Desmond Tutu visited Edmonton in 1998. The person who invited him remembers his influence

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“He was a real promoter of human rights,” 90-year-old Bhatia said from his south Edmonton home

Gurcharan Bhatia holds a photo of Bishop Desmond Tutu at his home in Edmonton on January 4, 2022. Bhatia and his late wife Jiti were instrumental in bringing Tutu to Edmonton in 1998 to attend the International Human Rights Conference.  Tutu died at the age of 90 on December 26, 2021. Gurcharan Bhatia holds a photo of Bishop Desmond Tutu at his home in Edmonton on January 4, 2022. Bhatia and his late wife Jiti were instrumental in bringing Tutu to Edmonton in 1998 to attend the International Human Rights Conference. Tutu died at the age of 90 on December 26, 2021. Photo by Larry Wong /Postmedia

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When Desmond Tutu died, former Canadian citizenship court judge Gurcharan Bhatia’s thoughts returned to the cleric’s Edmonton visit 23 years ago, and the ripples — still felt today — left in his wake.

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“He was a real promoter of human rights,” 90-year-old Bhatia said from his south Edmonton home. “He was always swimming against the current.”

In 1998, Bhatia, then-chair of a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was seeking a keynote speaker for the November event, and looked to Tutu, whose anti-apartheid activism won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

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Thinking a personal invitation would help his case, Bhatia boarded a February flight for Cape Town, South Africa, with his wife Jiti to seek an audience with the former archbishop.

At the time, Tutu was busy helping his own country reckon with its past as chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission — a process that documented human rights violations committed and suffered under apartheid. Tutu would present the first five volumes of the resulting report to South African President Nelson Mandela a month before Bhatia’s conference.

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The Nobel laureate couldn’t commit to the visit at first, Bhatia said, but a spirited appeal from his better half might have helped seal the deal.

“Mr. Tutu said ‘I will pray that God makes your conference a success,’” Bhatia recalled. “And she said, ‘Look here: That prayer has to go to you. If you don’t come, it won’t happen.’”

Tutu laughed, Bhatia added, and the rest is history.

Nov. 27, 1998. Archbishop Desmond Tutu waves to school children from St. Richard Catholic Elementary who performed songs from the Lion King at City Hall.  Tutu was in town for the UN Human Rights Conference on Nov. 27, 1998. While in town Tutu stayed at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald. Nov. 27, 1998. Archbishop Desmond Tutu waves to school children from St. Richard Catholic Elementary who performed songs from the Lion King at City Hall. Tutu was in town for the UN Human Rights Conference on Nov. 27, 1998. While in town Tutu stayed at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald. Photo by File photo

News of Tutu’s upcoming Edmonton visit had the city buzzing months in advance, prompting organizers to accommodate growing interest in the event. About 700 delegates from more than 30 countries came for the three-day meeting, after which Tutu packed the Jubilee Auditorium by delivering the University of Alberta’s inaugural visiting lecture on human rights — an event the university continues to hold annually.

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While in town, Tutu also spoke with then-Prime Minister Ralph Klein, whose caucus had been dragging his heels over support for the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, specifically around articles dealing with a child’s right to access written and visual material.

Until that point, Alberta had refused to endorse the document, but after speaking with Tutu, Klein said his caucus would revisit the issue. Alberta Hansard notes that Klein wrote Prime Minister Jean Chrétien the following January, lending the feds Alberta’s “qualified support” to ratify the convention so long as it “does not usurp or override the authority of parents.”

The conference also produced the Edmonton Rights Resolution, which called on countries the world over to protect the human rights of all citizens.

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A clipping of the Edmonton Rights Resolution from the Edmonton Journal on Nov. 29, 1998. A clipping of the Edmonton Rights Resolution from the Edmonton Journal on Nov. 29, 1998.

The idea was to promote those values ​​enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights around the world by cultivating a culture that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender, color or creed, Bhatia said.

“Respect for every human being should be a natural behavior,” he explained. “That’s a habit of the heart.”

However, Bhatia added, such a vision isn’t easily realized.

Remembering the meeting in Cape Town all those years ago, Bhatia said he asked Tutu to describe the effort it takes to fight for human rights given his experience in South Africa.

“He thought for a minute and said, ‘Have you ever gone in the river and swam against the current? It’s very difficult. You have to be very strong and a believer,’” Bhatia recalled.

With 2023 marking the diamond anniversary of the UN Human Rights Declaration, Bhatia hopes Edmonton can channel the energy of the last conference and host another to continue the cause.

— With files from Postmedia

[email protected]

@hamdiissawi

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