Bernard Richard, left, Cindy Blackstock and Jerry Nussbaum. (photo from Janusz Korczak Association of Canada)
As executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, Dr. Cindy Blackstock initiated a human rights complaint against the Government of Canada, alleging that the country discriminates against First Nations by consistently underfunding child welfare services on reserves, a complaint her agency filed jointly with the Assembly of First Nations. After nine years of waiting for a decision, Blackstock, who is also a professor of social work at McGill University, was attending a graduation ceremony when she received an email with an attachment bearing the decision of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
“I read the first words of the decision and it said, ‘This decision is about children,’ underlined. I knew it was a good decision,” Blackstock told an audience at a Richmond hotel April 12, where she was honoured with the Janusz Korczak Medal for Children’s Rights Advocacy.
She left the ceremony and went home to put on her gumboots and collect a teddy bear, named Spirit Bear, who she said had witnessed the nine-year process with her. Then she bought a bouquet of flowers and drove to Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery.
“I walked through the snow down a little valley to a modest tombstone with the name Peter Henderson Bryce on it,” she recalled. Bryce was a federal civil servant in the Indian Affairs Department at the turn of the last century who blew the whistle on Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples, particularly alerting the government and the public to the mortality rate of 14% to 24% at residential schools and a 42% infant mortality rate on reserves. His report, The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921, was never made public by the government and Bryce was fired.
“He sacrificed his career and was retaliated [against] for it, but he would not be silent,” said Blackstock. “He kept talking even if nobody was listening because he knew that it was our job as adults to stand up for kids, to love children more than we fear for ourselves.”
At the cemetery, she read the tribunal decision, which determined that Ottawa discriminates against children on reserves by spending less on child welfare solely because of race and national or ethnic background. As a result, the decision stated, First Nations children suffer adverse impacts from funding service gaps, delays and denials.
After she read the ruling at the gravesite, she looked back up the hill from where she had just walked.
“And I saw the one set of footsteps in the snow and although those were made with me and my gumboots and the Spirit Bear, I knew that they also had the spirits of people like Dr. Korczak, of all the families who had stood up to protect their kids and hide them in the bush or prayed for them when they were in the schools, of the people, the non-aboriginal people like Dr. Bryce, who had been allies of justice for the children. So, I hugged his tombstone and I said, ‘Justice, Dr. Bryce, finally justice.’”
Blackstock, a member of the Gitxsan nation in northern British Columbia, said she was honoured to have her name mentioned in the same sentence as Korczak, who is viewed as the founder of children’s rights. Before she was presented with the medal by Jerry Nussbaum, president of the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada, Korczak was described by Lillian Boraks-Nemetz of the Korczak association as “a children’s advocate, their doctor, their friend and teacher.”
“He penned his own index of children’s rights, which is reflected in the United Nations Charter,” she said. “His Warsaw Ghetto diary and other writings inform us how he, through self-examination and experience, became a man with deep concern and compassion for a child’s welfare, a child’s healing not only of the body but also of the soul.”
Korczak ran his orphanage in Warsaw as a microcosmic laboratory, Boraks-Nemetz said, “where he practised and researched his philosophy on how to love a child and on children’s rights. There, he conducted a child’s court, where children expressed their grievances in front of the judges and jury made up of children.”
She spoke of her own experience implementing Korczak’s theories.
“When my children were small, my own children, I adopted this method partially and invited my own children to the family room once a week where they would express their grievances to us, their parents,” she said to laughter from the audience. “We would hear them out and discuss solutions to all sorts of problems and this worked very well, as our children needed to gain confidence in themselves and to express their feelings and thoughts, to be treated fairly with an acknowledgement of their rights to justice.”
Korczak’s philosophy, she said, was that 100 children are 100 human beings – “not some day, not ‘not yet,’ not tomorrow. They are human beings now.”
She then told the story of Korczak’s ultimate heroism.
“He would not desert the 200 orphans he cared for in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War,” she said. “This was at the time when the orphanage was marked for Nazi deportations of Jews.… Korczak was offered a reprieve from being deported, but he said, ‘My children need me’ and went with them to Treblinka death camp, where they all perished.”
Boraks-Nemetz quoted Irena Sendler, a Polish rescuer of ghetto children, who said, “When, on Aug. 6, 1942, I saw that tragic parade in the street, those innocent children walking obediently in the procession of death and listening to the doctor’s optimistic words, I do not know why, for me and for all the other eyewitnesses, our hearts did not break.”
Bernard Richard, British Columbia’s Representative for Children and Youth, said some might think it difficult to make comparisons between a Polish Jewish man who died in the Holocaust and an indigenous Canadian woman who is still living – “and kicking, some would say.”
“But Cindy Blackstock is being given the medal for children’s rights advocacy because her work – and her life – has embodied the spirit of the man for whom the medal is named,” Richard said. Throughout the nine-year process, he added, “She was tenacious, and persistent, determined, passionate and committed, all characteristics shared with Janusz Korczak.”
Marvin Bernstein, UNICEF Canada’s chief policy advisor, said Canada has a longstanding pattern of underfunding child welfare services for First Nations children living on reserves, affecting 165,000 First Nations children and their families. The tribunal decision on Jan. 26, 2016, was a turning point for the country.
“It’s clear to UNICEF Canada that Cindy has been on the right side of history from the very beginning and has left an enduring legacy of advancing First Nations children’s rights.”
The concept of intersectionality recognizes that multiple forms of oppression and discrimination can impact individuals at the same time. For example, African-Americans experience systemically and socially both economic disadvantage and racial discrimination. Black women face an addition layer of intersectional oppression and black LGBTQ people add homophobia to the mix.
Intersectionality can be problematic for the Jewish community. As we have discussed in this space previously and will again, despite historical realities, Jewish people are often perceived by others as an advantaged, rather than a disadvantaged, minority. It does not take long on the sort of online forums where the term intersectionality is commonly used before stereotypes of Jewish power show up. Similarly, Zionism is seen by some not as the realization of an indigenous rights movement for self-determination that it is, but rather as a form of colonialism.
In one of the most self-evident examples of intersectionality’s potential blind spots, the intersection of Palestinian rights and gay rights begets ludicrousness like Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, which makes common cause with extremists who throw homosexuals off roofs in order to condemn the perceived colonialism and myriad other “sins” of Zionism. Very frequently, in the discourse found in some far-left circles, antisemitism is dismissed because it does not fit the ideology of those who determine where the intersections are. Or, rather, it is made to not fit.
This is too bad, because selecting which humans are eligible for inclusion in a human rights movement based on immutable characteristic is, by definition, a human rights movement founded on false premises.
Of course, social theory and the real world are disparate points on a spectrum. A beautiful real-world example of something we might term intersectionality took place last week here in Vancouver.
Bernard Richard, British Columbia’s Representative for Children and Youth, spoke at the ceremony for the awarding of this year’s Janusz Korczak Medal for Children’s Rights Advocacy. He observed that it might be difficult for some people to see the parallels between a Jewish Pole who died in the Holocaust and a social worker and activist who is a Canadian First Nations woman. But the inspiring intersection of these two lives makes eminent sense.
Dr. Janusz Korczak, as regular readers know, was a hero of the Holocaust who chose to accompany the 200 children in the care of his orphanage to their deaths in Treblinka, despite the Nazis offering him a reprieve. But he is a hero not only for the way he died, but for the work of his life. Seen as the originator of the children’s rights movement, Korczak insisted on the recognition of children’s innate humanity – rather than merely their potential – and insisted on seeing children as individuals fully deserving of respect and self-determination.
Far away in time and place, Dr. Cindy Blackstock insisted on the rights of indigenous Canadian children. A human rights complaint she initiated, which took nine years to wend its way through the byzantine structures of federal institutions, resulted in a January 2016 decision that Canada has consistently discriminated against the 165,000 aboriginal children who live on reserves, and their families, by systemically underfunding services to those children and youth based solely on their identities.
Blackstock was awarded the annual Korczak medal for exemplifying the values of Korczak in advancing children’s rights.
In her acceptance speech, Blackstock spoke of walking in the footsteps of ancestors and others who came before. Korczak and Blackstock are both models for all who seek to advance the condition of children in the world. It is impossible to imagine what future greatness may be inspired by their examples. A Polish Jewish man, Korczak effectively invented a concept that is now entrenched in United Nations testaments to the rights of the child, affecting the lives of potentially every child on earth. An indigenous Canadian woman, Blackstock shepherded a human rights challenge that will improve the lives of every child living on reserves in Canada, and their families.
Someday, who knows when or where, these two examples will inspire some other individual to stand up where injustice and inequality intersect with some other group of people. Then that individual will themselves become a model for others.
Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond speaks at the fourth session of “How to Love a Child,” the Janusz Korczak Lecture Series. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
“Rights are paper tigers, just pieces of paper, unless there are people courageous enough to defend them, and unless there are mechanisms to enforce them and compel them. The child who has a right to be heard but no one listens to, and disappears without ever being heard, never really had a right to be heard,” warned B.C. representative for children and youth Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond at the fourth session of “How to Love a Child,” the Janusz Korczak Lecture Series.
The Jan. 21 lecture at the University of British Columbia, which is part of a six-part series co-organized by the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada and UBC’s faculty of education, focused on The Human Rights of Aboriginal Children. Also speaking was Dr. Mike DeGagné, president and vice-chancellor of Nipissing University, who was the executive director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF), which was established in 1998 with a grant from the federal government and wound down its work in 2014. Its mandate was “to encourage and support, through research and funding contributions, community-based aboriginal-directed healing initiatives which address the legacy of physical and sexual abuse suffered in Canada’s Indian residential school system, including inter-generational impacts.”
Dr. Grant Charles, associate professor at UBC School of Social Work, acted as moderator, and Janusz Korczak Association president Jerry Nussbaum also spoke, explaining briefly who was Janusz Korczak. The educator, writer and orphanage director – after whose book How to Love a Child the lecture series is named – not only wrote about his theories, but lived and died by them. When the Nazis created the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, Korczak’s orphanage was forced to move there, and Korczak went with the children. In 1942, he and the almost 200 children in his care were taken to Treblinka, where they were murdered.
Nussbaum reminded the audience of Korzak’s philosophies on the rights of children and their direct influence on the content of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Korczak believed that every child has a right to love, said Nussbaum, and that “children offered love and care will reciprocate with love and care.” Children have a right to be taken seriously, to education, to protest an injustice, among other rights. Nussbaum explained that Korczak believed that the health of a society could be gauged by the health of its children.
Despite protection under the UN convention, there are many children and youth who are marginalized and, in Canada, First Nations children are among those who are the most at risk. Dr. Jo-Ann Archibald, associate dean for indigenous education at UBC, gave an example of one of the research programs at the university’s faculty of education that is trying to ameliorate this situation. Called Awakening the Spirit, “it’s about revitalizing canoeing at Musqueam,” she explained. There is cooperation among different faculties and some students are involved, “but the most important part is the Musqueam communities that partner in this research. They are the ones who determined this particular project because they felt that they wanted to have something positive in their community for the young people, for the youth.”
Canoeing, she said, was a very important part of the community lifestyle, “it was a way to build family and community cohesiveness and also have fun and learn about the environment at the same time.”
The benefits of the research project, she said, “will be realized in educational materials, in the way of revitalizing important values, the Musqueam language, ensuring we have intergenerational learning.”
DeGagné has had 20 years of experience working with the repercussions of residential schools. He said his views about rights, “especially indigenous children’s rights, I color it with the history of residential schools.”
Often when there is a conversation within the community about indigenous issues, he said, it begins with the high rates of suicide, poverty, over-representation in the justice and child welfare systems, “the rosary of our grievances.” Given that indigenous children have rights, yet the grievances continue, he asked, “How can we be sure those rights are being supported and upheld?”
When AHF began, he said, grant applicants would ask, for example, whether the foundation had an approved list of elders that they could use. “We were astonished. Can you imagine in your own community … in your own spiritual context, asking if your priest was OK, if your rabbi was OK? This is the making of the colonial mind. After years of being subjected to doing it someone else’s way, even when we came along, we could not engender people doing it their way.” He described this as “a learned helplessness,” and a lack of trust in their own culture.
To move forward, it is important to talk of the past, he said. He used the metaphor of a pebble being dropped into a pond to describe the effects of the residential school system. The child’s abuse at the hands of an adult is at the centre, it is the pebble being dropped; the next ripple out is one child at a residential school abusing another child (“learned behavior”); the next is when that person leaves the school and returns to their community and starts a family in which violence takes place; then the violence between that family and another in the community. As we look at the outcome, standing on the outside, we see the high rates of suicide, family violence, neglected children, but we, as observers, “can’t see anything but the dysfunction and so infrequently do we get to examine what happened in the middle, what happened in that first instance of violence, what happened when that child’s human rights” were disregarded. “This is why we talk about history,” this is why 100 years of residential schools is important, he said.
To change the situation, he pointed to two necessities: the establishment of fairness, “the money that we spend on First Nations child welfare should be equal to the money that we spend in the rest of the population’s child welfare systems”; and transference of control to First Nations peoples of their lives, agendas and resources.
DeGagné commended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on capturing the hearts and minds of Canadians and drawing them to indigenous issues, and for talking about system reform as opposed to tweaking or just adding money to a dysfunctional system. But, among his criticisms of the commission’s recommendations is that they do not make him uncomfortable. “It turns out that, in the reconciliation between you and me, indigenous people and non-indigenous people, that 93 of the 94 recommendations require that you do something…. I’d like to feel a lot more uncomfortable reading these recommendations because reconciliation is going to require that I work and that you work, and not that you come to stand by me, but that somehow I come to stand in the middle with you. And so, I think, too often with these recommendations, and this could be a reflection of the colonized mind, we are calling upon someone else to fix the problems with our community. That’s a concern of mine.”
The TRC, he added, also describes issues as if there has been no progress in the last 20 years – by the churches, universities, governments and others – towards reconciliation. “We have much to do, but we have to start by acknowledging the good work of all us and how much progress we’ve made.”
Turpel-Lafond spoke about how long it takes to change systems. “You have to really make that investment [in change], and it takes time,” she said.
AHF “laid the groundwork for thinking about healing” and the view of storytelling and its importance in healing, she said. “Stories, particularly the stories of grievances that aboriginal adults have – and many of our parents and grandparents have – are stories that needed to be told, that needed to be heard, that needed to be listened to.” AHF “gave resources for people to validate that process of allowing individuals who had been through residential school, their personal experience and their collective experience, to be told and listened to in a very sincere way in which they were supported, but also could create that medicine toward healing.”
Turpel-Lafond’s great-great-grandparents were the first two students at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Sask. She spoke of the difficulties in sharing some of the stories with her own children. “Children are not always ready to hear those stories. I’m not trying to be over-protective, but we need to think about children’s well-being … how we tell the stories to children, when we tell stories to children, and how we can put those stories in a context.”
She then went on to speak about Korczak and the lecture theme, “How to love a child.” For her, Korczak represents what it means to love children, even “where it was extremely unpopular to love and support some children, who were considered to be less worthy, who were considered to be disposable…. And also to bring forward the idea that love is a kind of medicine with respect to our society…. We express our love for our own society and its furtherance by how we love our children because we create a vision of something we may not even be here to enjoy, that we create through that very values-based process.”
We’re not talking about creating the perfect system or bureaucracy, she said, noting that Treblinka was an attempt at a perfect system, “we’re talking about values.”
The love that Korczak represents for her in the context of indigenous children is an approach that does not come from a perspective of shaming, blaming, contempt or judgment. This is “a really serious problem that we continue to have for the current generation of indigenous children, which is, we want to save them but we still want to blame their parents, and that’s a very unhealthy attitude.” We need to come “from a perspective of love and understanding and context, and seeing … [how] multiple shocks … can just devastate families, not every family, but some families.”
A second lesson she takes from Korzcak’s views is “the idea that nobody owns your story, that you have to have the courage to say it.” People may relate to your story in various ways, “but the story, and telling it, the courage to do that, to talk about the difficult things, is a very important instinct related to love and, if you can’t bring that out and you don’t have enough people in your society who are courageous, then your society is doomed. And how do you build courageous people? … [I]t’s about love and acceptance and space, but it’s also about having very strong adults to allow people like kids to tell stories.” Korczak “represented that right to be heard,” she said, and he went even further, going against the mores of the day in that he wanted “no corporal punishment of children.”
She said that many indigenous children have been “raised in an environment deprived of the type of unconditional love, culture, language and the right to know who they were and where they were…. If you love people and you’re prepared to understand that grievance and suffering is not permanent, it can be redressed.”
But, adults who love children must see something in the children that the children may not see themselves because they’re mired in rejection. “There have to be positive, healthy adults who see their potential and support them to get to their potential. That’s a very important concept because, not surprisingly, guess what, some of the children who have been most abused and ill-treated can be the most challenging to engage with in terms of their emotional regulation, in terms of their contact with adults, in terms of their anger.”
The government label is that these children are “service resistant,” she said, which means, “we will leave you alone because you’re too angry for me even to listen to your story. But, if you take a page from Andrew Solomon [author of Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity] and Janusz Korczak, what would you say? I am able to rise above it and listen to this story and, if I’m a good, healthy adult that’s coming from a place of love, I can probably see what’s in the story and see how it can be a medicine for the future.”
The third lesson she takes from Korczak, her experience as an indigenous person and as an advocate for children is that “rights are an important medicine.” Rights are so important because “rights are a way to reframe incredible vulnerability and systematic disempowering … into a different context that overnight takes, for instance, that residential school experience and now makes it appalling, completely unacceptable, who would ever do that to children? Because they have a right to learn, they have a right to be safe, they have a right to be heard, they have a right to their language, [to their] culture transmitted from their parents to them, and there’s nothing threatening or harmful about that.”
In British Columbia, we have a long way to go. Of the children in care, more than 60% are indigenous children. While Turpel-Lafond said we are in a better place as a society than when she left home and went out in the world, “we are not in a place where indigenous children can in any way be guaranteed equal opportunities with other children in British Columbia. By accident of birth, they’re going to be born with significant disadvantages that will only be overcome based on what we decide to do.”
In the half-hour question and answer period that followed, one of the listeners shared her story of how her child had been abused by foster parents and, when she tried to remedy the situation, she could not find help, no matter to whom or to which government office she turned. Turpel-Lafond was at a loss to respond, other than to empathize and say we don’t have the answers, “but we’ve got to find a way to get them.”
The fifth lecture in the Korczak series takes place on Feb. 18, 7 p.m., and focuses on the topic Social Pediatrics in Canada and Vancouver. The final lecture on April 6 provides a summary of the series. To register and for more information, visit jklectures.educ.ubc.ca.
Maria LeRose, left, speaks with Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl. (photo from Janusz Korczak Association of Canada)
The second lecture of the “How to Love a Child” series, co-sponsored by the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada and the University of British Columbia faculty of education, took place at the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre on Oct. 29. The topic was Janusz Korczak and the Importance of Listening to Children’s Voices in Education: Theory, Research and Practical Strategies.
Keynote speaker Dr. Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl spoke at length on being mindful and caring towards children, very much in the spirit of Korczak’s own theories on how to love a child. Her best example was the classroom as the microcosmic world of children, where teachers’ attitudes towards their students play an integral role in their development.
Schonert-Reichl is a professor in the Human Development, Learning and Culture program at UBC and the interim director of the Human Early Learning Partnership. She has authored more than 100 articles and several books, and her focus is on the social and emotional development and the well-being of children and adolescents.
In her address, she talked about her own education and how she was seduced by the idea of giving children a voice in the classroom. So, she engaged them in decorating the classroom according to their own taste, and let them express their ideas. When the students saw that their opinion mattered, they became engaged. Schonert-Reichl realized that she was learning from her students by listening to them, hearing and heeding their voices, and this increased her pleasure in teaching them. She discussed further how teachers need to have compassion for the children and to never shame them.
Following the keynote lecture, moderator Maria LeRose, program consultant for the Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education and adjunct professor at UBC in the faculty of medicine, coordinated a panel consisting of Robin Kaebe, Salma Rafi and Alexander Corless, Grade 6 students at Lord Roberts Elementary School, who answered questions from the audience. They spoke of how a teacher’s attitude matters; how children need to be heard and seen. Even a hello in the school corridor gives a child a sense of being and recognition.
One student said that the classroom becomes like a second family and that very important relationships are formed at school. Another appreciated school’s climate of comfort and safety. Another defined a teacher as “somebody who asks us what we want to do.” Also appreciated was the presence of suggestion boxes as a medium through which the children could express their thoughts and feelings.
Both Schonert-Reichel and LeRose addressed the fact that teachers also need care and understanding, as being a teacher is an often-demanding job that can cause burnout.
The panel discussion closed on the importance of parent-teacher communication, as that gives the child more confidence, acknowledgment and feeling of security.
Jerry Nussbaum, the president of the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada, opened the evening with remarks about Korczak and his various activities in the field of children’s rights and welfare, and he quoted Korczak: “Children are people whose souls contain the seeds of all those thoughts and emotions that we possess. As these seeds develop, their growth must be gently directed.”
Nussbaum mentioned the famous Korczak democratic court, held in his orphanage for the children by the children. Nussbaum concluded his address by thanking all the donors, speakers and volunteers.
The next and third lecture of the six-part series takes place in the alumni centre on Nov. 25, with Anne Cools, senator for Toronto Centre-York, and moderator Dr. Edward Kruk, associate professor of social work at UBC. The discussion will focus on current challenges in the implementation of the “best interests of the child” standard in Canadian jurisprudence, social policy and professional practice. To register, visit jklectures.educ.ubc.ca.
Lillian Boraks-Nemetz is a Vancouver-based author and a board member of the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada.
Left to right, keynote speaker Irwin Elman and panelists Rachel Malek, James Copping and Jess Boon. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
“Children are not the people of tomorrow but are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they are meant to be.”
Polish doctor, educator, writer and orphanage director Janusz Korczak’s philosophy and writing laid the foundation for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Murdered in 1942 at Treblinka with the almost 200 children in his care, Korczak’s work and life remain relevant to this day.
Jerry Nussbaum, president of the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada (JKAC), was one of the many speakers on Sept. 29 to remind the approximately 70 people in attendance of this fact. “We hold this lecture series in his honor,” said Nussbaum, “because we seek to follow his example of respecting children and honoring the whole child.”
“How to Love a Child”: The Janusz Korczak Lecture Series is co-organized by the JKAC and the faculty of education at the University of British Columbia, with contributions from other faculties, universities, activists and advocates. The first of six lectures was called Keeping our Promise to Children: The Relevance of Korczak’s Legacy for Children Today. It featured as keynote speaker Irwin Elman, provincial advocate for children and youth of Ontario, and president of the Canadian Council of Child and Youth Advocates.
Other speakers included moderator Dr. Charles Ungerleider, director of research and managing partner of Directions Evidence and Policy Research Group, LLP; Marni Point, who welcomed attendees to the traditional and unceded Musqueam territory; Dr. Krzysztof Olendhi, ambassador titulaire, consul general of the Republic of Poland in Vancouver; and. Dr. Blye Frank, dean and professor, UBC faculty of education. The most poignant tribute came from child survivor Lillian Boraks-Nemetz, board member of JKAC, author and UBC instructor.
“Korczak has been my hero all my life,” she said. Both she and Korczak were among those held in the Warsaw Ghetto. She spoke of going to school secretly until one day two Nazis came in and pushed the teachers around (they were sent to prison) – “we children sat there frozen in fear for quite some time, then the teachers sent us home. The next day, the school was boarded up. And that is what I remember, clutching my father’s hand ever so tightly while looking into the cellar through a little window at the now-empty grey room, where once there was life, color and learning. I had lost my right to education.”
Her father took her to Korczak’s orphanage. Even though the doctor was not in, they were welcomed, and she saw the children reading and doing artwork, seemingly happy “inside this space, as if the horror of the ghetto and the threat of the always-impending danger didn’t exist. This was Dr. Korczak’s world…. I had the impression that the doctor also tried to raise the children’s spirits during the terrible times in which they lived.”
She described the deportations; she, her mother and little sister narrowly missing the transport cars to Treblinka when a commotion distracted the guards and her father managed to save them out of the line. “We were lucky, not so Dr. Korczak and his children, who were destined to walk along the same route.”
On Aug. 5, 1942, the Nazis came for the children of the orphanage. While he was offered a reprieve, “Korczak refused, saying I hate desertion and besides, my children need me.
“Father often spoke of that day and how Korczak’s 200 orphans were ordered out of the building and made to march through the Warsaw Ghetto with Korczak at the helm, holding a small child in his arms and one little one by the hand. They were carrying the green banner of King Matthew, the character in his [Korczak’s] popular book for children about a child king who fought for children’s rights…. No survivor who was there at that time can forget the long procession. Many wrote about it.”
Boraks-Nemetz said her father often spoke about Korczak and taught her his principles, principles she followed in raising her own children. She concluded her remarks with the poem “And Still They March” by Yala Korwin, before presenting the first JKAC scholarship award to UBC PhD student Matthew Lee for his work on children’s social and emotional development.
When Elman began his keynote address, he admitted that he only learned about Korczak about 15 years ago, on a trip to Japan, where he was invited to “help them learn about children’s rights and to help teach them to elevate the voice of children.” When visiting a children’s home – an institution that can have as many as 200 children living in it – a staff member mentioned Korczak and was amazed when Elman, a Jewish educator who had worked with children for 20 years at that point, did not know the name.
Elman has since learned enough to know that Korczak’s work and life are relevant. “In Canada today, there are approximately 350,000 children connected to care in one way or another…. Some say that there are as many as two million former Crown wards … in this country.”
Speaking of his home province, he said there were 23,000 kids in Ontario living in some form of care, 8,000-10,000 permanently (ie. Crown wards, which, in British Columbia, are called continued custody orders) – and they are not doing well. Of those, more than 18% are aboriginal; in British Columbia, it’s 60-65%; in other provinces even higher. “It’s not hard to understand and listen to and hear the echoes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, and the need to address this over-representation of First Nations children across the country in our systems of care.”
In Ontario, he said, children can only come into care if a social worker (or somebody in such a capacity) has deemed the child in need of protection – from abuse or neglect – and a court has agreed. The children have not done anything wrong.
When the state takes children into care, said Elman, “You’re making a promise to them. The first thing, obviously, is, you’re protected now. The second thing is … if you’re permanently in our care, we’re going to take care of you … we’re going to ensure that you’re going to live to your full potential. And, when that child is brought into care, what do they hear? Maybe we don’t say it, but they hear, we’re going to love you, it’s OK now.”
But, he said, only 40% of children in care in Ontario graduate from high school, and that percentage doesn’t vary much between provinces; 43% of the homeless population of Canada have had an in-care experience. Young people connected to care are over-represented in the justice and mental health systems.
Elman shared many stories of his work as the province’s advocate. When somebody steps up for a child, he said – whether it be a community, foster parents, a group home, adoptive parents, anyone – “the government needs to say thank you, we’ve got your back, what do you need? We’ll do whatever is necessary, because we owe our children a home in which they are nurtured and loved…. That takes a whole different way of thinking about child welfare.”
He has been told, “We can’t legislate love.” His response is, “I don’t think you can legislate love, but I do think you can create conditions in which love can flourish. The government should be all over that… And, to do that, they need to ask young people and they need to ask children and they need to ask their caregivers in whatever form that is…. We owe that to children.”
If we took that approach, he said, if children in care were listened to, they would feel in charge of their own lives. If they knew what was in their files and had a say in what was written there, they would contribute to making policy, they would have a say in where they lived. Social and child-care workers would be trained differently, including respecting all the different cultures from which children in care come. “Many practical, revolutionary things … would happen in the way in which the system is run if children felt listened to.”
Panelists Rachel Malek, Jess Boon and James Copping – all members of the Federation of B.C. Youth in Care Networks – joined Elman on stage for a 35-minute Q&A. Questioners wanted to know more about the criteria for a child going into care, how to create a sense of belonging for a child and ensure their safety, how to reduce the number of children in care, the impact of poverty, and which programs in Canada reflect Korczak’s philosophy.
As the final question, the consul general asked the young panelists, all of whom had experienced the care system, “What does it mean to you to love a child?” Boon spoke of commitment, being there for the serious and fun times but also investing in your own education to give back to the community. Copping mentioned consistency in home, support for school, having someone on whom to rely through thick and thin. For Malek, it is to be vulnerable – to open your heart, to recognize that it’s a two-way street, to be willing to go the extra mile for a child.
The next lecture in the Korczak series takes place Oct. 29, 7 p.m., at UBC Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre. Registration is required via jklectures.educ.ubc.ca.