“Get off your butts and get engaged,” was Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire’s message to students when he spoke to an audience of over 400 at UTSC’s 35th Watts Lecture on Wednesday night. He challenged students to get out and experience the world and then return home to make Canada a global leader in humanitarian causes.
“The youth of this nation should have […] a sort of rite of passage,” he said. “Under their bed, [they should have] a pair of boots that have been dirtied with the soil of [developing] countries.
“[It is] so that you can see, you can feel, you can hear, you can taste, you can sense what is happening to […] humanity.”
Rather than visit London and Paris, he suggested they go to Kinshasa, Accra, Bujumbura, and Dar es Salaam.
Dallaire recalled his term as Force Commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. He said witnessing such atrocities made him realize that the international community had begun to view some humans as more important than others.
He defied orders to leave Rwanda, saying that the decision may have been illegal, but the alternative was immoral.
“Three hundred thousand Rwandan kids died, and [Canada] did nothing,” he said. “Yet we freak out over one Amber Alert here.”
Looking forward to Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017, Dallaire said citizens must start planning beyond a four-lane highway or Centennial rink.
“Is there something more to us?” he asked. “What will be the new vision of this nation […] as we move forward into this very complex […] future?
A key step would be recognizing that Canada, as one of the “most powerful nations in the world,” has a responsibility to countries beyond its borders. Eighty per cent of the world’s population, he stressed, lives in inhumane conditions.
One of the problems to overcome is Canada’s political culture, which focuses on short-term, domestic issues.
“No matter how many pundits […] we have, we don’t have the strategic leadership [to shape] the future […] We are still very caught up in the near-term, and we often try to survive the future. That future’s going to catch us by surprise.”
Rather than take a backseat in politics, Dallaire told students that since they represent 35 per cent of the voting population, they “hold the balance of power,” and “could change the face of [Canadian] politics” in just one election.
“[But] you’re abdicating that responsibility to others!”
Referencing events in Darfur, South Sudan, Congo, Northern Uganda, and Cote d’Ivoire, Dallaire once again touched on responsibility.
“If we do not engage in […] [protecting others], and [do not] inspire our leaders to have the will to intervene […] we will be held accountable in history as having failed.”
Dallaire’s lecture was delayed more than two hours as his flight was grounded in Ottawa due to the weather. But few students left the hall, passing the time watching Hotel Rwanda. They were greeted by an enthusiastic Dallaire, who spoke for over two hours to the engaged audience, and was willing to spend more time to personally speak to all the students lining up to meet him.
Dallaire closed the event by reminding students of the importance of human life.
“Move away from the pretentiousness of tolerance […] and rise to the level of respect as equals,” he said. “Not one of us here is more human than any other.”
He alluded to events in Tunisia and Egypt, where the youth mobilized themselves to change the face of politics in their countries, proving the power of the younger generations.
“I don’t think there is a more significant time to serve as a diplomat, [soldier], or humanitarian,” Dallaire said.
“The time is right.”