VANCOUVER – International human rights champion Stephen Lewis revved up delegates on Friday with a firebrand speech that, with his trademark orator’s flair, eviscerated the Harper Conservatives and praised CUPE BC for its progressive social activism on several fronts.
“I love the rambunctious crowd in this trade union crucible,” he began, describing the convention atmosphere. “If only most of Canada could see the intelligence and judgement and intensity when you are discussing important issues—it would be an elixir for the entire country.”
On political action, Lewis said there’s a lesson to be found in the unexpected success of the NDP in Alberta.
“The gains we’re going to make in Alberta next Tuesday speak volumes to the nonsense about strategic voting,” he said. “You vote for principle and you vote for conviction, and then you elect a progressive government.”
Use ‘every waking moment’ to defeat Harper
On the Harper Conservative government, Lewis was scathing.
“We’ve never had such a retrograde, reactionary, fossilized government in Canada like we have right now,” he said, describing the unprecedented concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office as “a kind of autocratic narcissism run rampant.”
Lewis cited a litany of examples of the Harper regime’s destruction of the social fabric in Canada. From the “abomination” of Bill 51’s assault on civil liberties, and the attack on NGOs critical of the government (“Using strangulation by audit as a vehicle for stopping dissent”), to the assault on free collective bargaining, the Conservative government has been a disaster.
“We’ve never had a government that would refuse an inquiry into the more than 1,000 aboriginal women who have been murdered or disappeared,” he said. “We have to understand what’s going on here. It’s not just ideological aberration. It is something called racism. There is no other word for it.”
The Harper government’s policy on climate change, and the deliberate trashing of Canada’s reputation as a global peacekeeper, has become an international embarrassment, he added.
“Not in our history have we ever had a Canadian government that could not win a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations. And who were we defeated by? We were defeated by Portugal. This wasn’t a soccer game,” said Lewis.
“Every single waking hour between now and October 19 should be dedicated to the service of defeating Stephen Harper and electing an NDP government.”
International solidarity making a difference
Lewis then turned his attention to CUPE BC’s financial support of and solidarity with the foundation that bears his name. Through the Colleen Jordan Humanity Fund, CUPE BC for the past decade has supported the organization’s efforts fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa, where 20 million people are still fighting for their lives. The support of the labour movement has become all the more important, he said, given that major western government donors have pulled back their contributions, still citing the “momentary blip” of the 2008 economic downturn.
He also thanked the Union for its support of AIDS-Free World, an international advocacy organization he co-founded in 2007 that is driven by feminist analysis and the premise that “the single most important struggle on the planet is the struggle for gender equality”. He said that union contributions have helped AIDS-Free World apply pressure to establish the UN Women organization, prosecute crimes against humanity for mass rapes in Zimbabwe, do LGBT outreach work in the Caribbean, and convince the International Labour Organization to change its policy and classify child marriage as a form of child labour.
In the most gut-wrenching moment of his speech, Lewis condemned the lack of moral leadership shown by the United Nations in its failure to act on a report outlining the sexual abuse of children by French UN peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic—a report AIDS-Free World leaked to the Guardian newspaper, which ran the story on Wednesday.
“You’re making it possible for us to do this work,” Lewis told delegates. “You’re supporting us in a way that is so exemplary, I feel like levitating in your presence. I want to tell you how deeply we thank you, how deeply we appreciate what you’re doing.”