Speech delivered by Patrick O'Reilly at the Q-Ball in Vancouver, BC on September 19, 2009

Tags for Speech delivered by Patrick O'Reilly at the Q-Ball in Vancouver, BC on September 19, 2009

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Good evening ladies and gentleman, friends.

WOW! What a thrilling night! I love being here to participate in this, the inaugural Q‑Ball and Q‑Hall of Fame Awards. Congratulations to the organizers and partners who have made tonight a reality.


The celebration of firsts are sometimes the sweetest: the first woman in Parliament, , the first country to recognize same sex marriage and the first Q‑Ball and Q‑Hall of Fame Awards which recognize individuals and their important contributions to the struggle of human rights and full equality for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender Canadians.

As a global community, the LGBT movement is familiar with many firsts which is why I'm so pleased to be here with you tonight representing the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. We too know something about being first –we are the first new national museum to be established in Canada since 1967, the first to be established outside of the national capital region and the first national museum to be established with financial contributions from other levels of government and with very significant contributions from the private sector and frankly, we think we're the first human rights museum of this scope on the planet. 


We are exceptionally pleased to call Winnipeg, Manitoba, home. It is an important statement in a vast, geographically diverse country to say that our national and cultural institutions can and should be located in other large urban centres in Canada. It is great that the Q Hall of Fame is finding a home in Vancouver. 

Construction is well underway in Winnipeg and the Museum is expected to open in 2012. Some of Canada's greatest human rights triumphs in the areas of First Nation and Aboriginal rights, women's rights, French language rights, and labour rights have been fought and won in Winnipeg. It was also the first Canadian city to elect an out and proud gay Mayor, Glen Murray in 1998. It is one of Canada's most diverse communities, attracting immigrants from around the world and strengthened by our Francophone, First Nations, and Métis populations. 

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will be located in an area called The Forks, which is literally where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet. A national historic site that is a premier location for community events and a hub for tourism, indeed it is the social gathering spot for Winnipeg. The Museum will sit on land that has been a meeting place for thousands of years. Its beauty is surpassed only by its history as a North American centre of immigration, trade, commerce and, most importantly, as the place where Aboriginal Peoples came to resolve conflict and trade. 


John Peters Humphrey, the Canadian who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights once said, "There is a fundamental connection between human rights and peace. We will have peace on earth when everyone's rights are respected."

During a time when the world was reeling from World War II, this humble legal scholar from New Brunswick, without the support of his government; nor as part of a large delegation, together with Eleanor Roosevelt and a few other committed visionaries around the world, set out to create a covenant that declared that every person has the right to life, freedom, and dignity. If these words are familiar to you, the Declaration has already had a direct impact on your life. For many in the world they are still unfamiliar; the work of the Declaration is not yet complete.


As time passes, our thinking on many human rights issues continues to evolve. For instance, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted more than 60 years ago, sexual orientation and gender identity were not thought of as human rights issues. While there have been many advancements with respect to gender identity and sexual orientation rights, it was incredibly only three short years ago in 2006, that a distinguished group of human rights experts which included judges, academics, a former UN High Commissioner for Human rights, UN Special Procedures and members of treaty bodies, and others, came together to develop the Yogyakarta Principles.[1] These principles apply to international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity.

And, it was of course 40 years ago that Pierre Elliot Trudeau now famously declared that, "The state has no business in the bedrooms of the Nation." Prime Minister Trudeau's individual courage and conviction helped bring about one of the most significant changes to our country's laws and his words continue to have an impact on our lives today.

As a result of him and others taking a stand, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the decriminalization of Homosexuality in Canada[2], a country often viewed by the international community as a leader in human rights. Indeed we've become a model for equality rights of the GLBT community and perhaps the success here will influence others.. In 2005 Canada became the fourth country in the world to legalize same sex marriage across the nation, with the passing into law of the Civil Marriage Act. This past June a major victory was won in India when the Delhi high court overturned a 148‐year‐old colonial law criminalizing homosexuality.[3] These are important victories to be sure and as the CMHR explores the theme of sexual orientation rights, gender, disability and languages rights to name but a few of our themes, visitors will have the opportunity to learn what has been done and what work still remains, as well as to examine Canada's and the world's less proud moments that will serve as learning opportunities.

It is very important to celebrate each and every human rights achievement, and it is equally important for all of us to remain vigilant. With rights come responsibilities; in order for everyone's rights to be respected and upheld, each of us has the responsibility to do what we can to ensure that this occurs. It is our responsibility as Canadians to continue to speak out and to ensure our voices are heard.

A right achieved is a right in need of protection. We cannot back down and become complacent. We must remain attentive and aware of the importance of these rights and the struggle to gain them in order to ensure their continued existence and respect. Not just for ourselves but for everyone else.


On that note, let me just say a word about "GAY RIGHTS." Honestly, I'm not sure what a gay right is. I suppose if I were to joke it might be the right to be FABULOUS. Perhaps it's the right to be butch, or the right to accessorize? Putting aside those stereotypes, we must advance our language of rights. The Gay Rights we so often speak of are fundamental, inherent and entirely basic HUMAN rights. The right to spend our lives committed to the person we love is not a gay right, it's a human right. The right to raise our children with peace and security and with access to an education free from discrimination is not a gay right, it is a human right. To support our spouses and partners, our families and children ensuring they are cared for with our pensions and our employment benefits are not gay rights they're the rights of all of us.


Earlier this week, while thinking about tonight's celebration, I picked up the Winnipeg Free Press to see the headline "Schools full of homophobia",[4] which talked about how many kids continue to be bullied and fearful. The research professor Catherine Taylor stated that "homosexuality is a non‐issue for so many people these days. They don't recognize how bad the situation is for so many people." So ladies and gentlemen, let us not forget those who continue to be "tormented and terrorized" right here at home. Let us be the voices that often weren't heard when we were growing up. Let's ensure a safe childhood and a place of pride for the future inductees to the Q Hall of Fame. 


The official mandate of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is "to explore the subject of human rights, with special but not exclusive reference to Canada, in order to enhance the public's understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others and to encourage reflection and dialogue."

Notice this doesn't speak about collecting artefacts. It's a very broad and open mandate and it actually speaks of social change.

As an openly gay man, I am proud to be a leader in that institution – one that values history but has an eye to the future, much like Qmunity and the Q Hall of Fame.


We are striving to become a full fledged "idea" museum. That is, a museum based on an intangible conceptual framework – an idea, illustrated by narratives, personal accounts, oral histories and occasionally artefacts. We don't have a collection as one would normally expect from a museum. We will house some artefacts, and we will from time to time seek to borrow others, but our stories will often be digitally based in new media – a true 21st century collection. We intend to be both a traditional museum in a gorgeous new building built in Winnipeg, and a virtual museum housed on the internet. 

Another reality of an Idea Museum is that we will not be presenting single little white cards to describe each issue but will, instead, present many perspectives and differing points of view. These perspectives will sometimes converge, and undoubtedly will sometimes conflict, and will most certainly always be deeply held. Our objective in the Museum will be to foster a better understanding of human rights – the challenges, the triumphs, the common links between seemingly diverse situations and people. We believe we can achieve this through strong research and curatorial work, use of technology, and deep and rich partnerships with human rights organizations and experts in the field. 

Just as we expect our visitors will learn from the points of view of others in our exhibitions and stories, they too will be able to learn from each other while exploring our exhibitions. We are going to challenge the traditional approach of standing quietly and looking at exhibits to designing exhibits that encourage us to interact with each other and to share our own points of view.


We want to equip the visitor with the skills and tools necessary to weigh in and to analyze the issues and come to their own, informed, conclusions or at least leave better equipped to keep asking questions.

Our goal isn't to find the truth, nor to present "the story"; rather it involves bringing many people together, challenging all to think differently, and to consider other points of view. We will also be learning ourselves. The language that we use to express human rights, and what society defines as human rights, evolve through time. This evolution is characterized by struggles, challenges and victories. As we begin to approach these challenging issues, we still need to be a people‐friendly and welcoming place for all ages, genders, abilities, cultures, orientation, and beliefs. 

This will be an institution that engages and empowers Canadians and international visitors from all walks of life to combat prejudice, intolerance, and discrimination. This is a daunting task, but I think we are up to the challenge. We will make mistakes; of this I am certain, but we will also perpetually reflect on our direction to learn from these and move forward. 

Bias is the burden of the individual, however, sound research and scholarship by a multitude of parties contribute to a more comprehensive and unbiased perspective. We are working to create a safe and respectful environment to allow people to explore their biases.


One of the ways in which we are fulfilling our mandate to engage Canadians and at the same time are learning ourselves is with our public engagement process. 

We are in the process of a 'story‐gathering' exercise across the country, visiting 18 different cities, at least one in each province and territory. We use the word story purposefully, not to diminish the complexity of what is being conveyed, but, in keeping with a museum based on multiple perspectives, we are seeking to tell all sides of a story, from the view point of the human rights and community organizations, to those who were involved and affected by human rights triumphs or conflicts to those who may be seen as perpetrators. 

Despite our best intentions, we can't meet with everyone that has something to contribute over just a few days in each city and province. So, we have set up a web‐based "Share your story" campaign where people from all walks of life are invited to contribute their story. Not only for those who are unable to participate in our sessions, but also for those who have stories that can be hard to share in a face to face meeting or at a roundtable with strangers. These stories have an unparalleled richness and diversity. 

It has been called in Canadian media and the scholarly world "innovative, unique and unparalleled," and we are certainly proud of it as we strive towards a multi‐faceted approach to developing the Museum. 

In crisscrossing the country for our story gathering, the CMHR will acknowledge conflict, as thoroughly and clearly as it is able to, even if it is offensive to some. This will require courage and conviction but backed with sufficient intellect and scholarly resources will ensure that the Museum has the capacity and authority to address these complex issues and to engage each of us in respectful dialogue. 


So this process, our story gathering exercise, is a great opportunity to give voice to the LGBT community. For the first time ever, as a national institution is being created, visible members from our communities are included from the ground floor. It is our responsibility to ensure that these voices are heard. We are identifying stories, controversies, discussions, and issues to be incorporated into the content of the Museum and developing the framework for ongoing dialogue and I can assure you the many diverse stories attached to our many orientations and identities are being included.

To that end I'm so pleased that one person who has agreed to be an advisor to us and is helping to bring together the stories of all Canadians is Jennifer Breakspear, Executive Director of Qmunity here in Vancouver and a human rights hero if ever I've met one.

While some stories may be directly integrated into the content of the Museum, others will be used to shape the storyline, build a research library or archive, or promote the process. 


Thus far in our story gathering, we have travelled to three different cities, Saskatoon, Iqaluit; and Ottawa. During these trips, we have not been surprised to find that the study of human rights is a complex concept, deeply rooted in moral principles, cultural practices and personal values. 

During each day of meetings, we have met with people at vastly opposite ends of the spectrum. What they had in common, however, was their unwavering belief that they were correct. 

We have heard from the politically active and organized to the disenfranchised. Our team has been struck by the openness and frankness of the people who have approached us. They've also been surprised by what people have shared, sometimes challenging our own preconceived notions. 

For example, a francophone teacher from a rural community in Saskatchewan, telling the story of a student who used writing to express himself throughout high school. The teacher spoke of how special it was to mentor this young man and how devastating it was to know that after high school, that bright and articulate young man had committed suicide, unable to cope with the pressure and prejudice of being a young gay man. This teacher who might have been expected to talk to us about minority language rights, or the right to education, or rights of rural workers instead used his time to remember the gay young man's artistry in a life cut short by prejudice.


This is just one example of how we are all so multifaceted. We might be gay or straight. We might be a musician or more mathematically inclined. We might be Aboriginal or Caucasian. We might speak English, or French or Cree or all three. The point is, no matter who we are, we will have something in common with others and we need to begin to see the threads that tie us together rather than the differences that tear us apart.

On that note, in particular, we are making an effort in our discussions to engage individuals and groups who do not support this "human rights museum" – groups who think "modern rights" are too modern, for example. We don't support hate but we do engage those who philosophically disagree with some of our roles. 


I know that many in our communities have seen criticism of the museum, suggesting we aren't interested in GLBT life, or even that we are biased against GLBT people. While not true, this sort of criticism is devastating for us Unfortunately some of the discourse has led members of our community to think they have no place in the museum. This is categorically not the case and I hope that those with issues to share will come forward and share them. Removing yourself from the discourse isn't the way to have your voice heard. I know our community and our friends and family who have championed for us have been hurt before. But we must remain courageous and continue to insist on a place at the table and Stuart and I are both inviting you to take your seats at the table.

Our goal is to have the Canadian Museum for Human Rights bring people together, challenging people to think more broadly and to consider other's points of view, in a respectful environment. I can tell you that watching these round table discussions reassures me that we will achieve that goal.


This public engagement process, both in person and online, is the Museum's first call to action. It is an open invitation for each of you to participate, share your story, help identify stories of importance and other storytellers who can help bring to life Canada's and the world's human rights past and present. By ensuring that stories about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights are told and our heroes are acknowledged, the stories become a greater part of public discourse and will help to ensure that the student in the Winnipeg Free Press story, one the thousands of queer students across this country can walk into the Museum and see models of himself reflected on the walls. It also creates an opportunity to engage young members of the LGBT community and provides them with role models as they become our future leaders.

One of our biggest and most important challenges is not to ignore our own biases – we have to identify them, point them out to work with them. 


This means looking at ourselves today and questioning our thinking and questioning our behavior. What do we as sexual and gender minorities do or say that is harmful to others? Also, what absolute truths that resonate now will be questioned and labeled as wrong and backwards by future generations? The Human Rights Museum our children and grandchildren will visit will also assess us and our lived experiences today. What do we want them to see?

This leads to an important question, coined by Graham Chandler in M, the Canadian Museum's Association magazine, "Who's right and whose rights?" The museum is starting a dialogue and provoking debate on the difficult dichotomy of individual and collective rights as well as the rights of one group, in protecting it's own rights, which may perpetuate violations of others. Heavy thinking but a noble opportunity.


So, ladies and gentlemen, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is about our rights and our responsibilities. It's a little bit about the history of our lives and our country and it's a lot about the world around us today.

We read it in newspapers and watch it on the news – stories of people attacking each other over their differences. Across the nation, headlines are rife with stories of hate – this, despite having one of the most inclusive countries in the world. Despite our best efforts, racism and intolerance for differences still exist and are raised in increasingly violent ways in our communities. 

However, in every part of Canada, there are champions of human rights. There are people from all walks of life who have had an impact on the human rights movement of this very community. These people are striving for equality, taking responsibility, not only through the legal system but in their everyday lives. It is extremely important that we acknowledge and celebrate their stories here tonight and every night. 

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights was founded on the idea that Canada's continued evolution as one of the most open and inclusive societies in the world today is dependent upon empowering and inspiring tomorrow's leaders to keep moving Canada's – and the world's – human rights journey forward. 

Pierre Elliot Trudeau, honoured here tonight, was one such leader, and said it best when he opined that "a society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate." I am proud to be here with each of you tonight recognizing the truth and the value of this statement.

Thank you.

[1] http://www.yogyakartaprinciples.org/principles_en.htm [2] http://archives.cbc.ca/politics/rights_freedoms/topics/538‑2700/ [3] http://dukeupress.typepad.com [4] Schools full of Homophobia : researcher Nick Martin, Winnipeg Free Press 14/09/09