic and contemporary abuses – the use of starvation as a weapon by Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A Macdonald, to drive a national railway west through First Nations communities’ lands and to make way for European settlers; the forced sterilization of hundreds of indigenous women during the 1970s; the Anglican priest who preyed unchecked on over 500 indigenous boys in Northern Ontario during the 1970s and 1980s.

‘This falsehood that Canada is benevolent, kind, peacekeeping and gentle – we have experienced the opposite’

Until recently, Canadians were simply not taught about any of this in school, while a rich 10,000-year-old indigenous culture was skimmed over. The brutal nature of the colonization was not discussed; the narrative of an open, kind, civilized, welcoming society was promoted.

Tasha Spillet, an indigenous activist and lecturer at the University of Manitoba, describes the image Canada projects of itself as a ‘fairy tale’.

‘This falsehood that Canada is benevolent, kind, peace-keeping and gentle – we have experienced the opposite. Canada is an incredibly violent force and continues to be so.’

While the teepee incident was the most high-profile protest, it has been just one of many across the country promoting an alternative narrative to celebration – one of occupation.

Idle No More Activists crashed a Canada Day picnic in Toronto hosted by the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister. The extravagant celebrations, they said, were a ‘slap in the face’, as many indigenous people struggle to meet basic needs.

‘We’re out here dispelling those myths that everything is OK,’ said Tori Cress, one of the organizers. ‘Everything is crisis and poverty.’

Promises, promises

During the 2015 general election campaign, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised to repair relations with indigenous people. He benefitted from a surge in the indigenous vote. After his election, he continued to raise expectations – and hopes – at a traditional blanket ceremony, when he stood in front of indigenous leaders and described renewed relations with Canada’s First Peoples as a ‘sacred obligation’. ‘No relationship is more important,’ he emphasized.

But Spillet says that the acceptance of Trudeau was premature. ‘Those ceremonies should be earned after he had fulfilled those intentions and earned the right. I think he was given that too early.’

Two years ago, as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Senator Murray Sinclair forced Canadians to confront the devastating impacts residential schools had on indigenous people, describing what had occurred as ‘a cultural genocide’. He offered 94 Calls to Action as a road map to reconciliation. While wooing indigenous voters, Trudeau promised to implement all 94, but progress has been very slow.

A long overdue inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls was launched with the intention of exploring why over 1,000 women have fallen victim to violence and why investigation of many cases has been slow. However, families have been demanding a ‘hard reset’ and want all commissioners to resign. They oppose the inquiry’s ‘colonial, top-down approach’ and have complained about a lack of consultation and support.

Spillet is concerned indigenous communities won’t get justice for their lost loved ones ‘unless the state is prepared to investigate its own police and its own systems’.

In Quebec, allegations that police officers abused indigenous women has led to an inquiry there; while in British Columbia, a First Nations Grand Chief has called for an investigation into racism in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Though schools are now updating curricula to include injustices perpetrated against indigenous peoples, reform across the board – from justice to health to child welfare – is moving at a glacial pace.

Many indigenous people say they can’t afford to wait generations for change. Too much is at stake.

When Ontario authorities announced plans to launch a giant rubber duck on Lake Ontario at a cost of $160,000 to mark Canada 150, indigenous children’s rights campaigner, Cindy Blackstock took to Twitter in outrage:

‘If Gov’t can afford a giant rubber duck they can afford equity for First Nations kids. Enough of this nonsense.’

Last year, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal agreed with her case that the government discriminated against 165,000 First Nations children on reserves – who receive less welfare support than children in Canada’s general population. A $180 million increase in support would help to put these children on a par.

Though the government initially accepted the ruling, they are now fighting the order.

‘That is not excusable,’ says Ryan Moran, Director of the Winnipeg-based National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, referring to the poor drinking water, the unequal treatment of children and the lack of resources to manage the suicide epidemic. ‘Money will fix that.’

The bigger picture, argues Spillet, is that colonialism continues in Canada.

Trudeau’s enthusiastic approval of massive fossil-fuel infrastructure projects ‘damages lands and waters of indigenous people,’ she says.

‘The colonial project has not ended.’

Sian Griffiths is a freelance writer and volunteer with the Salvation Army homeless programme in Ottawa.

How do you break the homelessness cycle?


A ‘rough sleeper’ camps out in a church entrance next door to the lavish Trump Tower. Housing First was launched in New York City in 1992. It has now spread across North America and beyond. © dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo

Twenty-five years ago Sam Tsemberis was running an emergency homeless project for a New York psychiatric hospital.

‘Our job was to interview people who were homeless and mentally ill and determine if they were a danger to themselves. We took them in – involuntarily. We had to call the police. It was painful work.

‘We also saw a lot of people who didn’t need hospitalization. They were in bad shape and had been out there a long time.’

Tsemberis kept seeing the same faces back on the street – over and over again.

‘It was obvious we needed to do something different.’

He began to ask homeless people what they wanted.

‘They said they needed a place to live. I wasn’t convinced.’

Housing programmes then were geared to folks who were clean and sober. ‘The mindset was that people in acute distress couldn’t manage their own housing.’

But these people couldn’t stay sober, hated taking medication and weren’t willing to try.

‘That’s when I got into the housing business,’ Tsemberis quips.

Armed with a half-million dollar grant, he launched Pathways to Housing. The core idea: housing first. Give the homeless a roof over their head and make sure they have support. Dr Tsemberis and his team enlisted psychiatrists, social workers and nurses. Once people have their own home, he says, ‘you have a better shot at treatment’.

Staying put

After five years a staggering 80 per cent of his Pathways to Housing participants had managed to stay in their homes – a far higher success rate than the traditional ‘staircase’ model where people transition to a permanent home through a series of steps, proving their worthiness in the process.

A wider study of this approach (now dubbed ‘Housing First’) across 11 US cities had a similar success rate. In addition, healthcare costs shrank and addictions were better managed.

The evidence sparked interest across America. Lloyd Pendleton, a conservative business executive and former head of humanitarian services for the Mormon Church in Utah, was sceptical.

‘I was raised as a cowboy and I have said over the years, “You lazy bums, get a job, pull yourself up by the bootstraps”,’ he told one interviewer.

But Pendleton changed his mind after listening to Sam Tsemberis at a 2003 conference on homelessness. He learned that chronic homelessness was costly. Homeless people have increased interactions with the police, the courts, prisons and hospitals. Giving these people stable housing with support, he found, would simply be cheaper.

Chronic homelessness is costly. Homeless people have increased interactions with the police, the courts, prisons and hospitals

Pendleton launched a pilot in Salt Lake City with 17 of ‘the most challenging chronically homeless individuals we could find’. Two years later they were still in their homes.

Pendleton then led a statewide effort to implement Housing First (HF). In 2015 the state declared an end to chronic homelessness.

The Housing First model has now spread to 20 US cities.

It’s also moved north of the border. In 2008, the the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) began an $80 million study of the HF model. The five-year ‘At Home/Chez Soi’ survey concluded that 75 per cent of Canadian Housing First participants stayed in their homes. Life satisfaction was high and participants said they felt safer.

It was also cost neutral – every dollar devoted to Housing First reduced healthcare, social service and justice-related costs by a dollar. The CMHA study pegged the cost at $10,500-$16,500 per person per year.

The small prairie city of Medicine Hat, Alberta (population 60,000) adopted Housing First in 2009. The Mayor, Ted Clugston, recalls saying ‘some dumb things’ when he first heard about HF. But he soon became a convert. It made financial sense and it’s ‘the most humane way to treat people’. Six years later Medicine Hat had also declared an end to chronic homelessness.

‘That’s not a lot of money to get people off the street,’ says Tim Aubry, one of the CMHA study’s lead investigators and the head of the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology.

In 2013, Canada’s then Conservative government was so impressed with the results that it committed $450 million to roll out Housing First across the country.

The following year the blue-collar city of Hamilton, Ontario, diverted 65 per cent of its federal homelessness money into HF. ‘Transitions to Home’ (TtH), developed by Wesley Urban Ministries, has been a runaway success.

Housing First participant Kevin (right) with his social worker, Rolly (left). Rolly supports Kevin to stay housed.

Sian Griffiths

Julia Woodhall-Melnik, co-author of a McMaster University-St Michael’s Hospital study of the programme says TtH allows people ‘to be housed, regardless of other concerns they have in their lives. They are able to fare well, they are able to be stable, and we are able to save money. So it’s kind of a win-win.’

The Hamilton model also includes recreation programmes – like the Homeless Baseball League (so named by the players).

In 2015, Ottawa also adopted Housing First, teaming up with the CMHA and the Salvation Army. The city offers a $185 ‘housing supplement’ to help homeless people find housing. It’s also stepped up social housing construction.

‘I love it here’

Shaun and Kevin, once among the capital’s long-term homeless, are clearly delighted with their new homes.

‘I love it here,’ says Shaun, 53, recalling what it was like being homeless. ‘When you are cold, it’s a bitch trying to get any sleep.’ As a youth he’d been in gangs and spent long spells in prison for robbery. He became homeless after being released from prison in the early 2000s.

A recovering heroin addict, he takes his methadone treatment in the privacy of his home and no longer has to worry about it being stolen. He credits the Salvation Army with help in finding a home – near his parents – and their support to help him get back on his feet.

Four years ago, Kevin lost the use of his left shoulder after a stroke, which his doctor told him was the result of decades of heavy drinking. He quit but found himself homeless while suffering from memory problems.

Last November, he met Rolly de Montigny,a case worker with the CMHA. A month later he was in a one-bedroom home with his son Gage who suffers from a brain injury.

Kevin said that it was important for him as an indigenous person to be near the river – but also within walking distance of the city centre.

‘I love him, Rolly, man! He’s in my family now,’ he says of Rolly, standing in the kitchen.

Rolly is currently trying to help Kevin get disability income. He also helps him meet appointments and gives him a lift to the local food bank.

Demand for affordable housing outstrips supply in Ottawa. Rent for a small apartment costs around $600 a month. Mike Wade of the Salvation Army, says it’s a challenge to find housing his clients can afford – even when the city tops up government assistance. Tim Aubry and other frontline workers say the housing allowance should be increased.

Both Shaun and Kevin are living below the poverty line. But Housing First can’t prevent poverty.

Sam Tsemberis says the answer lies in addressing the widening income disparity between the richest and the poorest.

‘Where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, where rents are high and wages are low, more people will be left out.’

Homelessness will persist until attitudes change. ‘The extent to which we as a society have allowed ourselves to walk past a homeless person means we have lost a part of our humanity. A natural response is to get upset. But there is a solution. We don’t have to tolerate this.’

Sian Griffiths lives in Ottawa. She is a freelance writer and volunteer with the Salvation Army homeless programme in her city.

A personal welcome


It may be cold outside, but the welcome is warm: Ann and Nick (left) with the Al Khatoufs. © Vicky Assad

Just one day after President Donald Trump banned citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from travelling to the US, Canada’s Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussen – himself a former Somali refugee – recommitted Canada to welcoming ‘people in need of protection’. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: ‘To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength. #WelcomeToCanada.’

According to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are over 21 million refugees globally, and 1.1 million of them are in need of resettlement. Every day, 34,000 people are forced to flee their homes; about 50 per cent of them are children.

In Canada, the welcome can be very personal: global citizen to global citizen. Alongside its government-assisted refugee programme, the country is unique in having a Private Sponsorship of Refugees Programme (PSR). The policy was developed in the late 1970s after citizen groups – mainly church-led – demanded that the Canadian government do more to help refugees affected by the Vietnam War. As a result, PSR became an official part of Canada’s refugee policy and, in 1986, the People of Canada were awarded the Nansen Medal, an award given to individuals or groups for excellence in service to refugees. The programme enjoys cross-party consensus, though disagreements sometimes occur over how many refugees to accept and under which programme.

PSR remains so popular that the government admits to being overwhelmed with demand, struggling to process a backlog of 19,000 applications for 45,000 refugees. Already, the programme has found homes for some 280,000 refugees over and above government-assisted places.

Care in the community

Since November 2015, Canada has welcomed nearly 40,000 Syrian refugees, about a third of whom have been privately sponsored.

Ann Hustis and her husband Nick Assad, who is of Syrian heritage, had been watching the Syrian tragedy unfold since the conflict began in 2011, but it was the image of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler found dead on a Turkish beach, which spurred them into action. They were familiar with the PSR programme because friends had sponsored a Syrian family who were now part of the couple’s social circle.

Sponsors form groups which agree to assume financial responsibility and to care for refugees for at least a year. They organize furnished accommodation, food, transportation, schooling and English/French-language training. They take refugees shopping and help them settle in Canada. Most refugees find their feet fairly quickly and are entitled to work immediately – under this scheme they arrive as permanent residents.

Ann and Nick’s sponsor group ballooned to 45 people, including extended family, friends and neighbours. The group’s co-sponsor is the Anglican Church, which has much experience in refugee resettlement. ‘In a world where everybody is shutting their borders, we’re opening them up,’ says Vicky Assad, Nick’s niece and one of the sponsors.

Through fundraising and personal donations, the group raised C$80,000 (US$61,000) to look after three families. Ann, who took a six-month leave of absence from her job as a computer consultant, says she really enjoys being a sponsor: ‘It’s fun, social. You learn a lot about the families. They become part of your family. I am seriously considering taking the rest of my life off and just doing this! It’s very, very rewarding.’

A key principle of the private sponsorship programme is that it should be ‘over and above’ what the government does, not instead of it

Her experience has deepened her knowledge of the conflict in Syria and her understanding of the plight of refugees. ‘I have a big map on the wall in my home office, pinpointing exactly where they escaped, what route they took, what bridge they crossed at,’ she says.

The first family the group of sponsors brought to Canada were the Al Khatoufs, who are clearly grateful. ‘I’ve never been treated so well, not even by my family!’ says 41-year-old Ali, who was a house painter in Syria. He and his wife and four children have now settled into a comfortable three-bedroom home in an Ottawa suburb provided by their sponsors and are embracing the Canadian outdoors lifestyle, including visits to local farms for apple-picking and hayrides.

It is all a far cry from the dangers the family faced before arriving in Canada. In May 2012, they were forced to flee their home under bombardment. Thinking the conflict wouldn’t last, they took little with them and travelled the first 20 kilometres of their journey on foot. Later, they found shelter in a converted security guard’s office in Lebanon – but the conditions were very cramped. It was here that youngest daughter, Hiba, now three, was born.

Helping hands

Don Smith wanted to help, too. Having worked with church groups for nearly four decades, he is a veteran private sponsor who has helped well over 100 refugees, from countries as diverse as Vietnam, Czechoslovakia , Hungary, Rwanda and, now, Syria. The PSR programme, he says, also ‘saves the taxpayer money’ since private sponsors assume financial responsibility for the refugees.

Lisa Hebert, co-ordinator of the Ottawa-based Capital Rainbow Refuge, has helped to sponsor refugees from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. She says the programme gives Canadian LGBTQ activists a unique way to reach out to LGBTQ refugees across the world.

‘They are fleeing state persecution, from criminalization to the death penalty... They are on the run.’ Often, she says, it is their own families who want to hurt them.

It is hard to find refugee advocates who would criticize Canada’s Private Sponsorship programme. It is endorsed officially by the UNHCR, which praises it for ‘its ability to provide additional settlement spaces for refugees’ over and above those spaces provided by the Canadian government. The UNHCR also points out that ‘the involvement of civil society leads to better integration outcomes for the refugees being sponsored’.

The agency’s conclusion is backed up by a 2007 Canadian government study which found that PSRs become self-supporting far more quickly than those resettled through the government-assisted refugee programme – though the latter catch up over time. Don Smith attributes these results simply to ‘tender, loving care’. A government counsellor who works only during daytime hours can’t give the full-time personal support and commitment that private sponsors can – and clearly want to.

But the reason the programme works so well in Canada and has such widespread support is that it enhances, rather than replaces, government support for refugees. While the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) supports the programme (‘it can double the number of refugees who get homes’), its executive director, Janet Dench, says the government still needs to pull its weight. She says that a key principle of the programme is ‘additionality’ – that the PSR programme should be ‘over and above’ what the government does, not instead of it. And she adds a note of caution, saying that the CCR was ‘shocked’ when Canada announced its 2017 refugee levels. The PSR allocation of 16,000 was more than double the government-assisted refugee figure of 7,500.

‘The government part should be as high,’ argues Dench. ‘It’s disappointing the govern­ment isn’t doing more. The government is taking credit for the overall number of settled refugees without doing its fair share.’

Added value

But Ann Hustis believes that private sponsors should be taking the lead.

‘They do it much better than the government,’ she argues, while noting that the refugees do still get government support by way of free healthcare, schooling, child tax credits and other government services.

Government support such as this is key to the success of the PSR programme, but it cannot always be taken for granted. In 2012, the then-Conservative government cut benefits to thousands of failed refugee claimants and refugees from countries Canada deemed ‘safe’. Four years later, the new Liberal government restored the health benefits in full after Canada’s Federal Court struck down the policy, which it denounced as ‘cruel and unusual’ and in violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The world began paying closer attention to Canadian refugee policy after images of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally welcoming Syrian refugees with warm winter coats went viral on social media. Now his government is seeking to promote the PSR model internationally through its Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GRSI).

Caritas, in the Catholic Diocese of Salford, is the first Canadian-inspired private sponsor in Britain to take in a refugee family – from Syria. ‘It’s all very ordinary and very human to want to help anyone who has faced such a terrible experience, and this community sponsorship scheme enables refugees to be helped by welcoming people,’ says Mark Wiggin of Caritas.

However, with austerity-driven governments across Europe looking for ways to pass on welfare costs to ‘Big Society’, there is a danger that adopting – and adapting – Canada’s approach could become a means of balancing budgets rather than ensuring more help for refugees.

Back in Canada, Lisa Hebert says that being a sponsor has transformed her life. ‘It just gives your own life value. Their hope for the future is very infectious. Refugees are survivors… They are people who have been brave enough to leave everything behind to find a new life.’

Sian Griffiths is a former BBC producer and reporter now based in Ottawa, who contributes regularly to Deutsche Welle and BBC radio. She has reported for The Guardian and the Christian Science Monitor.

Making Waves: Charlie Lowthian-Rickert



Sitting atop an open red convertible, a drenched Charlie Lowthian-Rickert leads the 2016 Ottawa Pride Parade. She waves enthusiastically to the crowds as they shout ‘We love you, Charlie!’ After such a successful year, Charlie is not going to allow a torrential downpour to rain down on her parade.  

In her blue floral dress, she looks every inch the young girl she identifies as. But Charlie was born a boy and, barely out of single digits, is already a veteran transgender activist.

‘I just want to get the message out,’ she explains. ‘When the average person is around LGBTQ people, there are some who are really scared or really hate the community. I just want people to know who we truly are and to be able to feel comfortable when they are around us.’

Addressing the crowds in her keynote speech, Charlie says: ‘I want to protect the people I love – my people. My gender-diverse community. I want them to feel the happiness I feel, and know they too are natural, beautiful gifts, no matter what their gender is.’

Tammy Dopson, Chair of Ottawa Pride, says that Charlie was a natural choice for Grand Marshal at the parade – the youngest person to have had the honour. The role is awarded to someone who ‘through advocacy, through education, improves the lives of people around them’, inspiring them to lead fuller lives.

‘She is no ordinary 10-year-old!’ says Dopson. ‘I look forward to seeing where she is in 20 years. She is so ahead of her time and so self-possessed. She has made people like herself feel safer and less alone.’

Charlie’s rise to public attention has been meteoric. Two years ago, aged just eight and accompanied by her parents, she attended Canadian Senate discussions on proposed legislation to protect transgender people from discrimination and hate crimes. But, as in the US, bathrooms became a political issue. A proposed Conservative Party amendment would restrict transgender people to using bathrooms based on their gender at birth. Charlie was incensed, but sitting alongside representatives from Amnesty International, Gender Mosaic and other LGBTQ groups ‘inspired me to pick up the torch, like our Olympians do, and add my voice to theirs’.

She helped to stage a protest on Parliament Hill called ‘Occupotty’, singing ‘Let Us Pee’ and telling the crowd – while standing in front of rows of toilet seats – why the bathroom issue is important to transgender people. The protest attracted national attention.

Transgender people, says Charlie, have more to fear than non-trans people in bathrooms: ‘It is very unsafe. If I go into a boys’ bathroom, people will think “Why the hell is SHE here? Oh, this is an opportunity” and could do something horrible to me.’

She hopes new legislation will make transgender people feel safer. In May 2016, the new Liberal Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould – with Charlie by her side – reintroduced transgender rights legislation. The Minister, a powerful new political ally, describes the 10-year-old as ‘wise beyond her years’, while Charlie describes Wilson-Raybould as ‘one of my best friends in Parliament’.

But Charlie knows she couldn’t do this work without the support of her family.

‘We didn’t want to be our child’s first bullies,’ says her mother, Anne. After Charlie felt bullied at her primary school and in her rural community, the family moved to Ottawa, where they found a school where Charlie would not only be accepted but could thrive. Anne is now kept busy shuttling Charlie between Girl Guides, hip-hop dance, skateboarding events and camping activities.

In Ottawa alone, half of all homeless youngsters are LGBTQ, and are on the streets because they feel rejected by their families. Charlie is acutely aware of the statistics.

‘Forty-three per cent of [transgender] kids here in Ottawa consider suicide,’ she says. ‘I am one of the lucky ones. I speak for all the silent voices today.’

Sian Griffiths works as a freelance radio and online journalist based in Ottawa for the German National broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, the BBC, as well as publications like The Guardian and The Christian Science Monitor.

‘My father is my inspiration’

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been wracked by violence and conflict for decades. The six-year war that ensued after the ousting in 1997 of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko drew in neighbouring countries and left at least three million dead. Although a peace deal was signed in 2003, the east of the country continues to be terrorized by militias and the army. Notoriously, thousands of women continue to be raped. Pascal Kabungulu, who trained as a teacher, was the head of DRC human rights organization Heritiers de la justice. He was among the first to identify rape as a weapon of war, and fearlessly denounced many other atrocities. He was murdered in front of his wife and children in Bukavu in 2005. His widow, Deborah, and their six children ultimately had to flee – and are now settled in Canada. Pascal Kabungulu’s perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice. Deborah Kabungulu and her son, Heri, speak about their harrowing story.

Deborah and Heri Kabungulu. Above them is a photo of Pascal.

Sian Griffiths

How did Pascal get involved with human rights?

Deborah: My husband was among many Congolese teachers who taught in Rwanda. He worked there until the massacre [the 1993-94 Rwandan genocide]. People were killing each other! There were bodies everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. He saw people with machetes, people killing each other. Within a week there was a stench in the streets. There were bodies everywhere. There was blood. It affected him. When he got home to Bukavu he said ‘I have to do something. I don’t know why everyone is killing each other. What’s happening? I have to defend people. If people had raised their voices, perhaps people wouldn’t have been killed like that.’

What was life like for you in Bukavu, in the east, when Joseph Kabila took power?

Deborah: He chased out the Rwandan Tutsis who helped him take power. They took the east. That’s the beginning of the RCD [Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie – the rebel group The Congolese Rally for Democracy]. That’s when the rapes and killings started. That was in 1998 – after Mobutu was chased out.

How did Pascal identify rape as a weapon?

Deborah: Heritiers de la justice was an organization which people trusted. He had a huge network to draw on – sometimes he went to document reports or got those affected to come in. It was 30, 40 women a day.

Heri: All the groups there raped.

Deborah: The rebels, Mai Mai, the RCD, the government military.

Heri: It became an instrument of war. They use our women. They know our women are vulnerable. They rape women to destabilize – and to continue their war.

What was the response of the authorities to his work?

Deborah: He regularly got called in to the RCD office. ‘Why did you write that?’ they would ask. ‘Because it was the truth, it was like that.’ The threats really started in 1998 when he denounced the burying alive of over 30 women in a village about 100 kilometres from Bukavu, where there was resistance to the RCD. They dug a hole, dumped women in there and covered it up with soil.

They warned me that the gunmen had killed my husband and now they wanted to exterminate me and my family. We left home – just like that – without anything, without knowing where we were going

Heri: They also took the priest of the church and killed him. They killed the traditional chief and his wife. Pascal pointed the finger at the RCD.

Deborah: After that, the real war on Pascal started. He then accused the RCD of stealing gold from the local population. On a visit to the RCD office one of the soldiers put a gun to his head and threatened him. ‘I want to kill you.’ His boss told him to put his weapon down.

What do you remember of his assassination on 31 July 2005?

Deborah: At 3.30 in the morning, my husband heard noises, got up and opened the door. A man said ‘It’s you we are looking for.’ ‘Why are you looking for me?’ ‘You escaped often but today it’s finished for you. We will kill you.’ He was hit by two bullets, including one in the head. The gunmen fled.

Why did you and your family have to flee?

Deborah: The day of Pascal’s funeral, armed men came looking for me at the health centre where I worked. They banged on the windows and the doors – and frightened the patients. The NGOs knew I was in danger. They warned me that the gunmen had killed my husband and now they wanted to exterminate me and my family. They decided to evacuate us. We left home – just like that – without anything, without knowing where we were going, empty handed. I was very weak, I had lost weight, I cried a lot. [My elder sons] had already crossed the border. I took my two youngest. We crossed and got to Uganda. A year later we arrived in Canada.

What do you know of the investigation into Pascal’s murder?

Deborah: I wasn’t there. But the men had been convicted; then [authorities in] Kinshasa called and said ‘You, the people of Bukavu, you don’t have the jurisdiction or competence to judge these people. Send the dossier to Kinshasa. We will judge these people.’ Up until today, there is nothing. The dossier is broken. All those people were freed. They work, they go where they want to go. Us, do we feel safe? We do not feel safe because our enemies are free.

What do you remember of Pascal?

Deborah: What I loved about my husband was that he taught my children to be nonviolent. Whatever happens, you have to find a nonviolent solution. Do not take revenge. I can’t forget him. He will never leave my heart. I miss him. I speak to him often.

Heri: I am told that I resemble my father the most out of all of us. A lot of the things I do are like him. He is my inspiration. Yes, that’s it.

Would you like to go back to DRC?

Deborah: We can’t return because it’s too dangerous. All the perpetrators are free today. It’s like we have congratulated them for what they did. If we went – it would be like being beheaded.

Deborah Kabungulu has set up a foundation to educate the children of murdered human rights defenders in DRC:
Pascal Kabungulu Foundation

A word with Jane Goodall

What is your earliest memory?

One of my earliest memories is watching a hen laying an egg. I went into an empty hen house and waited for four hours – at age four!

It showed what an amazing mother I had. No-one knew where I was, but when everyone else was searching and worried, she saw this excited little girl running towards the house. Instead of saying, ‘How dare you go off without telling us! Don’t ever dare do that again!’ – which would have killed my excitement – she saw my shining eyes and sat down to hear how a hen lays an egg...

All my childhood I was watching animals.

When was your first experience interacting with a chimpanzee?

I try not to interact with them. The goal is to watch them, to observe them, to be a part of the environment rather than a part of their society.

Of course, the young ones would come up and touch you and poke you. David Greybeard [controversially, Goodall gave names to the chimpanzees she observed, rather than following the scientific practice of referring to them by a number] did on one occasion when I held out fruit to him. He didn’t want it. But in the end, he took it; then he dropped it, and then he very gently held my hand. Right back then, in 1963, the fact that a chimpanzee, who had been so afraid of me, trusted me to that extent was amazing to me.

The indomitable human spirit is a great reason for hope.

The Jane Goodall Institute

Did you have a life-changing moment?

The biggest life change for me was going to a conference in 1986 and realizing that, right across Africa, chimps were disappearing. This was the first time all the people studying chimps came together. A session on conditions in medical research labs was so shocking.

By then, I had this wonderful life. I was going out in the field, doing analysis – my childhood dream. But I left [the conference] an activist. Since then I haven’t been more than three weeks in any one place.

Can you tell us about your latest project?

Our youth programme, Roots and Shoots [through which young people identify problems in their communities and take action to create a better environment] is now in 130 countries. One very important programme is Takare [a project based outside Kigoma in Tanzania], which is improving the lives of the people living around wilderness areas in a way that they feel is most appropriate.

What is your biggest fear?

My biggest fear is that we will fail to create a critical mass of young people who understand that, whereas we need money to live, we shouldn’t be living for money.

What has been your biggest joy?

It was a huge joy having my own child. The biggest joy with the chimps is watching infant development and family relationships – I just love that part of it.

What are you most proud of?

Starting Roots and Shoots and helping people to understand the true nature of animals.

What gives you hope?

First, groups of young people with shining eyes wanting to tell ‘Dr Jane’ what they have been doing to make the world a better place for animals, people and the environment.

And then, the animals rescued from the brink of extinction. My favourite story was from New Zealand, where there was a little bird called a black robin. It was reduced to only seven birds... of which only two were female. One of the females was infertile and the other had an infertile mate. Doesn’t that seem like the end? Wouldn’t you give up? But this biologist said, ‘No. I’m not giving up!’ There are now 500 of them – because of him! The indomitable human spirit is a great reason for hope.

Chief Erasmus: The tar sands pipeline will harm our way of life

Ben Powless

Canada, the single largest source of oil for the United States, provides its neighbour with 2.5 million barrels of oil a day - half of which comes from the controversial oil sands, or ‘tar sands’, in Alberta. Output of oil sands production is only set to rise.

The Dene First Nations people have been in Canada's north for thousands of years - since ‘time immemorial’ according to their National Chief, Bill Erasmus. He says his ‘caribou people’ are very attached to the land. Many still rely on it for hunting, trapping and fishing.

Chief Erasmus represents 30 northern communities, some of which lie downstream of Alberta's oil sands production facilities. He has been at the forefront of the battle waged by Canadian campaigners to stop the Keystone XL pipeline which will transport oil to the US. He believes any expansion of oil sands’ capacity, including the Keystone XL project, will harm his people and their environment. He has travelled thousands of miles across Canada and the US to take this message to rallies and politicians.

What are the objections of the Dene Nation to the Keystone XL project?

The Keystone XL pipeline is a major proposal that would have the tar sands project expanded in Northern Alberta - and that is what we are opposed to. Right now, we feel effects from the tar sands. The big effects are primarily with water because the tar sands use huge amounts of water to develop the crude oil. In order to develop one barrel of oil, it takes four to five barrels of water. We are part of the MacKenzie water basin which means that all of the waters in the south flow to us in the north. We are having very noticeable drops in water levels.

[Figures vary widely. Canada's Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, says it takes one barrel of water to produce one barrel of oil while the Pembina Institute says it takes 1.5 - 4 barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil].

How much?

People have reported up to 10 feet in the last few years.

And you attribute it to the oil sands development?

Yes. No one can prove that it's not. It affects the life in the rivers and the water system. We are still able - to a large extent - to dip our cups in the water and drink it.

You can still do that right now?

We can still do that and we want to continue to do that. The other thing with water is once it is used for the huge amount that they take, it is not re-usable. They are put into huge tailings ponds, they are toxic waste essentially. These tailings ponds sit out in the open. The danger is that animals and birds can go to them. It's been proven. 1,500 ducks landed in them a number of years ago and the company was fined for that.

Right now, at this time of the year, the geese are flying south again. It's right in their path. They don't know what it is. It's a water body so they will want to land on it. Also those tailings ponds are holes in the ground - and they leak. That goes into the water system which then comes to us. [In 2008 a widely reported Environmental Defence study concluded that at least 11 million litres per day were leaking from the tailings ponds.]

At Fort Chipewyan on the Athabasca Lake [closer to the oil sands development], people can no longer drink their water or eat their fish. They can no longer hunt and trap and fish. Their self-sufficiency and economic independence has deteriorated. [In August 2011 eminent water scientist David Schindler, and his colleague, Erin Kelly, concluded that oil sands operations released toxins such as mercury, arsenic and lead into the Athabasca River system. Their conclusions contradict Alberta government assertions that the toxins occur naturally. Two provincial studies are now underway to assess tailings ponds contamination].

The Canadian government has promised better water monitoring - which until now has been managed jointly by the provincial government, oil companies and aboriginal groups - does that reassure you?

Water monitoring has to be done on an independent basis. It has to be done where it's not questionable. We have a proposal with Canada right now where we would do some joint monitoring with them. Industry can help provide funds to do it. They should be paying for some of the costs because of the money they make.

What kind of reception did you get from Obama administration officials in Washington? Did you feel they were listening to your concerns?

They are trying to listen to both sides. They encouraged us to continue participating in the hearings and throughout the process. The tar sands began as a small operation but now it appears that the goals are to go international and to become the number one producer in the world. That's happening at our expense. We take exception to that.

People gathered in front of the White House in August holding signs that urge the president to reject the keystone pipeline.

Photo by tarsandaction under a CC Licence.

What about arguments put forward by those in favour of the pipeline - such as oil and pipeline companies, the Canadian government - that this pipeline means jobs and energy security for Canadians and Americans?

I think both statements are weak. Jobs are few in number. The Canadian government came up with some enormous figure. Essentially, pipeline jobs are where you dig the earth, you put the pipe in and the pipe is there for the next 25 years during the life of the pipe. So there aren't very many jobs.

The Keystone XL pipeline is not for American usage. It's going down to refineries in Texas and then it will be put on tankers from there. So it is for places like Great Britain, Europe, China and other markets. It doesn't provide security for American markets. [TransCanada denies this and maintains that the crude oil is intended for domestic US consumption only.]

Are you reassured by TransCanada that this pipeline will be state of the art, and that leaks would be kept to a minimum?

No, we're not reassured in any way whatsoever. If you look at the Keystone pipeline built in 2010 - they had 14 spills in that short period and it was shutdown for a period in May. They don't have a very good record. [According to National Resources Defence Council (US) figures, the 2010 Keystone pipeline has experienced 35 leaks and incidents. TransCanada says all of these incidents relate to the pumping stations along Keystone rather than the pipeline itself.]

It wasn't a huge turnout on at the Canadian protest - do you think Canadians are apathetic on this issue?

I don't think Canadians are apathetic. We have overwhelming responses from people by mail, by email, by phone calls. We think the response was good. We got good media coverage. It's part of a whole educational process that is happening in this country. We are finding that as First Nations if we speak out alone, we are limited. If environmentalists speak out alone, they are limited. Bringing our forces together certainly puts a whole new dimension to it. We have been up north from the beginning of time. We are not going away. We have nowhere to go. This is our home. We're going to defend it.

The process in Canada, politically, is over. In the US, President Obama has until the end of November to assess whether Keystone XL is in the ‘national interest.’ He could then issue a presidential permit allowing the pipeline to go ahead. You still seem unusually optimistic considering the process is drawing to a close - what grounds do you have for your optimism?

We were very optimistic when President Obama got inaugurated. In fact, we were at his inauguration. This one, he decides on his own. President Obama has an opportunity here to look at all the factors to determine himself whether this is in the national interest. He can say that 'this initiative is from George Bush. It was not started by us. We have a new plan and here it is.' He can initiate that. He's got 12 months to work on that before he is re-elected. That's what we are thinking.

Canada's energy regulator is now investigating whether or not TransCanada's permit to begin construction expired in March 2011 - which could further delay the project.

Interview with Adam Beach

What’s your earliest memory?

Chasing rabbits in the trails in Vogar, Manitoba.

What political or moral issue do you feel most strongly about?

Suicide awareness [among First Nations People]. If you look at the statistics of suicide attempts across Canada, it’s [higher] than the national average.

Do you see yourself as a role model for young aboriginal kids?

Yes. I have turned my life around, from getting into gangs to becoming a better man. I came to understand that carrying out my culture and traditions is a very positive way to learn to respect myself.

I wanted to kill myself. If it weren’t for cultural teachings, I wouldn’t be here. There was a young man who was a little older than me. He showed me a different example of being Indian. All I knew was the rough neighbourhoods of Winnipeg. He showed me the traditional side of traditions.

What’s your biggest fear?

Drowning. My father drowned when I was a kid. I’m still afraid of the water.

What is your greatest ambition?

To open the doors of the entertainment world to First Nations people.

How well do you think non-aboriginal Canadians understand aboriginal Canadians?

There’s a lack of education on both sides when it comes to learning how to work together. [Indian] Residential schools did 200 years of damage trying to eradicate the traditional culture and language of First Nations people. It created such damage to the psyche of First Nations people that there is a lack of trust between Indians and non-Indians. There is a long journey needed for healing from that type of abuse. People have an image of Canada that is beautiful – which it is – but they tend to turn a blind eye to the treatment of First Nations people when it comes to the history of trying to destroy a culture.

Does the Canadian government meet the needs of aboriginal Canadians?

No, because if you look at the history of land claims, it’s ridiculous. It’s going to take hundreds of years to establish a good standing in giving First Nations their [land]rights. It shouldn’t even be an issue. Canada knows and should rightfully give that land back. The Indian Act over the last 20 years has been bent, folded and reintroduced. Indians don’t even realize that they are losing their sovereignty.

In the last 200 years, Canadians have conditioned themselves to think that it’s okay for Indians to live in ‘third world’ conditions. The government owes billions of dollars to these communities. It is so easy to manipulate a reservation which is starving to sell out – for land claims or hydro or mining – because they will take anything they need in that moment. They don’t realize they are selling themselves short.

It’s a battle that is slowly being won by our people. We are becoming educated doctors, lawyers and politicians.

Where do you feel most at home?

I’m most at home wherever I am. I have children in Ottawa and Los Angeles. I’m always on the move.

What did you enjoy most about your latest Hollywood project, Cowboys and Aliens?

I was so happy to be part of a film where aliens were involved! I play a cowboy. It was a little weird because I have to be afraid of the Apache [Indians]! I didn’t feel too bad about it because there are a lot of Indian cowboys – like in rodeo.

I had been getting bored of acting but I learned to enjoy it again. Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Sam Rockwell and [director] Jon Favreau introduced me to the idea that my character was important. They treated me like an important part of the movie. I needed to be inspired by those actors; they inspired me to work collaboratively.

Reclaiming a lost identity

In 2008, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized to former students of Canada’s government-funded and church-run Indian Residential Schools. The aim of the schools, said the Prime Minister, had been to ‘kill the Indian in the child’. He acknowledged that ‘this policy of assimilation was wrong’ and that it ‘has caused great harm’.

Over the course of 100 years, 150,000 aboriginal children were removed, often forcibly, from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were taught that their culture was inferior to the dominant white culture. The last school closed in 1996. Far from home, far from their cultural roots, many aboriginal children were left traumatized – with many suffering from physical, emotional or even sexual abuse.

Photo by: Sian Griffiths

Judge Murray Sinclair, who is himself aboriginal and the son of Indian Residential school children, is the head of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It has a five-year mandate to collect testimony from former students, their families and teachers – as well as encourage a process of reconciliation and healing. At its first National Event in Manitoba in June 2010, it attracted 40,000 participants.

Can you tell me about any particular stories which really struck you?

There was a teacher who came [to the National Event] and spoke about having been a teacher in a residential school. She left the school after a year not liking the way children were being treated. Edward had been one of her students in third grade and was in the school in the 1940s and 50s. He suffered extensive sexual abuse at the hands of the teachers in the school. She was totally unaware that any of that was going on. Edward, she said, helped her deal with her guilt. She reminded him of how innocent he was, how helpless and vulnerable he was, that what happened to him could not have been his fault. Their reconciliation was a very important part of their lives.

But there have been some unhappy experiences. There was a man who went through residential school, had a life of crime, tried to reconcile with his kids on his death bed – it didn’t happen...

He asked one of his classmates, 'How do you say this word in English?' because he had to use Ojibway [an aboriginal language] to make this request [to go to the bathroom]. He remembered being struck across the mouth with a ruler. He couldn’t remember a day when he wasn’t struck.

He and another group of boys… removed all the items that the teachers used to strike the children: the straps, the rulers, the yardstick. They took them outside and they burned them. The next day the teachers collected all of the young boys. He said they could hear the screams of the young boys… as they were beaten in the principal’s office. He ran away from the school – he ran home. His father told him how he was going to take him back to the school – so he ran away from home.

He got involved in a number of relationships, had a number of children. He was very abusive and very angry at everybody in his life. He talked about how as a young man he would go into bars strictly for the purpose of looking for white men to beat them up. He was in jail for much of his adult life. He had gotten to the end stage of his life and was in a palliative care unit. He wanted to speak to us to have his story recorded.

The purpose was to indoctrinate the children into a different cultural milieu in order to ensure that they would be properly assimilated into Canadian society. They had to be able to think like Canadians, they had to become like Canadians

[His children] refused to see him. He said: ‘I would have apologized for what I have done and now this can never happen.’ He passed away.

His family is now living with the pain of what he inflicted on them – and they will not have the opportunity to go through a process of reconciliation and be able to move on from that pain as well.

Can you talk a bit about ‘killing the Indian in the child’? [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper referred to this in his apology in 2008. What does that mean?

The purpose was to indoctrinate the children into a different cultural milieu in order to ensure that they would be properly assimilated into Canadian society. They had to be able to think like Canadians, they had to become like Canadians. In order for that to happen, their inclination to be something different, to be what they truly were, had to be taken out of them and that was through indoctrination – pure and simple.

They [the Canadian authorities] deliberately set upon a campaign… to teach a child that their culture was inferior, their people were inferior, their language was inferior and not to be spoken and it was prohibited. They were prohibited from engaging in any of their traditional cultural practices. Ceremonies were outlawed.

Just to look like an Indian became illegal in Canada.

What were the obstacles put up to thwart parents [who resisted]?

With the Indian conspiracy laws, the right to protest was taken away.

By the end of the 1800s the ability of indigenous families to do anything about this legally was totally barred – Indian parents were prosecuted if they refused to give their children up to the system

With the anti-ceremony laws that were passed, the right to gather was taken away.

[The Government] passed laws to say that no Indian could apply to court to challenge anything the government had done unless they got permission from the government first.

The only other vehicle available… would be if you could vote out of office those people who were passing those laws. The right to vote was taken away from Indians through citizenship legislation as well as voting legislation.

By the turn of the century – the end of the 1800s – the ability of indigenous families to do anything about this legally was totally barred and so Indian parents were prosecuted if they refused to give their children up to the system.

There must have been dramatic scenes if that was the case?

The stories of the round-ups are prevalent in the stories of the survivors. They talk about how the police would come, the planes would land, or the boats would arrive in their community and the children would be herded into these boats.

After three or four generations, it became the parents who started taking the children to the schools –which is why from the survivors’ perspective today we hear about how they are so angry at their families for putting them in these schools.

Their families had been intimidated into submission and had been beaten down to such an extent that they were unable to resist.

A couple of your cousins tried to pass themselves off as French or Spanish because they were ashamed of their backgrounds. Can you tell me about that?

You were ashamed to admit that you were an Indian person. To be called an Indian was to be called something dirty.

The answer does not lie within social programming; the answer lies within finding a way to establish a better relationship, an acknowledgement that what has been lost has value. What has been lost is identity – that’s a difficult thing to replace

The anger that young people feel about what they have been denied, the loss of their language, the loss of their identity and the loss of their culture – it’s given rise to a significant amount of rage in aboriginal youth.

How does the legacy of the Indian Residential School system impinge on the poor health and educational rates and the higher crime rates among aboriginal people?

We have raised – on the one side – aboriginal people to believe in their own inferiority and we have raised a group of non-aboriginal people – white people – in this society to believe in their own superiority.

The answer does not lie within social programming; the answer lies within finding a way to establish a better relationship, an acknowledgement that what has been lost has value. What has been lost is identity – that’s a difficult thing to replace through a social programme.

If we are going to have a relationship of mutual respect and mutual coexistence going forward, finding the path to get there is the difficult issue right now and that’s what we need to talk about.

'Equal rights is not a reality'

Sima speaking at the Canadian Federation of University Women, Ottawa, July 2010


Sima Samar, who trained as as a medical doctor, is the head of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission. She is a lifelong women’s rights campaigner for better education and better health treatment for women in her native country.

In 2002, she became Afghanistan’s most powerful female politician when she became Deputy President. However, her tenure was short-lived and she was pushed out by conservatives. She is against the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, arguing that their work there is not yet done, and she is concerned about the lack of women involved in the reconciliation talks with the Taliban. Sian Griffiths tracked her down in Kabul to find out more.

You originally trained as a doctor in Kabul during the 1970s. When did you become interested in human rights and, more specifically, women’s rights?

I started my university career in 1975 – before the Russians [arrived]. Even at that time, I was fighting for equality and social justice. This was my interest in human rights – to fight against discrimination.

The situation for women has improved, but not to the satisfaction of most of us

When you addressed a Canadian Federation of University Women conference in July 2010, you stated: ‘If we don't have a healthy mother, we don't have a healthy society.’ Could you explain what you meant by this?

If we have women educated, they will help their children more then the father. If she is educated, then she might take care of her health. Then she will have the knowledge to reduce the number of the children she wants – or have a longer space between the different pregnancies. She will not have 10 children with poor health. It is clear, if she has two children, rather then having 10 children, she and her children will be healthier.

The average life expectancy for a woman [and for Afghans generally] is 44. What health problems do Afghan women face – and why?

Afghan women face every health problem caused by poverty and lack of good food. First of all, malnutrition, due to the lack of quality food; infectious disease, due to the lack of clean water; and tuberculosis, again due to a weak, low immune system.

The majority of women who live in the rural area do not know about their equal rights in the constitution. [This] means that the equal rights for them is not a reality

You have also stated that many Afghan women suffer from osteomalacia – a condition leading to a softening of the bones due to inadequate diet. You suggest this is a particular problem for women wearing burqas – could you explain this further?

Malnutrition, lack of exposing the body to the sun, multiple pregnancies and breastfeeding cause osteomalacia.

In 2002, you became Deputy President alongside President Hamid Karzai and then subsequently Minister of Women’s Affairs – making you Afghanistan’s top female politician. What did you hope to achieve in the role and did you succeed?

I became Vice-President and as Minister of Women’s Affairs was able to establish the ministry for the first time. There was no Ministry for Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan before. It involved finding a building, everything for an office, establishing strategy for the ministry. Then I had to step down in June 2002 due to the pressure from fundamentalists and warlords in the government and state institutions.

Has the plight of women improved in the nearly 10 years since you were Minister of Women’s Affairs?

The situation for women has improved, but not to the satisfaction of most of us after nine years – with the presence of the whole world. [There are] more women in school, more women in public services, more women in politics, and more women have access to very basic healthcare. [There are] more women in business. These are improvements. But the majority of women who live in rural areas, live under the same condition as they were before this regime.

Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution defines Afghanistan as an Islamic Republic, where men and women enjoy equal status before the law. To what extent is this being achieved?

Gender equality is not worse for women – but it’s not the reality on the ground for the majority of women in Afghanistan. The majority of women who live in the rural area do not know about their equal rights in the constitution. [This] means that the equal rights for them is not a reality.

I believe that without the full participation of women, no peace or development will happen in Afghanistan

Are you disappointed by the lack of women in government?

Of course, we want more women in positions of power and decision-making in order to make a law to support women’s rights in Afghanistan. I believe that without the full participation of women, no peace or development will happen in Afghanistan.

Safety for women working in public life remains an issue… In April, Amnesty International highlighted the case of Nida Khyani, a local politician who was the victim of a drive-by shooting. The organization said she was another casualty of what they termed ‘the systematic violent targeting of women’ in public life in Afghanistan. Amnesty also accused both the Afghan government and international troops of failing to protect women working in public life. Do you agree?

This is the truth. Women face problems in public life, mainly in areas where security is really bad and the war is going on.

Last month, a human rights organization warned that Afghan government attempts to include the Taliban in the running of the country could harm women’s rights. Human Rights Watch said that women suffer from intimidation, violence and even death threats in areas where the Taliban have influence. Have you heard about these reports and does a reconciliation with the Taliban worry you?

For the moment practically no women are involved in policy-making for this reintegration and reconciliation. I am worried about any negotiation which undermines human rights, in particular, women’s rights. Also, I am worried that there will be no accountability and justice in this kind of peace deal. Peace, without respect for human rights and human dignity, is meaningless and is not going to be sustainable.

Afghanistan has been described by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the UN as a narco-state. Nearly three quarters of the world’s opium is produced in Afghanistan – making it responsible for much of the world’s heroin trade. The profits generated only help to fuel the conflict in Afghanistan. What damage does opium do to Afghan life and is the government making any inroads in reducing its effect – what needs to be done?

Peace, without respect for human rights and human dignity, is meaningless and is not going to be sustainable

Narcotics are a problem in Afghanistan and have been for almost 20 years. The fight against the problem first of all needs political will by the government – and the international community as a partner to the Afghan government. [There needs to be] strong action against producers and drug lords in Afghanistan.

The US, Britain and Canada have signalled that they intend to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011. Will Afghanistan be ready for them to leave?

The problem with the countries who want to leave Afghanistan is, first: why are they in Afghanistan? If they achieve the goal, they can leave the country. If not, an unfinished job in Afghanistan will cause more damage to all of the countries – and the world.

What if the price for peace is offering amnesty to some alleged war criminals – is that a price worth paying?

The Afghan people and every human being wants peace and needs peace – but not at any price, because that peace will not be sustainable if we can’t build support among the public or if we do not respect human rights, justice and accountability, and full participation of women in the peace-building process. The people have to be accountable for their actions.


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