Adrienne Montani and Landon Pearson were honoured this month by the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada as the 2022 laureates of the Janusz Korczak Awards in Child Advocacy.
Jerry Nussbaum, president of the association, described the legacy of Korczak, a Polish Jewish pedagogue (born Henryk Goldszmit) whose final act was to accompany almost 200 orphans to the Treblinka death camp.
“He was devoted to children’s welfare and was a fierce advocate of loving the whole child,” said Nussbaum. “Dr. Korczak was a pediatrician, an educator, pedagogue, author, orphanage director for over 30 years, and a children’s rights advocate. His holistic approach to children’s well-being was at the time groundbreaking…. Korczak’s vision of child well-being embraced such principles as justice, dignity and equality. Korczak placed respect for the child at the heart of his vision to empower children and give them a voice in their own fate.
Korczak treated children with respect and love. This is what is often missing in the lives of children in government care.… Dr. Korczak’s legacy has never been more relevant than it is today.”
Pearson, a former senator and lifelong advocate for children, was awarded the Janusz Korczak Statuette in the virtual presentation ceremony Oct. 18. Prior to her 1994 appointment to the senate, she volunteered with local, national and international organizations concerned with children, including serving as vice-chairperson of the Canadian Commission for the International Year of the Child, in 1979. From 1984 to 1990, she served as president and then chair of the Canadian Council on Children and Youth. She was a founding member and chair of the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children.
In May 1996, Pearson was named advisor on children’s rights to the minister of foreign affairs and, in 1998, she became the personal representative of the prime minister to the 2002 United Nations Special Session on Children. In 2005, she retired from the upper chamber, where she was known as the “Children’s Senator.” The statuette is presented under the patronage of the lieutenant governor of British Columbia, Janet Austin.
Pearson called Korczak a hero of hers and lauded the memory of the man who rebuffed the Nazis’ offer to spare his life at the time when the German occupiers came to liquidate the orphanage he ran in the Warsaw Ghetto. Instead, Korczak walked with the 192 children to the deportation site from which they were transferred to Treblinka, where they were murdered together.
“I’m not sure I would’ve had the courage to do that,” Pearson said.
The former senator, who is to turn 92 on Nov. 16, thanked the Korczak Association of Canada for the honour. “The opportunity to be awarded something like this at the end of my long life is deeply moving for me,” she said.
Montani was awarded the Janusz Korczak Medal, which was presented in partnership with the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth.
Montani is the executive director of First Call Child and Youth Advocacy Society. Previously, she served as the child and youth advocate for the City of Vancouver, and was an elected trustee of the Vancouver School Board for six years, including three as its chair. She has worked extensively on issues of cross-cultural awareness and racism, women’s and children’s rights and the impacts of social exclusion on children and youth in low-income families.
“Elevating children’s rights to the civil and cultural priority they deserve has never been easy,” Montani told the event after she was presented the medal. “Children in B.C. are a declining portion of the population and don’t get to vote. They rely on us to speak up for them, to remember that they do have special entitlements…. The stakes are very high for them if we fail to give them the care and support they need during their childhoods. Of course, if we teach children that they have rights and [teach] society as a whole about child rights, children will be better equipped to exercise their participation rights. Parents and families will be better equipped to play their role as champions for their children and to claim their own rights, which are also in the UN Convention [on the Rights of the Child], to the supports that they need in child-rearing, whether it is adequate income, quality child care, affordable housing [or other] basic needs.”
Montani said Canada and adults elsewhere have too often come up short. “With the best of intentions, we have created a complex and very fragmented system that is full of barriers, such as waitlists and fee structures and referral systems and narrow eligibility requirements,” she said. “It’s hard for a seasoned service navigator to understand it, let alone a parent in need or in crisis. We have done this not because we want to frustrate parents or deny children services, but because we operate in a social and political environment where values other than giving children first call on our collective resources have gained ascendance. As a community, we have not lived up to our commitments in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to make the best interests of children a primary consideration.”
Lillian Boraks-Nemetz, a child survivor of the Holocaust and a board member of the Korczak association, emceed the event. She read a poem by Korczak, which she had translated into English, called “A Teacher’s Prayer.”
Boraks-Nemetz recounted her connection with the legendary doctor. They were incarcerated together in the Warsaw Ghetto and her father was friends with Korczak and assisted the doctor to obtain food for the orphans. Boraks-Nemetz visited the orphanage with her father one day and, while Korczak was not present on that occasion, she got to know him later in life through his writings, she said.
Dr. Jennifer Charlesworth, British Columbia’s Representative for Children and Youth, spoke at the event and participated in the awarding of the medal and statuette. She was joined in the presentations by Dr. Christine Loock, Dr. Anton Grunfeld, Ron Friesen and Nussbaum.
Melanie Mark, B.C. Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport, who was the inaugural recipient of the Korczak Medal, in 2016, congratulated the honourees. Mark was the first First Nations woman elected to the B.C. Legislature and remains the only First Nations woman to have served in cabinet. She described how both Pearson and Montani had profound impacts on her life through their shared commitment to fighting sexual exploitation, particularly of young Indigenous women.