Building bridges with art

A man with his face painted emerges from the surface of water.

"A picture is worth a thousand words — this is nothing new. But art can also have a motivating and mobilizing force that might exceed that of the best-written legal brief."

– John Packer

By Brandon Gillet

Imagine learning about human rights by taking a workshop with award-winning First Nations filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, visiting the federal government’s Aboriginal Art Centre or even going on a socio-cultural Indigenous walk. Works of art are typically viewed as personal expressions of thoughts, feelings and beliefs, but how often are we encouraged to see art as manifesting — and capable of promoting — human rights?

“A picture is worth a thousand words — this is nothing new,” said John Packer, director of uOttawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre (HRREC). “But art can also have a motivating and mobilizing force that might exceed that of the best-written legal brief.”

This summer, the Centre launched a short course aimed at teaching human rights values through the world of art and an Indigenous lens. Packer spearheaded the week-long Summer School on the Arts and Human Rights with law faculty colleague Larry Chartrand, who is of Métis descent.

The goal of the unconventional course and accompanying INDIGENEITY + HUMAN RIGHTS art exhibit was to inspire deep reflection on art as a tool to promote human rights.

“It’s not art about human rights,” Packer said. “For example, Amnesty International puts on a concert and Human Rights Watch has a film festival about human rights. But we’re talking about integrating the arts and human rights. It’s doing art as human rights, which is a more profound treatment of the subject.

“And we thought adding the idea of indigeneity would be valuable, because Indigenous people tend to look at these things in a holistic way. For them, arts are not ‘out there’ as entertainment, but simply a way of living and integrated in their being.”

Interdisciplinary approach

The inaugural course, held over a packed week in June, is part of a larger initiative by the HRREC to raise awareness of human rights issues through an “interrogation” of various forms of artistic expression. This is just one of the many ways the Centre seeks to promote research and teaching on human rights and to engage a wide audience, within the University and beyond.

Established in 1981, the HRREC aims to involve the whole campus and not just operate under one faculty. Its academic members include professors from the faculties of Law, Social Sciences and Arts, with others always welcome to participate.

“We try to add value to anything they’re doing related to human rights and to create a collegial space for interdisciplinary work around human rights,” said Packer, who brought with him a wealth of UN and other international human rights experience when he became director of the centre in 2014.

In addition to undertaking research projects, the HRREC last year organized 75 events, including its annual fall film festival. It also pursued efforts with external partners, such as the Scholars at Risk program with Carleton University. Other collaborations involve Amnesty International, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and the Canadian Red Cross.

Unorthodox approach

Packer says traditional human rights work, which focuses on exposing violations and cataloguing victims after the fact, is essential, but not sufficient.

“As useful and important as that work is, I feel it is missing something, and that we need to rearticulate the case for human rights in a broader, fuller sense,” he said. With that in mind, the HRREC last year held a symposium (funded by the NGO Human Rights Internet) to help shape its new summer school course. Artists, scholars, legal experts and human rights advocates gathered to talk through the concept.

“We then spent a year working out a short syllabus,” Packer said. “I think we pushed the boundaries in terms of defying the conventional — this was not an orthodox course. At the same time, we respected the essential parameters of a scholarly initiative.”

Students taking the course for credit were required to keep a journal reflecting on what they took from each day’s activities. They also had to write a scholarly essay afterward that touched broadly on the themes of indigeneity, human rights and the arts. But the curriculum was innovative, and delivered via both traditional and artistic pedagogical methods by an eclectic range of presenters. One chose to act out an Indigenous story rather than give a lecture.

In conjunction with the course, the Centre put out a call for the INDIGENEITY + HUMAN RIGHTS exhibit, which was shown on campus this summer. The response was immense, with submissions flooding in from five continents. Most of the international pieces selected by a jury were represented through high-quality photographs, because shipping the actual works would have been too expensive.


Photo by Caroline Gomersall, titled Parliament, part of a collection looking at current perceptions of native peoples called First Nations Portraits. Several of Gomersall’s works were featured in the INDIGENEITY + HUMAN RIGHTS exhibit.

World-class speakers

Packer noted that work had begun on the course before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report late last year. “So we were not actually responding to the TRC, but in doing this, we have fulfilled some of its calls to action,” he said. “We believe this kind of course can not only help us understand the issues, but also lead us to solutions on how we can live together better, which is really what the TRC report is all about.”

Among the two dozen participants in the course were civil servants, artists and community members, as well as students from various faculties taking it for credit. Communication student Jillian LeBlanc says that the diverse group of world-class speakers helped her gain “a more informed perspective on Indigenous human-rights issues around the world and Indigenous groups in the (Ottawa) area, as well as a renewed appreciation for Indigenous arts from all corners of the globe.”

University of Alberta law student Komal Kumar, who attended as a non-credit participant, recalled the “many moments during the course when learning about the history of First Nations in Canada was heartbreaking” and appreciated the deeper understanding she gained of Indigenous issues. University of Ottawa law student Caitlin Tolley, a young Anishinabe leader from Kitigan Zibi, Quebec, also learned a lot from the course, and hopes to see more like it in the future.

“It went better than expected,” said Packer, who foresees next summer’s edition also having an Indigenous theme, in honour of Canada’s 150th anniversary. “What participants mainly got out of it was insights and understanding that might affect the way they look at problems and approach things.

“In that sense, the experience was inspiring, and confidence- and relationship-building. And I think that is very much what reconciliation is supposed to be.”

Main photo:
Photo by Caroline Gomersall, titled Warrior, part of her collection called First Nations Portraits.

Three people standing side-by-side

Prominent Inuit leader Mary Simon, flanked by course creators Larry Chartrand (left) and John Packer. Simon, recently named the minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs' special representative on Arctic issues, was one of more than 20 guest speakers who presented to the class.


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