How’d You Get That Job? Samara talks to Green Party human rights critic

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How'd You Get That Job? Thursday, October 09, 2014 View Count = 3099

How’d You Get That Job? Samara talks to Green Party human rights critic

Joe Foster on bike

Joe Foster is human rights critic for the Green Party of Canada. He grew up in an impoverished, rural community and considers himself fortunate to have been able to have had an interesting career. He is now passionate about fighting the growing problem of expanding poverty both here in Canada and globally.

What inspired you to get involved in politics?

Getting involved in politics was, for me, mostly an accident. I had just retired and was planning to volunteer with an NGO. A friend suggested I get involved with politics and my answer was “are you crazy?” Elected politicians are rarely measured by their professionalism and integrity and can be tossed out at any time, regardless of their contributions. Also, the media too often looks for one-liners with the truth stretched in order to gain a headline. 

Nonetheless, he encouraged me to look at the Green Party of Canada site, which I did out of curiosity. I was somewhat surprised to find that I liked the set of values.  Another attraction was that the Green Party, being a young party, does not have the baggage or constraints of the other three larger parties. I was also impressed that the Green Party has a strong international linkage for sharing experience and addressing global concerns.  Having worked overseas, I was fully aware that many problems cannot be solved at the local or national level.

What path brought you to the role of Human Rights critic for the Green Party and what is the role about?

My first interest was democracy. Having visited and worked in failed states, I realize how fragile democracy is and how easy it is to slide into a quasi-dictatorship. Because of its size and history, Canada, regardless of good intentions and plans, is not an easy nation to govern and the temptation for leaders is to be autocratic.

My first position with the Green Party was thus as a democracy advocate, a position for which I volunteered. I later took over the disability portfolio in addition. Having become blind, I obviously had an interest in and was beginning to expand my connections with this community. I was then asked by our leader, Elizabeth May, to switch to the Human Rights portfolio, which encompasses disability issues. In the Green Party’s early formative years, there were many opportunities to get involved at all levels.

Why do human rights matter and where do you fit in?

Many NGOs have experts who do amazing work but they need support from political leaders. A democracy can only function with a strong civil society that is courageous enough to speak out when necessary. Human rights are the essential baseline for a functioning democracy; they must be protected and respected. Unfortunately, both our current government and the international community too often do not respect human rights—in spite of all the United Nations Declarations and agreements that most countries have signed. Hence, human rights abuses demand continual monitoring.

My efforts are to research and present Canadians with a balanced view on topical issues. Our Green values, which are held by all Green Parties around the world, provide the basis for action.

What does a day-in-the-life of a human rights critic look like--what does Human Rights critic actually do?

On a daily basis I follow human rights issues publicized in the media and within the NGO community.  I draft press releases and provide information to our Shadow Cabinet, the advocates in our party leadership who are responsible for developing our positions on important issues on a day-to-day basis. In addition, I respond to individuals who often raise human rights questions. Admittedly, there is a limit to what can be done, but we hope that by providing moral support and information where possible, we will awaken public concern to pressure the government to be more responsible.

What have been your favourite moments in this job? Surprises?

The rewards to working in this particular role are limited, and it is sometimes hard to be positive if one is concentrating on the abuses that continue in Canada and abroad. It can be frustrating when the citizens you work with raise problems and identify solutions but are too often ignored by those in power. This has been a growing problem for a number of decades in Canada. However, I think that as a citizen I must do what I can to contribute. 

One of the benefits of the role is meeting a number of very interesting, dedicated Canadians from all walks of life as well as elected Greens visiting from other countries. Being a member of the Shadow Cabinet has made me much more aware of the variety of issues and the need for integrated solutions. I also realize that our education system fails to impress on students that democracy is not only a right but also a responsibility.

My greatest surprise is how hard political volunteers and candidates work at all levels of government. The quality of candidates is generally very impressive both in terms of their expertise and also the volunteer work in their communities. Unfortunately, the quality of a candidate often has little to do with whether he or she will be elected. This is further exacerbated by our antiquated and undemocratic first-past-the-post system of voting.

What skills or expertise are required for this job?

In a democracy, each one of us has a degree of expertise based on our life experiences that is of value in making government decisions.  My expertise (like that of most MPs) comes from community involvement. My personal experience in the human rights area is based on my work with the Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and a public service union disability committee. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a job like yours? What is a good first step for them to take?

Student Councils in schools and universities are a good place to start. Volunteering in the community will give a clearer idea of the challenges society faces. The more ambitious can join a party youth wing and can also volunteer to canvass during elections. All parties have web sites that outline their vision and values, which may assist in making choices, as was the case for me. There are also volunteer projects with Parliamentarians which offer great, first-hand experience as to what is involved in being an MP.

If you are serious about a political career at the national level, an excellent way to gain experience is to first run for office at the municipal or provincial level. This will help to hone skills necessary for an effective national political career, and it will get you known in your community.

If you do eventually run as a candidate and get elected, it should be considered as a genuine honour to represent your electorate and potentially be in a position to make a lasting contribution to Canada or the international community, and maybe even leave your mark on history.

We are all impacted by political decisions (or non-decisions) at the local, provincial, national, and international levels. Regardless of whether we have ambitions to “get into politics”, all of us need to be informed and involved.

Joe Foster

Joe Foster is human rights critic for the Green Party of Canada. You can check out more How’d You Get That Job interviews here.

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