Inspired by real people, Jai Chakrabarti and Michaela Carter have written novels that explore the Holocaust and its impacts. Their books also happen to share common themes. Notably, the power of art to change the world, and the power of love to change a person.
Chakrabarti (A Play for the End of the World) joins Gary Barwin (Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy) on Feb. 6 in a Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival event, moderated by Helen Pinsky, called Mythical Quests. Carter (Leonora in the Morning Light) and Meg Waite Clayton (The Postmistress of Paris) take part in the event Art and War on Feb. 9, moderated by Hope Forstenzer.
In Chakrabarti’s A Play for the End of the World, the quest is that of child survivor Jaryk Smith, who travels from New York to India in 1972 to collect the ashes of his best friend and fellow Holocaust survivor, Misha, who died of a heart attack. Misha had ventured to India to help a village mount a production of Rabindranath Tagore’s Dak Ghar (translated as “The Post Office”), which Jaryk and Misha had performed when they were under the care of Janusz Korczak (aka Pan Doktor by the children) in Warsaw in 1942.
While Jaryk, Misha and all the other characters are fictional, Korczak and Dak Ghar were very real. “The play is about a dying child living through his imagination while quarantined,” writes Chakrabarti in the author’s note. “Pan Doktor chose to stage the play to help his orphans reimagine ghetto life and to prepare them for what was to come.”
The Indian villagers are also being prepared for what is to come – they are under threat of expulsion, or worse, from the government; already, protesters have been imprisoned, even killed. The Indian professor promoting the play wants to bring international attention to their plight.
Tangled up in all this is Lucy, who Jaryk loves but abandons in New York when he hears about Misha’s death. One of the many choices Jaryk faces is whether he can accept the happiness that Lucy and life in general can offer him.
Happiness is a rare and difficult-to-achieve state in Carter’s novel, as well. The Leonora of the book’s title is artist Leonora Carrington, who was born in England in 1917 and died in Mexico in 2011. An unofficial part of the Surrealist movement (because women weren’t allowed), Carrington was an acclaimed painter and writer. Of her relationships, the most famed would be with fellow Surrealist Max Ernst, who was twice her age at their time of meeting.
“I was drawn to Leonora Carrington before I even knew who she was,” writes Carter in the author’s note. “Long intrigued by the Surrealist artists, by their playful take on creativity and their celebration of surprise and strangeness, I had set out, in 2013, to write a fictional story placed among them, set between the wars and with a young woman at its centre.”
It was only later that Carter, at the Tate Gallery, came across a piece by Carrington, as well as the book Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art by Susan L. Aberth. For months, Carter says, she resisted the idea of writing a novel, but “read everything about Leonora I could get my hands on, as well as everything available about Max and Peggy Guggenheim, who was, I realized, an integral part of their story.”
Ernst had many lovers, including Guggenheim, who helped him get to the United States, but Carter’s novel posits that Carrington was his true soulmate, and that he was Carrington’s. Their affair is interrupted by the Second World War, however, and, after we get to meet the couple in 1937, the novel mainly alternates between Carrington’s story from that point and Ernst’s from 1940, as he is trying to escape from France. While the two met in London, they moved to Paris – Ernst first (Carrington’s father apparently had a hand in Ernst’s work being declared “the product of an immoral mind,” which was an arrestable offence at the time in London), then Carrington.
Leonora in the Morning Light – which is named after a painting Ernst made of Carrington – takes readers to 1943, by which time Ernst is in Arizona and Carrington is in Mexico; both married to other people.
“During her 94 years on this earth, she created thousands of magical, mystical works of art – drawings, paintings, statues, masks, plays, short stories and her masterful novel, The Hearing Trumpet,” writes Carter of Carrington. “She was also an eco-feminist who fervently believed in the innate rights of all individuals – of humans, animals, plants and the earth itself.”
Dr. Jennifer Charlesworth, British Columbia’s representative for children and youth, presented the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture and the Janusz Korczak Medal for Children’s Rights Advocacy on Jan. 27. (photo from the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth)
The University of British Columbia’s faculty of education presented the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture and the Janusz Korczak Medal for Children’s Rights Advocacy on Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Dr. Jennifer Charlesworth, British Columbia’s special representative for children and youth, gave the talk and the medal was awarded to Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, an applied development psychologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Born Henryk Goldszmidt, Janusz Korczak (1878-1942) was a Polish-Jewish pediatrician, journalist and educator. His advocacy for children is still recognized today through his writings, which served as a basis of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Prior to the Second World War, Korczak was the director of an orphanage in Warsaw. Although he was offered freedom during the Holocaust, he chose to stay with his orphans when they were forced to board a train to the Treblinka extermination camp in 1942. He, members of his staff and more than 200 children were murdered.
Korczak considered children as partners, equal to adults, insisting that there are no human rights without children’s rights. His pioneering work and enduring legacy were felt throughout the recent event. In the words of B.C. Lt.-Gov. Janet Austen, who introduced the main speaker, “Korczak was an extraordinary man who reimagined the relationship between children and adults. A man of great personal courage and a revolutionary thinker, he understood, whoever saves one child, saves the whole world.”
Charlesworth began her talk on Korczak’s connection to the contemporary era by encouraging the Zoom audience to “think of how far ahead of his times Korczak was in suggesting that each child must be respected. He was rejecting the ideas of his time. His commitment to children is awe-inspiring.”
According to Charlesworth, the first indisputable right of a child is to articulate their own thoughts. Those working with children need to nurture the capacity to listen and understand, to be curious and receptive. Further, practitioners have “to place child’s rights at the centre of their practice, to have both ears open to a child’s voice.” Too often, she said, the individual voices of children can be lost in operational systems.
Charlesworth spoke about advocacy and highlighted the fact that those who work with children will have a significant impact on their lives. Korczak’s advocacy for children, she said, “set the bar very high.”
Adults should want to help children realize their potential, and the relationship between adults and children should never result in the appearance of a struggle for rights. Charlesworth emphasized that, without prioritizing youth voices, there would be no Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist, or Katherine McParland, co-founder of the B.C. Coalition to End Youth Homelessness.
“We are living in a time of great change and uncertainty. Children and youth sense this, too, and we stand to learn a lot from them as well,” Charlesworth said.
Writer and child survivor Lillian Boraks-Nemetz, a board member of the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada (JKAC), which partnered on the event, drew further on the prescience of Korczak’s work and its continued importance. “Today’s children do not have the same sense of normalcy and routine as before COVID-19,” she said. “At times like these, my thoughts turn to Korczak and a child’s right to education, respect and love.”
Afterwards, JKAC president Jerry Nussbaum and Charlesworth presented this year’s award to Schonert-Reichl, an expert on social and emotional learning, whose nearly four-decade career has been dedicated to children’s rights and well-being. Formerly an educator in British Columbia, she was at the forefront of the province’s revitalized education curriculum, which is often heralded internationally for its advancements in social and emotional learning.
“I am so honoured,” she said upon receiving the award. “And to be in a group where so many are advocating for children’s rights.”
The evening also saw the giving of the Janusz Korczak Graduate Scholarship in Children’s Rights and Indigenous Education to Cayley Burton, a third-year master of arts student in early childhood education at UBC and an instructor in the Indigenous Early Childhood Education Program at Native Education College. Her thesis delves into gender-inclusive teaching practices for preschool children through LGBTQ+ picture books.
“It’s an inspiring, overwhelming honour to have Dr. Korczak’s name associated with the advocacy work that I do alongside and on behalf of young children who are marginalized in Canada,” Burton said.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Lillian Boraks-Nemetz and Senator Murray Sinclair. (photo by Jerry Nussbaum)
A succession of unjust Canadian laws piled one upon the other in the last part of the 19th century, enabling the federal government to take indigenous children from their homes and eradicate their cultural identities. The full scope of those laws – and their impacts on generations of First Nations people to today – was outlined by Senator Murray Sinclair, former head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who spoke at the University of British Columbia last week.
The impact of residential schools and the laws that created and sustained them was the theme of Sinclair’s talk, which was presented by the UBC faculty of education and the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada.
Prior to Sinclair’s presentation, Vancouver author Lillian Boraks-Nemetz, a board member of the Korzcak association and a child survivor of the Holocaust, contextualized the lecture in the spirit of Korczak’s legacy.
Korczak was an educator and pedagogue who ran orphanages, including one in the Warsaw Ghetto, where Boraks-Nemetz was also confined. Korczak was a respected figure in Polish society, considered by many the originator of the concept of children’s rights.
“Korczak observed and listened to children, never judging, criticizing or showing intolerance,” said Boraks-Nemetz. He cultivated their self-esteem and believed that children should grow into who they want to be, not who others want them to become.
“During the Nazi persecution, Korczak, when offered a reprieve from the depredations of the Warsaw Ghetto, he would not abandon his children in their last journey to the cattle cars heading for Treblinka, the death camp,” she said. “He refused, saying, ‘My children need me. I deplore desertion.’ He went with them and they all perished.”
Sinclair then painstakingly outlined the conspiracy of legal barriers to justice that the government erected to perpetuate what has been termed cultural genocide.
As the federal government began to expand Canada westward in the 1870s, it entered into treaties with the indigenous peoples. One of the demands indigenous negotiators insisted upon in exchange for being limited to reserves was that the federal government create and fund schools on those reserves.
Sir John A. Macdonald sent a representative to the United States to see how they were running schools for Native Americans. In direct repudiation of the treaties, the federal government opted for a similar system and his government created what they called “industrial schools.”
Sinclair said MacDonald believed that, if children went to school on reserves, “the kids would go to the schools in the daytime and they would then return home to their parents, who are nothing but savages, and we would be teaching those children basic skills that all children learn from schools and what we’re going to end up with at the end of the day is nothing but savages who can read and write.”
Because the government wanted to “do it on the cheap,” said Sinclair, “they decided to involve the churches, who were quite willing to get involved because it was great for the churches as well to gain numbers through their missionary zeal.”
Children were punished for speaking their languages and for talking with their friends and siblings, “because they wanted to break your ties to those relationships…. Everything was done in the schools to break down cultural bonds that existed in those children.”
Those who were not physically or sexually abused lived in fear that they would be, Sinclair said.
“And, of course, the children, when they came home, would tell their parents what happened in those schools,” he said.
The natural inclination to stop it from happening led to a cascade of legislative injunctions that took away the most fundamental rights of First Nations peoples.
“In the 1880s, the government passed the law that amended the Indian Act and said that it was an offence, a legal breach of law, if you did not send your child to a school when the Indian agent told you to send the child,” said Sinclair.
When parents tried to hide their children, the parents would be prosecuted and go to jail. Faced with the prospect of indigenous people taking the government to court over the issue, the government passed another law, making it impossible to go to court against the government for anything done under the Indian Act “unless you get permission from the minister of Indian Affairs first.” The government soon made it illegal for indigenous people to consult with a lawyer on anything relating to the Indian Act – with the punishment for the lawyer being disbarment. Then, another step was added, making it illegal for a white Canadian to speak to a lawyer on behalf of an indigenous person.
When it seemed parents might protest the situation, the government made it illegal, in 1892, for three or more First Nations people to gather together in order to discuss a grievance against the government of Canada. It was made illegal for indigenous people to attend large gatherings like the traditional sundances or the potlatch, “not just because of the religious aspect of it but also because, at these gatherings, that’s when Indians got together in order to discuss their grievances,” said Sinclair.
Fears of a violent uprising were dismissed by Northwest Mounted Police in documentation Sinclair has seen, which, he summarized: “We don’t have to worry about the Indians taking up arms against the government because we have their kids. They are not going to go to war against us.”
Children who returned from the schools were scarred and often unable to communicate with their parents in a shared language.
“Their ability to know how to hunt, fish or trap, which is what the communities depended upon, was lost to them,” said Sinclair.
Estimates are that about 35% of indigenous children attended residential schools, but the damage extended to the other 65%, who were taught in public schools the same white superiority/indigenous inferiority curriculum as those who were taken away.
When those children grew up and had children, they had no learned skills at parenting and were burdened with their own demons, said Sinclair. As a result, when child welfare systems were burgeoning in the 1950s, it was mostly indigenous children who went into care. It was, and is, disproportionately indigenous people who are incarcerated.
Indigenous Canadians have the highest suicide rates of any cultural group in the world, said Sinclair. High school dropout rates, substance abuse and violent crime affect indigenous Canadians in exponentially greater numbers than non-indigenous Canadians.
The problems will not be resolved, Sinclair said, by spending more money on child welfare, policing or incarceration. The education system and society must help indigenous young people realize who they are as Anishinaabe, Cree, Sto:lo or Mohawk.
“The educational system is just not giving them what they need,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do, but, if we address that one aspect of how our society is functioning, we will see the most dramatic change that will resolve or redress the history of residential schools in Canada on indigenous people, on indigenous youth in particular.… It begins with recognizing that … indigenous youth, in particular, must be given their chance to develop their sense of self-respect first, and that’s going to take some time to do.”
A postcard showing Janusz Korczak in the courtyard of the orphanage on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw, Poland, in the early 1930s.
An unprecedented interdisciplinary event will take place this summer at the University of British Columbia, focusing on the legacy of Janusz Korczak, a pioneer in the area of children’s rights and welfare.
Korczak is perhaps remembered most for his final act of heroism: his refusal to accept an offer of a reprieve, choosing instead to walk with the 200 or so orphaned children of his school as they were sent to their deaths at Treblinka. But it is his legacy as an educator, physician and writer that will be the focus of the 2019 Korczak Summer Institute. The two-week intensive program, called Advocacy in Action: The Legacy of Janusz Korczak, is open to graduate and undergraduate students across disciplines. It takes place July 2-11.
“To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been a university-based course on the work of Janucz Korczak, not in his native Poland, not in Israel, certainly not in North America,” said Rabbi Dr. Hillel Goelman, professor emeritus in UBC’s department of educational and counseling psychology, and special education. The program was developed across disciplines, reflecting Korczak’s range of academic and philosophical work.
“He was a pediatrician by training, so we reached out to the department of pediatrics to get their help and a number of faculty members are going to do Korczak-related activities,” said Goelman. “He was an educator, so the faculty of education were happy to co-sponsor the course with the Januscz Korczak Association [of Canada]. But it would also be open to people studying social work or any sort of child-focused activity. A lot of people at UBC support the whole cause of child activism and child welfare from an interdisciplinary perspective.”
Korczak’s philosophy inspired and informed the United Nations Charter on the Rights of Children. Importantly, his work was not limited to academics or writing, but was devoted to applying his values of child empowerment directly to the real world.
“Children are not the people of tomorrow but people today,” Korczak wrote. “They are entitled to be taken seriously. They have a right to be treated by adults with tenderness and respect, as equals.”
“In the orphanage that he ran in Warsaw, they had a children’s parliament, where children elected their leaders to make the rules and enforce the rules,” said Goelman. “There was a children’s court, where children could complain about their treatment either by the staff or by other students. There was a children’s newspaper that they published. He very much empowered children and he thought it was important to draw on this and give them opportunities to develop their own leadership. I think those are all very important contemporary messages for educators, social workers, pediatricians … and it’s kind of timeless. It’s really relevant to where we are today in terms of child activism, child welfare and child advocacy.”
The institute is designed to help participants transform their working environment to model democratic principles pioneered by Korczak in his writings, pedagogy and governance of the orphanages under his care. It will also encourage participants to adopt strategies to translate the respect for children’s rights into professional practices, including communication with parents and the larger community, and to learn how to help children in developing and sustaining their cultural identity, particularly among those who may struggle with multiple identities.
The course will be taught by Prof. Tatyana Tsyrlina-Spady, an internationally recognized expert on the life and legacy of Korczak and adjunct professor at Seattle Pacific University. She will be joined by a team of international and national invited speakers: teacher trainer and UNICEF consultant Jonathan Levy (Paris, France); founders and leaders in the field of social pediatrics Dr. Gilles Julien and Hélène Trudel (Montreal); researcher and practitioner of Korczak’s legacy Wojtek Lasota (Warsaw, Poland); several UBC professors of nursing and psychology; U.S.-Canadian writer Tilar Mazzeo (Victoria); and a Holocaust survivor and poet, Vancouverite Lillian Boraks-Nemetz.
Promoting Korczak’s pedagogical ideas, as well as their effect on children’s education, is part of the mandate of the Janucz Korczak Association of Canada, which was founded in 2002. The president, Jerry Nussbaum, lives in Vancouver, as do fellow board members Goelman and Boraks-Nemetz.
“His work is very much alive,” said Goelman of Korczak.
Left to right are Ann Montague, Dr. Blye Frank, Marta Santos Pais, Jerry Nussbaum, Lillian Boraks-Nemetz and Marny Point. (photo by Tiffany Cooper)
On Sept. 13, at the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture held by the University of British Columbia faculty of education in partnership with the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada (JKAC), the audience listened to the words of a saint.
It is an apt description of Marta Santos Pais, whose middle name does indeed mean saint, in Portuguese. Santos Pais is the United Nations special representative of the secretary-general on violence against children. She has worked for decades with remarkable optimism, resilience, focus and patience to try and create a world where no child will suffer violence. At the least, it’s a saintly endeavour.
Santos Pais, who has a law degree from the University of Lisbon, was appointed to her current position in 2009, after a distinguished career working in several capacities in Europe for the rights of children, including being involved in the drafting of many high-level resolutions and policies. As a global independent advocate, Santos Pais would like to see the elimination of all forms of violence against children: in the justice setting, in the home, in institutional care, in schools, in the workplace and in the community.
The co-sponsor of the lecture, JKAC, was established in 2002 and is dedicated to the remembrance of Janusz Korczak and the dissemination of his ideas about the protection and education of children. Korczak was a Polish Jew who was killed by the Nazis along with the orphaned children under his care in the Warsaw Ghetto. Despite being given the opportunity to escape, Korzcak instead chose to stay with the children and accompany them to Treblinka, where they were all murdered.
Marny Point, a coordinator and instructor in NITEP, the Indigenous Teacher Education Program at UBC, and a representative of the Hul’q’umi’num Salish peoples, spoke in her language as well as in English to open the event. Holocaust survivor, author and JKAC board member Lillian Boraks-Nemetz then spoke briefly, reading from Korczak’s ghetto diary and highlighting the need for those who care for children to first attain self-knowledge.
“How can we aspire to become the kind of teacher and human being Korczak was?” asked Boraks-Nemetz, underlining his claim that it was through knowing ourselves that we may begin. Evoking Korczak’s warning that children are too often overlooked amid the storms that blow through the adult world, Boraks-Nemetz quoted him to that effect: “It is the children who always have to carry the burden of history’s atrocities.”
Dr. Anton Grunfeld presented a graduate scholarship to Ann Montague, a researcher in child education. She was awarded the scholarship on the basis of an ethnographic study of children’s education she conducted in Bali with an eye towards “mobilizing children as agents of care for the environment.”
While Dr. Blye Frank, dean of the faculty of education, introduced Santos Pais, Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, an Allard School of Law professor who works at the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre – and who served as British Columbia’s first representative for children and youth from 2006 to 2016 – spoke a bit about Santos Pais first. She highlighted Santos Pais’s influence on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 calls to action for the federal government, especially the sixth, which advises the abolition of Section 43 of Canada’s Criminal Code allowing the corporal punishment of children. Several of the evening’s speakers noted the importance of convincing the Canadian government to repeal Section 43 and join other countries that have outlawed all physical violence against children. Turpel-Lafond noted with particular gratitude the work of JKAC president Jerry Nussbaum in this regard.
Santos Pais began by acknowledging Korczak’s legacy, citing its role in inspiring the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). She drew a connection between the achievement of sustainable development and putting children first – starting with investing in the early years and creating a safe, loving environment for all children.
Progress has been made in the areas of “data, legislation, policy and program developments,” but the daily reality of millions of children, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalized, cries out to be addressed with more effectiveness, she said.
Santos Pais spoke of the goal to “leave no children behind anywhere and at no time – but, of course, the world is not yet there.” She noted that 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the CRC, giving us an occasion to recommit to addressing the one billion children still affected by violence each year.
Santos Pais spoke of the UN’s efforts both to listen to children around the world about their experience of violence, and to comprehensively study the wider social and economic costs of violence towards them. According to Santos Pais, presenting such evidence can be an important piece in motivating governments to see preventing violence towards children not as an expense but as a benefit to their country as a whole. Still, she said, many governments have told her that the goal of completely eliminating violence towards children in the near future is too idealistic, that it is “a joke.” To the contrary, she stressed, “We tend to believe that this goal can be accomplished and that there are many practical steps that we can take towards it.”
After Santos Pais’s speech, Nussbaum and Frank presented her with a Janusz Korczak statuette in honour of her service to children. “Thank you so much,” she said. “I’m going to cry now in my seat.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
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.