Junior Mandoko, far left, and Merryl David-Ismayil, front centre with some of their French students
By Merryl David-Ismayil
It all started with an experiment at Glendon College (York University), the unique bilingual College in Toronto. After realizing that numerous English-speaking students do not want to take some courses in French because their level in this language would not permit them to get the “A” they need to continue, Meryll David-Ismayil, who teaches Political Science there and who is also part of the Board of Directors of the Amnesty International Toronto Organization (AITO), decided to launch some free French language classes on Human Rights. No mark, no stress: just the pleasure to learn and speak about human rights… while practicing French!
For two months (February-March 2016), a dozen students of the Language Training Centre for Studies in French gathered every week at lunch time to speak and learn about human rights. The class worked so well and the concept pleased so many people from outside the university that it was decided that the classes would be moved to Amnesty’s Toronto office. To be easily accessible to a wide public, they would be held in the evening.
In May 2016, the French Class on Human Rights (FCHR) started. Since then, around ten people gather every month for two hours to take action for human rights in a language which is not theirs. Participants are invited to sign a petition or write a letter of support that connects with the particular focus of the class. They may, if they wish, prepare an action to present and share with the others.
During the first class, the participants joined in the solidarity action for the 43 students of Ayotzinapa, sending beautiful butterfly messages for the families of the disappeared in Mexico. The second month was dedicated to the refugee crisis. The 12 people present signed two petitions related to the IWelcomeRefugees campaign, and two urgent actions were prepared: one by the moderator (as usual), the other by one participant. The wheels were turning! Next month, in June, the subject will be palm oil in Indonesia.
Another class focused on stateless persons, especially in Haiti. It was the Spring 2016 campaign of Amnistie international Canada francophone. Last January the FCHR studied the francophone Winter campaign dedicated to the freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia. One of the positive aspects of the FCHR is working with two Canadian Amnesty branches at the same time. The fact that one of the moderators of the class is a member of both branches is an asset.
All in all, the participants sent more than 180 letters and signed a dozen petitions in one year.
Another goal of the FCHR is to attract people who are unfamiliar with Amnesty’s work. While first attracted by the “French aspect” of the class, they then discovered the human rights issues of concern to Amnesty. Such is the case of Diana Ericson, who heard about the FCHR through the ad on the website of Alliance française. Here is what she thinks of the FCHR:
“It has brought my attention to the various serious issues of injustice around the world that I have not necessarily paid attention to. The opportunity to learn about these issues through the medium of French is an extra bonus because it helps me to get some practice in Canada’s other official language and opens me to another culture. I think it is very important to be able to communicate in more than one language.”
Her connection to FCHR has prompted Diana to attend Amnesty events such as Write for Rights. She also sponsored me when I participated in the AITO Bowl-a-thon.
Beyond raising awareness on human rights violations around the world, these classes have the potential to reach some new audiences. Moreover, the promotion of the FCHR is a good opportunity to promote Amnesty in general. Since the classes began, no less than three articles in the francophone press have been dedicated to the FCHR.
And media coverage has dramatically increased since February. I started a monthly chronicle on the francophone radio Choq-FM (105.1). Each month, Il present the topic of the class on air. And thanks to this broadcast, every Amnesty action related to the topic is now available online on the radio website to a large audience.
Lastly, the differences between the two moderators of the classes are also an asset. I come from France, Junior Mandoko from Congo. The participants have therefore an opportunity to hear accents different from the French Canadian. They also have different educations: Meryll has a PhD in Political Science, Junior a Master of Laws. And as both have several years’ teaching experience, their ways of moderating the class are different as noted by Nora Kerr, a long-time AI member:
“I have participated for about a year in Amnesty International Toronto’s French language course on human rights since they offered it to those who would like the opportunity to improve their French skills. At the same time, we help to fight against human rights abuse throughout the world. I welcome the chance to try to improve my spoken French and even more, to improve my comprehension in listening to the francophone leaders and to videos. Meryll and Junior are excellent leaders and I am grateful that they have given me this opportunity.
A word of caution – some facility in French is necessary. This would not be for complete beginners.”
Longue vie au FCHR!
 http://l-express.ca/les-droits-humains-a-lhonneur-a-toronto/, April 26, 2016; http://l-express.ca/marathon-decriture-pour-combattre-linjustice/, December 13, 2016; http://l-express.ca/les-cours-damnistie-internationale-fetent-leur-premiere-annee/, May 8, 2017.
 February, Human Rights: :http://choqfm.ca/chronique/lactualite-droits-humains-toute-nouvelle-chronique-choqfm-105-1/; March, Freedom of Expression: http://choqfm.ca/chronique/10724/; April, Right of Asylum: http://choqfm.ca/chronique/a-loccasion-de-journee-droits-refugies-canada-retour-droit-dasile-chroniqueuse-meryll/; May, Press Freedom :http://choqfm.ca/chronique/journee-internationale-de-liberte-de-presse-situation-toujours-alarmante-2017/