Sad News: Passing of Jim Derksen

Jim Derksen

It is with sadness that we report that long time CCD volunteer Jim Derksen has passed away. 

Jim was a truly visionary leader, helping our organization meet challenges in a principled manner consistent with our human rights philosophy. Jim was a Chairperson of CCD, when it was called the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (COPOH).  He was also a National Coordinator of the organization.

On May 26, 2009, the University of Manitoba awarded Jim an honorary doctorate. Reprinted below is Jim’s Convocation Address, where he summarizes his worldview. 

“Thank you, University of Manitoba for this honor, through me, in recognition of the work many have done in the area of disability and human rights.

I want to acknowledge my family. I am the oldest of nine children of whom six of us are still living. My mother, my remaining brothers and sisters, their partners and some of their children are here today. My courageous and beautiful children, Amara and Tom, could not be here today as they are doing the vital work of finding their own place in this world. I am here because of the love, support and teaching my family provided to me.

I want to acknowledge my many other teachers and mentors without whom I would not be here to accept this honor today. Among these legions, I will just name Allan Simpson and Professor Carl Ridd.

There's no doubt that I, as other human beings, have individually unique gifts and capacities on the one hand and impairments or disabilities on the other. These are given manifest embodied realities. There is also no doubt that beyond the given reality, we live in a world that is of our own making. This world, built of our understandings, attitudes, and values, should not be our prison, neither should we make it our idol and put it above our humanity. Rather this world should be made and remade as a tool to enable our full potential and reflect our highest aspirations.

As a very young person with a visible significant disability, I took serious note of the constructed consensus world of ideas and low expectations about disability. Finding these ideas did not agree with my own sense and experience of who and what I was and could be, I decided to actively resist and defy these constructions. It has been said that man builds his cage around himself, but the lion bursts his cage asunder. And many people with disabilities and many otherwise socially marginalized and excluded people have broken out of the cages built to capture and entrap them.

It is our nature as human beings to make the world we live in. When we build the path we are to move forward on, let us build it so that all of us can go where we truly want and need to go.

Today is an important transition for those of us receiving our degrees. The late 1940s when I was born was also a time of great transition. Human beings had made terrible idols of ideas about eugenics and imagined racial purity and superiority in the preceding decades, and then had sacrificed human beings to these falsities by the millions during the Second World War. The Allied nations that defeated this horror determined to build a United Nations and declare a framework of principles and values to prevent us from ever acting out such obscenities again. This framework is known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it is now only about 60 years old. As global ideas and structures go, these human rights are young and fragile. Let us be clear in our understanding, that many older forces continue to be aligned against these fresh, new ideas of universal human rights.

It has been my privilege, working with others, to help develop human rights legislation in this country, and in the early 1980s to have the opportunity of helping, with others, to embed certain human rights values in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. More recently I've been able to work with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and many other groups to help establish the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

We have set out our vision of fairness and equality rights for all persons regardless of natural diversities and long-standing prejudice and exclusion.

What then do we make of the killing fields in Cambodia? How can we explain the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, and how do we live with what is happening in Darfur today? Why does prejudice continue to limit and devalue the lives of so many? Obviously, the problem that remains is how to act out and achieve in reality the vision we have declared of our human rights. However important, it is not only important, to say the right things and agree to the right values. Indeed, I feel it is critical now to honor these values in our deeds and behavior.

We are all challenged to understand the cages we have built together, in which we are entangled and situated. Let us rise to the challenge to become lion-people, to break apart the cages that constrain us, and by so doing, give free life to the fairness and equality of the human rights we have envisioned for ourselves.

I want to commend every effort to realize our vision of universal human rights. I commend the Canadian Museum for Human Rights which is to be built and operating at the Forks in Winnipeg by 2012. I also want to commend the idea of Winnipeg joining with the City of Edmonton and the network of other cities around the world committing to and declaring themselves to be human rights cities.

All my relations. Blessed be. I am here.

Thank you.”  ~ Jim Derksen