In 1950, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 10 December as Human Rights Day. This day is meant to raise awareness for the role of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”
To mark Human Rights Day, we present some remarkable stories of individuals who sought refuge in Canada from situations in which their basic human rights were violated: Vilien Chen (Vietnam), Marie-Denise Douyon (Haiti) and Claudia Covalciuc (Romania).
Some were displaced because of conflict, others because of their political activism or ethnicity. Most look at life before and after their forced displacement. All attest to experiences that many Canadians have lived.
These stories are drawn from the archive of Passages Canada — a storytelling initiative of Historica Canada in which volunteers share their personal accounts of cultural identity, heritage and immigration with schools and community groups.
I wish I could tell you my first experience arriving in Canada, but I have no recollection of it at all. That was the summer of 1979. I was three at the time. My parents have always told me not to let others know that we were refugees from Vietnam. They believed that Chinese people would look down on us if they knew. They also would like me to make it a point that they did not take a single penny of welfare money from the government. For some reason, that was important for them.
Even today, the word “refugee” sounds dirty to me. I was always taught not to talk too much about my past, and if people asked me where I was born I should just say that I grew up in Canada. It was important that I not talk too much about my family’s past with others, probably because they could pinpoint where we came from, and that would bring shame to our family.
Ten years ago it was my graduation from school. By chance, perhaps, my parents decided to return to Vietnam. They asked me if I would like to go as well. “You could see the place where you were born,” they said. I didn’t want to go. I had no real interest in returning. I had much rather preferred to hang out with my friends. That trip could have been my graduation present. I remembered around that time as well my grandfather would constantly ask me if I had free time, and that if I did, he would bring me back to Hokkien – the home of my ancestors. I never did get that chance to return with my grandfather.
This summer, exactly ten years later, my mother and father planned again to return to Vietnam. This time I really, truly wanted to go with them. This time I felt it was the right time. The first glimpse I had of my grandfather’s place in Vietnam, it wasn’t our home anymore. My dad thinks that it may have been rented out by the government. When I saw that pale blue and grey apartment, there was a small child sitting on the top balcony floor. Had my mom and dad not escaped to Canada, perhaps my life and my future would be like that child’s.
After the First World War, a series of treaties had been imposed upon several European countries with the obligation to protect the racial, religious and national minorities created by the League of Nations, and to supervise the execution of these obligations.
On 10 December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms, and by progressive measures national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance." Included were the fundamental freedoms and legal rights (known internationally as civil and political liberties or rights), as well as equality rights, economic, social and cultural rights. The declaration was accepted by unanimous vote, with the six members of the Soviet bloc, Saudi Arabia, and the Union of South Africa abstaining.
Canada played an important role in drafting the declaration. One of the committee members was professor John Peters Humphrey, an international law professor and human rights expert. [In 1946, Humphrey became director of the United Nations Division on Human Rights.]
Content is excerpted from “Human Rights,” by Walter S. Tarnopolsky and Pearl Eliadis.