Grahame Russell has spent half his life promoting human rights issues. Before that, he was one of Canada’s best downhill skiers, ranking up there with the best of them including the ‘Crazy Canucks’ Ken Read, Steve Podborski, Dave Irwin and Dave Murray.
summer of 1982, Grahame, who makes no bones about coming from a privileged
background, went to study Spanish at an immersion course at a university in
Mexico City. This is where his life changed course. He had been influenced by
his sister, Sarah, who was living in Mexico City at the time of her tragic death
in a car crash. Grahame had previously traveled the world in the narrow,
isolated confines of competitive skiing whereas Sarah had traveled seeking to
learn about different places and people and told Grahame all about her
Grahame recalls the time:
“Two things were happening: I was becoming a more open person to the world
around me. And in the courses I was taking the professors were also teaching us
about the history of Mexico as well as social justice issues that related to
Mexico. Then one day I decided to not take the public bus to school, but rather
take forty minutes and walk there. I had always wanted to walk by the National
Stadium in Mexico City, but I just never done it. On the way, I found an
extraordinary world of barrios and
slums that I had never seen before. It finally sunk in. I remember saying to
myself, ‘Oh my God, this is hell.’
my first visit to Mexico was my first exposure to endemic poverty. It’s a long
discussion as to why I wasn’t exposed to it before, or if I was why it
didn’t impact me. But at that point in my life at the age of 21 it impacted me
in a direct personal way. I changed my studies and started to delve into it and
I came to the conclusion that it was not ‘their’ problem but rather
‘our’ problem in that I was involved in it, however indirectly, or directly,
that might be. I was involved as a human being living in another country; I was
involved in this phenomenon of global poverty.
was studying at the University of Guelph, and as soon as I returned I
immediately changed my studies to politics and Latin American history. I was an
intense, unfriendly classmate, dour, on a mission.”
after receiving his undergraduate degree, Grahame did a tree planting stint in
May of 84 and then headed back to Mexico, outside of Cuernavaca, where he spent
ten months working in an orphanage. There was an independent study center close
by where he received a huge exposure to Central America history, as many of the
refugees where able to make it as far as the state of Morales. “I was struck
by the revolutionary government in Nicaragua,” he remembers. “At the end of
the year, I went to Nicaragua on my own, to learn about what the Nicaraguan
government was trying to do to address poverty as it was the one government in
Central America that was trying to address and remedy poverty at its root
while I was attending law school at the University of Ottawa, I spent part of
the summers of 85, 86 and 87 working as a translator for delegations from North
America who were going down to Nicaragua in solidarity, or to learn more about
the government there. It was an incredible courageous attempt to change the
aspects of how a society worked.
also became an indirect witness to the U.S. war on Nicaragua via the Contras, a
proxy counter-revolutionary force pretty much created, armed and funded by the
US. So at the same time that this extremely poor under resourced government was
trying to change things in a positive way, the U.S., the most powerful country
in the world, was trying to stop it at all costs. You would just watch the
positive changes fall apart whether it be their economic, health, education or
creative tax policies, micro-credit for the poor, land redistribution,
everything the Sandinista government was experimenting with started to fall
apart because the war took over all aspects of life. And eventually, the U.S. in
a sense won, they were able to crush most of the positive changes in Nicaragua
by the end of the 80s.
“Remember, the U.S. was in a narrow cold war mindset. President Carter had been ready to recognize that were serious problems in Nicaragua and was ready to open some doors for change, but the Reagan administration rolled back all the movements for change in Central and South America. And that’s why the 1980s were the worst decade of repression for Latin America in 500 years of history. The U.S. had on its cold war ideological blinkers and they simplified all issues to that of we versus they, and they decided the Sandinistas were against the U.S. and they did everything they could to stop them. It wasn’t very difficult to crush what was going on and 40,000 people were killed in the process.”
So how did your first real job in human rights come about?
studying law I was in solidarity with Nicaragua and then increasingly Guatemala,
Honduras and El Salvador as there was little to separate the realities of these
countries. So 1982-89 were my years of discovery, changing courses, doing
volunteer work with orphans and doing my summer work as a volunteer activist in
Nicaragua while finishing off my undergrad and law degree. Then after I finished
my articling, I took a job with CODEHUCA (the Central American Human Rights
Commission) to begin my professional life.
“I was based in San Jose, Costa Rica, from 1989 to 1993 and I was a human rights educator, investigator and lawyer working full time on human rights issues throughout Central America. Again my learning curve maxed out. I came to human rights from a poverty perspective; most human rights work only dealt with repression. In CODEHUCA we worked on economic, social and cultural rights as well as political and civil rights. The underlying issues through all this were entrenched poverty, land distribution and inequality.”
EPICA (an U.S. based NGO) hired Grahame to go and work in Guatemala City.
Originally, he thought his sole focus would be Guatemalan issues with some work
in El Salvador. Everything changed in January of 94 with the rebellion in
Chiapas. His role with EPICA was very similar to his CODEHUCA work and involved
a wide range of writing about human rights issues; taking delegations out to
visit the sites of mass graves and accompanying human rights workers when their
lives were in danger.
Wasn’t it dangerous to leave the relatively safe haven of Costa Rica for Guatemala?
thought I was crazy to do so but by that time I’d become somewhat savvy, I’d
traveled around Central America a lot, I’d learned my way around, I knew there
are certain ways to travel and act and there were certain ways not to travel and
act. I picked up some wisdom along the way, so although I realized Guatemala was
a more dangerous and harsher place to live than Costa Rica, I’d learned enough
to know how to live there. One can live in Guatemala in a decent fashion taking
into account the added elements of increased poverty, insecurity and repression.
what drives me or the people I know in this field isn’t going to the most
dangerous places because we get a kick out of it. But rather, in this case, I
received a job offer and there was decent work to be done in Guatemala and that
was a useful thing to do. Whether it was more impoverished and had more
repression than Costa Rica wasn’t part of the equation.
“Also, all my colleagues in CODEHUCA were people whose family members had been disappeared, whose husbands had been killed, who had survived atrocities. None of those people were foolish, none of them sought danger or insecurity. There are risks in this work, but one has to do it in a wise thoughtful way and not with your eyes closed.”
When his work with EPICA finished Grahame hooked up with the UN human rights mission in Ixcan, Guatemala for five months. This was a region where genocide had been committed by the Guatemalan military in the 80s. It was a time of recovery as the area was emerging from terrible years of oppression and a lot of tension, anger and distress was left over from the legacy of genocide and repression.
Grahame himself was taken hostage in June of 95 with four other foreigners when they were helping a group of Guatemalans repatriate from Mexico. There was a political standoff with the people who were occupying their land. They were taken hostage for thirty hours by paramilitaries for political posturing as they were against the return of these refugees. Because they were foreigners a stink was raised and the governments of France, the U.S., Canada and Brazil all jumped on the case of the Guatemalan government so there was a peaceful ending.
taken hostage took my level of understanding to a much more sobering level. What
struck me most at the time was just how destroyed these countries were, and
that’s an issue the global community has not come close to addressing, even
today: how destroyed they are by generations of impoverishment, repression and
Then in October of 95, Grahame started a job with Rights Action and was based in Washington D.C. for five years. Rights Action was the coming together of many different aspects of his previous thirteen years of activism, solidarity work and professional work.
deals with the global issues of poverty, racial and gender discrimination,
repression and environmental damage in a holistic way.
What’s Rights Action’s focus?
particular focus is Honduras, Guatemala, Chiapas and a little bit in El
Salvador. We see ourselves as an NGO with a global vision.
of the work we do begins with the reality of a particular community, which is
trying to fight back against its own screwed up situation. The issue, which is
the most moving is the exhumation of mass graves, and that’s mainly in
Guatemala, and a little bit in Honduras. The exhumations are the best way to
look at the reality of the impoverished in Guatemala who have suffered horribly.
The majority of these people are Mayan Indians so as soon as you begin a project
you are talking about the historical impoverishment, repression and racism
suffered by the Mayan people. But what is the project? Family members, moms and
dads, children and grandparents want to dig up the remains of their love ones
from their mass graves and give them a decent burial.
world vision of human rights, development, global politics and history comes
right down to this most basic need. A person’s loved ones were brutally killed
and they want to rectify the fact they were dumped in a pit. Everything goes out
from here. Other people ask, ‘If they are living in poverty, don’t they need
potable water, housing, education and health?’ Yes, but it all starts for them
with a decent burial for their loved ones. They cannot go forward in their
lives, whether towards justice and getting the people who did it, or overcoming
their poverty and racism they face without dealing with this huge legacy of
repression. One of the categories of funding we carry out is mental health work.
And in Guatemala a proper exhumation is the best healing work possible for
grieving family members.
the exhumation is done, the people get to mourn and wail and tell their story
publicly, which is all part of the process, and then the remains are reburied in
a Christian or Mayan ceremony. And then they build a monument and inscribe their
loved ones names on it and write what happened, e.g. ‘Here lies the remains of
so and so who were brutally massacred under the government of Rios Mott by the
army and paramilitaries from the town of Chicote.’ They are very explicit,
they name the dead, describe how they were hacked or beaten to death with
machetes, ropes and rocks and they explicitly say who did it.
“The exhumations are the most moving thing to fund because they are the most important aspect of healing for those involved. They start speaking out publicly, giving testimony and telling reporters their story. That opens the door to many other projects include.”
Don’t these people want revenge?
go about seeking justice in a broadminded way. Many of the civil patrolers are
alive today, because so little justice has been done. The generals from the top
down live free; the ones who benefited are at the top. Most of the rank and file
did not benefit from their forced participation in the war; they had no choice.
A study was done and it was found that about a million men and boys were in
these paramilitaries and 83% were non-voluntary. The vast majority was obliged
to participate or they would suffer the consequences themselves, only 17%
enjoyed what they did.
townspeople, the victims, the survivors know that many of the paramilitaries
didn’t have a choice so when they seek justice they are very particular about
who they choose to put on trial. They have done their research and they know the
17% personally, the ones that were guilty at heart; they also know the
distinction between intellectual and material authors. Most of the trials in
Guatemala today are going after the intellectual authors of the crimes.
“A far as I know zero vigilante killings have been committed against the people who perpetrated the violence, partly because the military is still in power and the paramilitaries are still a force to be reckoned with but that’s not the justice the people want anyway. Globally the efforts for justice in Guatemala have received scant support, but those that are supportive are astounded that those who have suffered do not want take justice into their own hands. Though these people at the community level are not legal experts and have little formal education, their notion of justice is a deeply rooted notion of right and wrong; not a notion of kill them all in retaliation.”
What about the American role in all this?
of the intellectual guilty, the funders, the designers are alive and well and
that’s because they were backed by the U.S. The U.S., for me, was 100% guilty
in the 80s; it was their show. You know if President Carter has been reelected
it wouldn’t have ended ‘Central America is our backyard,’ it wouldn’t
have ended the Monroe Doctrine of U.S. dominance; but in terms of the amount of
people killed brutally, there’s no question, it would have been different. The
poverty wouldn’t have changed much, Carter’s administration was for free
trade but in terms of repression they were rolling back on Somoza.”
Why hasn’t there been more publicity?
“There are too many U.S. elephants in the closet, it’s pretty much of a black and white issue, the U.S. did the wrong thing across the board. In other areas things were a lot grayer and more confusing but since the early 1900s the U.S. has backed oligarchical tyrants and dictators in Central America on an ongoing basis. That’s why the shift from Carter to Reagan on one level wasn’t all that decisive; but on another level, micromanaging it, it was a big shift. It took a moment of hope in Central America history and rolled it right back into the same old patterns of grotesque intervention. They just did the wrong thing across the board and have not owned up or atoned for it. The number of killings in Guatemala today is mindboggling. This is true in Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua but Guatemala is where I have most of my knowledge. Very little has changed in Guatemala; it’s still a United States backwater.”
But surely not all the Guatemalan wealthy are monsters?
“The wealthy sector in Guatemala likes the way the global order works; they benefit from the global order by exploiting their own people. In the 80s, strong movements for change were afoot and the oligarchies in Central America saw what happened to Somoza in Nicaragua and they didn’t want that to happen to them. So they bound together and said, ‘We don’t like disappearances, but now is the time for disappearances; we don’t like torture, but now is the time for torture; things are out of control so we need hard measures and we must implement state terrorism. That’s the only way to go.’ That doesn’t mean they all liked it, but when push came to shove they did it to maintain their control and power base.”
So how did Guatemalan come to kill Guatemalan?
the name of fighting the Cold War, these U.S. backed governments committed these
atrocities against their own people, namely civilians. The mindset was war, the
mindset was kill or be killed, the mindset was the onslaught of some terrible
enemy. Most of it was lies and distortion.
also had the whole issue of recruiting impoverished people as soldiers. Most of
the soldiers in the Guatemalan army and most of the paramilitaries were Mayan
poor. All of the commanding generals were Ladino (mixed race with Spanish
ancestry) wealthy. The notion of using poor vs. poor was perhaps the most
devastating long-term legacy in Guatemala and it was a war tactic. The army
forcibly recruited soldiers and paramilitaries to fight their dirty battles.
“In Guatemala, it wasn’t the case of a bad army coming in, wreaking havoc and leaving. It was a Ladino dominated army from the top down that used the poor Mayans against themselves.”
What assurance can you give people that the money they donate will get where it is supposed to go?
out about USD800,000 a year and we do that with one full-time staff in Canada
and the U.S. and four full-time staff in the region. So how do we guarantee the
money is being well spent and doing things it’s supposed to do? Our staff
visits all our projects on a regular basis. We know these folks, they know the
risks, they know what they are doing, they are not naïve people, they are
survivors of genocide and they are fighting to build a better world for
themselves. They understand completely the risks that they run. It’s tricky
for a donor in the North to put themselves in their mindset. This is also why
it’s a global issue and why Rights Action is not only a funder and supporter
but we are activists and educators too. If we don’t bring pressure to bear at
a global level on the governments of these countries and the multinational
companies and banks and the World Banks and IMFs then impunity at the local
level stays in place. As we speak they are killing people we support, beating
people up, burning their houses. Many of our projects have been undermined by
What about supporting projects that may put some of the people you help in danger?
“We would back off a project if the local people we were supporting backed off. We don’t say, ‘We are not going to give you the money because we think you might run into problems with the local thug.’ They balance that in, they factor those issues into their work, and they make a community decision to proceed because they must, because they know they can’t give in to the possibility of threat if they are convinced they are doing the right thing. If problems then arise, we will take further steps to support them. But we don’t back off, unless they do, we follow their lead.”
How can the level of understanding of the North-South divide be raised?
“People in North America and Europe have to be able to put themselves in the shoes of people living in poor countries. The debate and the understanding in the North has to change through education, challenging ourselves, challenging the press and respecting groups like Rights Action. And we have to chip away that; the consciousness in the North has to shift. People in the North have to empathize and understand and open their hearts to this issue in a way they have never been challenged to do so in the past.”
What gives you the most satisfaction from your work?
continue to channel funds into sixty different community development and human
rights projects and I feel good every time we get the funds to a good health
project or a good exhumation project.”
What gives you hope?
last four years have been the time of the greatest hope in terms of activism.
Where I see a lot of hope recently is the increased discussion and debate on
globalization. There’s now a different discussion going on in the mainstream
press about the so called ‘global village.’ The postmodern World War II era
saw us living with the myth that we were a planet of independent sovereign
nation states. But we have really been living in an interrelated global planet
for 500 years or more but from colonialism, imperialism and the conquests. The
global village that the mainstream press and our governments are finally
starting to talk about is old news but at least we are talking about it.
“You don’t have to go back too far in North American history where people, mostly men, didn’t get what rape was and didn’t get what domestic violence was. They didn’t get it, it was something that was left behind closed doors, or it wasn’t so bad, or it had always been that way. That changed through the hard work of women’s organizations and some human rights and social justice groups. They made society look at gender violence differently. They had to bring the bruised woman to the front page, and then people started to analyze the situation in a different way. It’s not finished work; it’s ongoing, not only in North America but also around the world. It’s the same thing with the issues of the North-South poverty divide. We have to better understand poverty and realize that it is really violence against people. And that’s what’s happening and that’s why what happened in Seattle and other protests were a step forward.”
How have people’s perceptions toward you and your work changed?
“In the late 80s and 90s, when I would come home from a trip to Central America and talk about poverty and repression people would say I sounded like a leftist. People don’t call me that anymore. When you talk about the evils of impoverishment and repression and environmental destruction, people know what you are talking about, you don’t get the blank stares anymore. The globalization discussions are bringing poverty to our font page in a slightly different way.
remember walking into Nicaragua in 1985 on an exploratory journey at the age of
24 as a university educated well brought up privileged North American and
learning about the IMF from a poor 13 year old Nicaraguan boy. And all through
the 90s most North Americans didn’t know what the IMF was, or if they had
heard of it they had a misguided, benign notion of its role. Today people
understand the IMF is an intra-governmental organization controlled by the North
that is not necessarily doing good things for the poor around the world. There
is a critical debate going on and that gives me great hope because the most
urgent thing lacking in all of this global justice, poverty and repression work
is that much more critical thought is needed to address these issues in North
America and Europe.
in the north have long acted and continue to act on the basis of charity. Most
people do care; it makes them feels bad that there is so much poverty in Latin
America, Asia and Africa. That impulse has long been there. But the question is
is poverty a poor unfortunate thing that happens in the third world, or is it a
political phenomenon? A quote I often use is from the Brazilian priest Don
Helder Camera: ‘If I give to the poor, they call me saint; if I ask why there
are poor, they call me communist.’ I apply that to myself because throughout
the 80s and the 90s in my writing and my educational work. Most of the time when
I would come home to Toronto or give talks in North America, people would relate
to me as a leftist or communist because I was talking about the causes of
poverty. That’s changed.”
Grahame has seen how life works from both ends of the spectrum. Coming from a privileged background, he attended Upper Canada College and hobnobbed with the sons and daughters of the Canadian establishment. It would have been so easy for him to take his law degree to Bay Street, hang out a shingle and make heaps of money. But he chose a different route, one that has made all the difference, one that he will devote the rest of his life to. Helping and giving a voice to the poor and underprivileged whose only real crime in most cases was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Further info: www.rightsaction.org
To make a tax-deductible donation in Canada or the USA for the community development Grahame is involved with, make check payable to “Rights Action” and mail to: Rights Action, 1830 Connecticut Av, NW, Washington DC, 20009 [USA], or to Rights Action, 509 St. Clair Av. W., Box 73527, Toronto, M6C-1C0 [Canada].