NEWS: Unsung Heroes of Justice

Unsung Heroes of Justice
by Stephen Uhler
by Renfrew’s Daily Observer 

They are the unsung heroes of the justice system, helping those who are the most vulnerable get through the worst storms of their lives.

On Sunday afternoon, some 35 front line workers and volunteers from Victim Services of Renfrew County, the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County, the Victim Witness Assistance Program and the Renfrew County Committee for Abused Women gathered at Hugli’s Blueberry Ranch to take part in the Victim/Survivor Commemoration, honouring the work of the volunteers and victim services workers. This event also marked the anniversary of the passing of The Victims’ Bill of Rights, proclaimed into law June 11, 1996 by the Ontario government.

Building on this, on June 5 of this year, Bill 13, the anti-bullying bill, was passed by the province. In part, it mandates students be allowed to form Gay-Straight Alliances within all schools.

The event, sponsored by the Ministry of the Attorney General and hosted by the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre, also included a Tree of Life celebration led by Gurlie Kidd, who read a special folk tale she created for this occasion. The tree at the centre of this, a cedar, was decorated with paper butterflies and will eventually find its place beside the women’s monument, which once completed will stand in Petawawa.

Diane Dupont, Regional Manager for the Ontario Victim Services Secretariat (OVSS) East Region with the Ministry of the Attorney General, said those in victims services work behind the scenes for long hours in challenging and difficult circumstances, but the effort is vital and greatly appreciated.

“All the work you have done is making a big difference in the lives of others,” she said.

Jeremy Dias can attest to this.

The guest speaker for the event said as a young gay man, he was constantly bullied and beaten up after coming out while attending high school in Sault Ste. Marie, once being hospitalized as a result.

Waking up in hospital, he was visited by a victim support worker, who not only helped him, but assisted in smuggling him out of the hospital just so he could avoid having to tell his parents why he had been sent there, and so elude an awkward situation at home.

“It was amazing what complete strangers can do for you,” he said. “The work you do is so often ignored by the media and others, but it is so vital. Because of people like you, you’re saving lives.”

Mr. Dias credits that experience with the victim services worker as motivating him to take action, volunteering with numerous organizations and charities.

In high school, he started and lead a number of clubs including Stop Racism and Ontario Students Against Impaired Driving. He also founded and co-ordinated the Sault Ste. Marie first regional LGBTQ youth group.

Despite efforts to make changes in his school, Mr. Dias was stopped by school administrators, and experienced severe bullying and discrimination on a daily basis. As a result of his experiences, he challenged his school and school board at the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and after three years of legal battling, at the age of 21 he won Canada’s second largest human rights settlement.

Feeling strongly that the funds should go to making a difference in his community, Mr Dias and a few friends founded the Jeremy Dias Scholarship, an award for graduating youth working to stop bullying in their schools. After launching the scholarship, the newly formed team received hundreds of e-mails and messages from youth across Canada and parts of the world who wanted more support. The team then founded Jer’s Vision, a registered charity that works to support youth and stop bullying and discrimination of all kinds.

In the last five years, Jer’s Vision has grown from a small committee to an organization doing programming across Canada and the United States, and supporting youth internationally. Mr. Dias said what they try to do is spark dialogue in school communities, getting teachers to change what they are teaching, and getting students to challenge what they are taught.

Speaking to the volunteers and front line workers, Mr. Dias said he admires their drive, adding he knows it can’t be easy doing the things they do.

“I think we’re all here because we want to do things to make it better, to help change the world (but it is often seems like a hard slog uphill).

“Sometimes I think it is getting worse in some ways, (what with the cuts to services, and the increasing nastiness in the world as violence and oppression seems to be on the rise),” he said.

“I mean, today’s stats say one in every five women in Canada will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes,” he said, “That’s insane! Why is that happening here in this beautiful country?”

As for being gay, he said while it is better in Canada than elsewhere, where he could be jailed or executed for what he is, there is still a long way to go. Moving from Sault Ste. Marie to Ottawa, he thought he was safe and free of the prejudices and violence of the smaller city he left, until three days after arriving, someone armed with a baseball bat put him back in the hospital, again for simply being a gay man.

“I don’t want people to love gay people,” he said. “I just don’t want them beating them up.”

One part of the solution is education. Gay issues are simply not talked about openly in Canadian society.

“People aren’t born homophobic,” Mr. Dias said, “they just don’t know any gay people.”

“What we need to do with these issues we’re not talking about is bring our issues into the mainstream,” he said, stressing people need to educate themselves about others.

“Men need to earn about women’s issues, straights need to learn about gay issues, the rich need to learn about the poor,” and continue to fight for social justice at all levels.

“Doing something is better than doing nothing,” Mr. Dias said. “If you don’t take a stand, who will? If you don’t speak up, who will?”

JoAnne Brooks, director of the Woman’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County, said they were all very moved by the number of Renfrew County residents who came to the event, stating it is evident that there are a lot of caring people.

“This commemoration event was a meaningful time to celebrate surviving, with supporters and survivors and friends and family remembering and honouring,” she said. “And it was a poignant way to learn more about lesbian, gay, bi and trans issues of oppression through Jeremy’s touching speech.”

Stephen Uhler is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist

stephen.uhler@sunmedia.ca