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... And Still We Rise, A Clarion Call for Social Justice Advocacy (Equity and Women's Services)

ETFO’s 11th annual …and still we rise conference once again demonstrated the federation’s leadership in educating members about issues facing women and children worldwide. Keynote speakers and workshop presenters outlined the ways in which teachers can make change in schools, communities, and around the world. 

Elizabeth Dallaire, a former primary school teacher, outlined the changes taking place in Rwanda. Mme Dallaire is the spokesperson for UNICEF Canada and the wife of senator and former Canadian general Romeo Dallaire. Romeo Dallaire witnessed the slaughter of more than 1 million people in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Mme Dallaire said there has been progress in Rwanda and people’s lives have improved and noted that Rwandans have a “huge capacity” of being able to forgive. “It will certainly take some time to heal those wounds. But they forgive. They always forgive. We should really learn from them.”

As UNICEF ambassador Mme Dallaire works to raise awareness about the educational needs in African countries. There are huge challenges facing those living in deep poverty, particularly those in the countryside, without access to electricity and clean water. UNICEF has a variety of support programs including Schools for Africa and the Kenya Girls’ Scholarship program. Commitment is important, Mme Dallaire said, but so is money. “That’s the only way of improving the lives of these people.” She urged participants to make a small donation to support UNICEF’s school kits – a $250 kit provides school supplies for 80 children.

With her son Gabe at her side, Ellen Chambers Picard, president of the Lakehead Teacher Local, described her seven-year battle to get lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) policies in place to make schools safer for gay students like Gabe. In 2003 the two filed an Ontario Human Rights Commission complaint and went public charging that their school board did nothing to stop the bullying Gabe was experiencing. “Because I was a teacher, I knew that what was needed was LGBT community consultations, teacher training, Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), and workshops, which have mostly now been implemented,” said Chambers Picard. She called on educators to make LGBT issues a part of the curriculum in all classrooms. “As teachers, we are the only ones who can make a safe place for children because they often have not yet come out to their parents. It’s our responsibility to open our classrooms and embrace everyone.”

Just back from a trip to Afghanistan, children’s author and activist Deborah Ellis provided a frank description of how women and children are faring 10 years after the fall of the Taliban. “While conditions can be depressing there, my heart soared at the hope and courage that these women and girls demonstrate in their determination to get an education,” said Ellis. When she asked the audience how many believed that we would never have a world without war, a majority raised their hands. “We must believe that we can be free of war or there will never be the hope, and the drive, to change,” Ellis admonished her audience. “If you don’t think so, just look at how far efforts toward environmental sustainability have come. Twenty-five years ago, no one would have believed we could make that change.”

Other speakers included Samantha Nutt (above), executive director of War Child Canada. She described her experiences in war-torn countries and also highlighted the impact of war on women and children worldwide. Marina Nemat, author of the Prisoner of Tehran, described her experiences as a student rebel and a prisoner in Iran’s infamous Evin prison, where she was tortured and raped. Her life was saved by a forced marriage to one of her guards. Eventually she fled to Canada. Inuk singer/songwriter, Susan Aglukark, chair of the Arctic Children and Youth Foundation, spoke about the ways in which youth in the north are held back by inequalities in education, living standards, and health, challenges she understands first hand. Much to the joy of her many fans, Aglukark performed several of her most famous songs.

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