Speaking Up for Human Rights in a Democracy

By Calvin Fraser
June 13, 2014

A review of the Table of Contents for this issue of Perspectives shows the values based nature of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) which is very much focussed on equity, rights and reversing injustice. Perhaps we have never outgrown what I often hear disparagingly referred to as “a junior high sense of justice.” The junior-high reference seems to suggest that views should be changed later by cynicism resulting from the inevitable power, money and status inequities in society. At CTF we take our support for our values which are set by teachers—our teacher voice—not only into our daily activities but also into national and international forums.

Teachers experience equity concerns daily. The vast majority of teachers are deeply concerned for the welfare of hungry, abused, neglected children; ethnic or socio-economic outsiders or intellectually, physically or mentally challenged individuals who seem to have little future in our society. To teachers public education is about helping all students. Of course, for many that means influencing and helping families or even communities. When children go hungry, when children are denied access to educational programs, when families are unable to provide for their children (or reject them), teachers see it; teachers feel it. What rights do those children have? Who is able to speak up or stand up for them? Teachers do. CTF does. At meetings that are called for the purpose of shaping education systems, such as the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, a strong teacher voice that speaks for diversity, equal rights and respect for universality is needed. That Summit is the only international table at which Ministers of Education and teacher organization leaders speak as equals at the same table.

Rights are not absolutes—indeed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly states that it “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” While some do hold to “absolute” values on such issues as sexual orientation discrimination, abortion, religion, or public vs. private interests, most Canadians and most teachers seek the “justifiable” democracy. Interpreting the justifiable limits to rights opens debate and differences. Indeed absolutes are much easier but clearly wrong-headed. For understanding, one need only look at the insanity regarding the “Right to bear arms” in the United States. Sadly rights debates too often sink to putting personal beliefs and personal interests over those of others and all too often include attempts to shut down debate that challenges either an absolute or a power-based belief. The reasonableness that arises from debate makes Canada a good place in which to live. Much of the reasonableness comes from Canada’s strong public education system and the excellent teachers in it.

Rights need to be constantly defended and constantly questioned. Hence the importance of discussion about how rights fit reasonably within a democracy, even when some seem anathematic to parts of our society. Teachers have a role in generating such discussions with young people learning to be part of the larger society. The Canadian Teachers’ Federation and its Member organizations support those discussions and activities with materials, contacts, policies, programs and sometimes even small cash grants. We also support those discussions and activities at the regional, national and international levels.

Calvin Fraser is Secretary General of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

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Perspectives web magazine is published by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), a national alliance of provincial and territorial teacher organizations that represent over 273,000 elementary and secondary school teachers across Canada.

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