The Buzz

Artists, human rights and an evening for Amnesty

 Deana Sumanac with Alex Neve of Amnesty International Canada. (Michelle Belsky/

On Monday, I had a chance to host an event for an organization whose work I've admired for years: Amnesty International. It was an honour to be involved and the evening will stand out in my mind. The event was timed to coincide with International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10 -- even the CN Tower was decked out in yellow lights (the colour of Amnesty's candle of hope) to honour the day.

The event was designed to draw attention to one of Amnesty's simplest, yet most effective strategies in recent years, Write 4 Rights. Basically, people around the world write impassioned letters, inundating authorities with international pressure on a few specific cases: these are the cases of people who have been imprisoned without trial, separated from their families or "disappeared", people who have been tortured, or who are facing death penalty.

Canadians prolific letter-writers

Canadians have been among the most prolific letter-writers out there, writing 30,000 letters last year alone. Amnesty estimates that its pressure strategies contributed to 1.37 million actions in 78 countries, including getting people out of prison or gaining them access to a lawyer or consular services.

 Amnesty International campaigns to end the death penalty and free political prisoners. (Michelle Belsky/

Getting a chance to introduce Alex Neve, the Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, was a real treat. It was amazing to see this man, who has witnessed some of the most egregious abuses of human rights around the world, with a great smile on his face, and incredible energy well into the evening.

But what was really special to me was getting to introduce the artists who performed last night.

I have known singer/songwriter Jeremy Fisher and Todd Clark, lead singer of the band Pilot Speed, for years. I've always known them as the guys who can not only always reliably turn out an energetic performance (even with just an acoustic guitar, as they did last night) but also as thoughtful, socially and politically aware, intelligent songwriters. Like many artists, they are critics and observers of the world they live in.

In addition to Todd and Jeremy, there were also performances by California/Montreal band Snowblink. and an exquisite dance performance by Hit and Run Productions, a modern dance troupe who lent their studio space for the event. The artists who performed last night join some of the biggest names in Canadian music who have been outspoken advocates for human rights: people such as Alanis Morissette, Neil Young and K'naan.

Artists and human rights a natural fit

There is something about artists and support for human rights that's just a natural match. Skeptical though I may be of celebrities with causes (I report on them all the time. Some are genuine. Some, not so genuine), there is something about artists advocating for human rights that just rings true.

The countries where human rights are most trampled tend to be the ones where artistic expression is most repressed. Artists look outside themselves, at the human condition and condition of society around them, and are often the ones to point out flaws in political systems even before a more organized form of public dissent emerges.

Historically, artists tend to be the canaries in the coal mine on human rights. Totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union silenced their poets and playwrights, musicians and actors, replacing them with propagandists, before moving on to mass murder, imprisonment and exile of all dissenting voices.

'This is freedom, this is freedom, do you want more'


I reminded Jeremy of his song Lay Down/The Ballad of Rigoberto Alpizar, which has been a favourite of mine for years, though not one of his most famous songs. In it, Jeremy sings of the real-life story of Rigoberto Alpizar, a man who was shot by U.S. air marshals at Miami airport in 2005 for "acting suspiciously." His wife said Alpizar was mentally ill and had not taken medications for his bipolar disorder. While this was a news story with two sides (the air marshals claimed that Alpizar said he had a bomb, but posthumous examination revealed no explosives in his backpack), it was a good reminder that dubious use of force is not confined to faraway places.

Jeremy ended up singing the song, with me (ever an aspiring hype girl/backup singer) trying to get the crowd to chant the ominous last few lines of the song "This is freedom....this is freedom... do you want more?" What a perfect thought-provoking sentiment for a night like this.

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