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Winnipeg human-rights lawyer Matas a global force for justice

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/7/2015 (771 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It's just as well David Matas doesn't need a permit for the weapon he carries. If he did, some national governments -- who knows, maybe even our own one day -- would be lining up to make sure he'd never get one.

This remarkable Winnipeg lawyer tramps the world attacking injustice, and does it unceasingly with the most deadly ammunition in the human arsenal -- the truth.

In detailing his work on issues worldwide, David Matas hopes his book will motivate readers into taking up human-rights causes.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files In detailing his work on issues worldwide, David Matas hopes his book will motivate readers into taking up human-rights causes.

And when Matas ferrets out the facts in our planet's stew of rights and wrongs, he nurtures them with a kind of arresting, unshakable calm born in academia, and with a focus on human rights so thorough and relentless it's a wonder in his decades of never-ending advocacy he hasn't exhausted his brain.

This 71-year-old has been employing the truth to not only combat evil but, like virtue's cheerleader, to challenge others to find their moral compass and join him in the fight for human rights.

In short, David Matas is one mother of a globe-trotting public conscience. He's received many accolades, including the Order of Canada and the University of Manitoba Distinguished Alumni Award for Lifetime Achievement.

In his latest book, touted as an autobiography but more about slices of his experience and knowledge, Matas catalogues a tsunami of inhumanity and his combat against it: torture, terror, execution, exploitation, slavery, child pornography, war crimes, genocide, hate.

He concedes it's not easy to remain hopeful when you've been up against such evil for so long, and that evil continues to flourish.

Matas speaks of everything from sex tourism to the Holocaust, postwar mass murder to protecting refugees, people killed to salvage their organs to the disappearance of a Swedish diplomat who saved 100,000 Jews in the Second World War but wasn't saved himself.

This human-rights icon looks anything but. He's nondescript, and unlike a sports hero, he isn't mobbed when he steps out on his hometown streets. So much for public priorities.

Yet a description in Why Did You Do That? of David Matas' typical travels and the world's embrace of his participation in the fight against human misery is clear proof he's very special, very respected and very influential well beyond this city's borders.

The Russians won't let him in their country. The Chinese government would be relieved if he were to die.

Matas illustrates just how dizzying is his travel schedule. In one 19-day period, for example, he crossed the Atlantic by air five times and the Pacific once, and made nine presentations on three different continents: to the U.K. Parliament and the Welsh Assembly on organ transplant in China; to Paris to report on child sex abuse; to Washington for a paper on human rights; over to New York to present a report on refugees; and off to Singapore for another presentation, this time on justice for Jews from Arab countries.

When he couldn't find time to go to Durban, South Africa, to present a paper on genocide, he wrote the speech anyway; they were happy to have someone else read it. In between all of this he flew home to teach at the U of M and to continue working on his private practice in refugee, immigration and human-rights law before jetting off again to fight somewhere else.

If anybody deserves to have his moniker on a building in Winnipeg -- as much as or even more than a Richardson or a Buhler -- it's Matas. Name one other person you could bump into in a Grant Park supermarket who was co-nominated (along with Winnipeg-born David Kilgour) for the world's greatest thank-you: a Nobel Peace Prize.

Bystanders allow tyranny and evil, writes Matas, and that's what propels him to never be one. And he constantly encourages others to wake up and act likewise. It's one of the reasons he gives for writing this autobiography. It also explains the oblique reason why he chose Why Did You Do That? as his title.

He says the ultimate goal of his writing is to reverse the question, a question that is humbly embodied in the last two lines of his book and reads like both indictment and epitaph: "Do not ask why I have done something. Ask the inactive why they have done nothing."

David Matas has authored or co-authored 10 other books and argued 19 human rights cases before the Supreme Court of Canada. He's been so committed for so long that it could be suggested he is to the promotion of human rights what American Ralph Nader was to auto safety.

What this brilliant lawyer does, says and writes with such credibility in this book is one more reason why it seems appropriate the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is in Winnipeg.

In fact, it's only an eight-minute drive from his office.


As a reporter, Barry Craig was awarded a Donner Foundation fellowship in legal journalism by the Canadian Bar Association and studied law at Queen's University.


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Updated on Saturday, July 11, 2015 at 8:35 AM CDT: Formatting.

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