B.C. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender seeks to build culture of empathy and compassion

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      With its sun-kissed beaches and mix of cultures, Durban in South Africa is a popular destination among travellers.

      Durban also holds a special place in the chronicles of human-rights advocates around the world.

      In 2001, the delegates to the third World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance converged on this city by the Indian Ocean.

      The conference produced the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, a comprehensive document committing nations to the fight against intolerance.

      “We declare that all human beings are born free, equal in dignity and rights and have the potential to contribute constructively to the development and well-being of their societies,” the Durban Declaration asserted.

      According to the declaration, any doctrine of racial superiority is “scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and must be rejected along with theories which attempt to determine the exis­tence of separate human races”.

      Durban is also special for lawyer Kasari Govender, who assumed office as human rights commissioner of B.C. on September 3, 2019.

      Her father grew up in Durban, and as someone whose ethnic roots go back to India, he experienced the effects of South Africa’s apartheid system.

      Like other “coloured” people, Indians were classified as “lesser than white people”, Govender said.

      Govender recalled that her father’s family were forcibly removed from their home when the government imposed the Group Areas Act, segregating towns along racial lines.

      “Growing up with a father who experienced that kind of racism and grew up in such a highly polarized, deeply entrenched, systemically racist country influenced me in a variety of ways,” Govender told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.

      The passion for human rights also runs deep in her mother, a white woman who was born and raised in Vancouver.

      Govender related that in 1965, her mother was dragged away by police from a peaceful Toronto sit-in in solidarity with protesters in Selma, Alabama, who were calling for voting rights for black Americans.

      A photographer captured the moment for a newspaper’s front page, and Govender’s mother has the picture framed and displayed on her wall. “It’s part of the backdrop of my childhood: the power of peaceful protest and the value in making change in these ways,” Govender said.

      Her father and mother met in the U.K., where they lived for a number of years.

      They eventually settled in her mother’s hometown of Vancouver, where the future B.C. human rights commissioner was born and raised.

      Until her appointment in 2019, Govender was the executive director of West Coast LEAF, an organization dedicated to the cause of women’s equality. LEAF stands for Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund.

      “I grew up in a feminist environment, inspired by feminists, and have always defined myself that way,” Govender said.

      Govender’s mother worked as a policy analyst with the B.C. provincial government, with a focus on violence against women and children. “She was instrumental in the development of the VAWIR policy, which is the Violence Against Women in Relationships policy,” Govender said.

      After retirement from government, her mother worked as a researcher specializing in women’s issues. “It was obviously an inspiration to me in choosing gender as the early focus of my career,” Govender said.

      As an articling law student, Govender apprenticed at a Toronto firm that included two lawyers who were among the founding mothers of LEAF: Mary Eberts and Beth Symes.

      “I went out there to article with them, having no idea, of course, what my future involvement in that organization would be,” she recalled. “It was a source of inspiration for me as I started my career.”

      When she took her oath of office as B.C. human rights commissioner, Govender told media that she wants to create a “new culture of human rights” in the province.

      In her Straight interview, Govender explained that although part of the broad area of human-rights work is changing laws and policies in and outside government, her mandate goes beyond that. “It is to change hearts and minds,” Govender said.

      According to her, education is key in creating systemwide change.

      “Some of the key goals in this area are knowing our rights and responsibilities and trying to really get that information out there,” Govender said.

      It also involves “building a culture of data”.

      “In this day and age, it is quite easy to distrust data,” Govender said. “There’s a lot of leading figures in the world who are talking about undermining science and data and knowledge. And I think, in fact, many of those things can lead to bias, discrimination, inequality, and injustice.”

      Another piece is “building a culture of empathy and compassion”. In line with this, Govender said, her office is working on storytelling projects about champions for change and the experiences of human-rights advocates in “trying to build our human understanding of each other”.

      “Hate and white supremacy can arise from a place of ignorance and fear,” Govender said.

      Govender’s term as B.C. human rights commissioner runs five years.