Gilles-Philippe Pagé (Class of 2006): Human Rights Defender

From freedom fighter to social worker

Before she was the secretary at Comite de Reconstruccion, she was a radio operator on the frontlines of El Salvador’s civil war, fighting on the side of the rebels. When Gilles-Philippe Pagé travelled to El Salvador for his IDS Co-op placement in 2004/05, he found himself surrounded by people like this receptionista at the local organization where he worked. People who had once rebelled against the government were now peacefully integrated into the country’s democratic system and civil society.

Pagé worked with local subsistence farmers to increase crop yields and reduce soil erosion, a role that took him into rural areas where he met farmers who had been rebel operatives in the civil war. Walking two or three hours from the road to get to these farms meant that Pagé was often invited to spend the night. These nights were spent drinking coffee and listening to their stories of the conflict and the transition to peace.

He returned to Canada with these stories fresh in his mind, and with a greater understanding of his potential role in defending the human rights of people like those he’d met while on placement.

Developing a critical perspective

Some time off from work with Peace Brigades International in Colombia gave Pagé the chance to hang out with one of the locals (2007).

Placement wasn’t the first time Pagé had worked internationally. Like many IDS alumni, he participated in a Canada World Youth exchange program, travelling to Vietnam in 2001. Although he’d been exposed to social inequalities before through high school exchanges, this trip was the start of something else. He wanted to know why injustices existed and what his role was in eliminating them.

Deciding his questions could be answered in the IDS Co-op program, he applied and was accepted. When he arrived he found more than an academic program. The staff and students of the small, tight-knit program offered a community centered on activism and social change, with a critical and self-reflective perspective.

Pagé and his peers looked at what was going on in the world around them, drawing on faculty expertise and student activism to learn and do something about what they saw. They planned a Fair Trade Fair on the Scarborough campus, organized a coffee house discussion about the Iraq War with IDS professor and Middle East scholar Paul Kingston, and mobilized bus loads of UTSC students to attend protests against the war in downtown Toronto.

The road to human rights

Pagé experiences the challenges of getting access to remote communities experiencing human rights violations while working for Peace Brigades International (2007).

Shortly after graduating from the IDS co-op program, Pagé found a job with Peace Brigades International and returned to Latin America – this time to Colombia. Pagé describes his role with PBI as “using my privilege – my nationality, my skin colour, my gender – to open up political space for others to do their work. When human rights lawyers and activists go into the field to mobilize communities against government repression, they expose themselves to danger. Our role was to help reduce the level of intimidation that they experienced, for example at checkpoints.”

His next step was to get the legal skills to more formally become a defender of human rights, continuing the journey that started during those evenings of stories with rebels-turned-farmers during his placement El Salvador. Receiving a prestigious Chevening scholarship allowed Pagé to graduate from the University of Essex’s International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law program this year. He now plans to go back to school once more to specialize in conflict resolution before returning to international work.

“The IDS program gave me the interest in human rights. It allowed me to spend time with people who had experienced armed conflict. It triggered an interest in understanding that dynamic more, so that I could participate in preventing and responding to those issues,” says Pagé.