Cassie Heward in centre speaking to the UN Human Righs Council

Almost eleven years ago a ten-year old student named Cassandra Heward at West Island’s College Charlemagne started to collect money for African relief from her fellow students. Soon after, she approached her attorney mother — prominent political and community activist Brigitte Garceau a family law partner at the law firm of Robinson, Sheppard, Shapiro — with a question and an idea. The question was where to send the amounts she had collected. Research was done and the funds dispatched.

But Cassie’s idea, had a greater and more lasting effect. And may have set her on the course for her life that last week culminated in her having the rare opportunity to speak to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on the abuses suffered by the women of Afghanistan. Her idea reflected — even at that tender age — an instinctive empathy for the vulnerable and the downtrodden and a desire to do something to help. She said to her mother that she wanted to create an event to help the poor and vulnerable of Montreal.

Brigitte called me and we met with Cassie and came up with the idea of a concert. A Montreal mini-version of the Live-Aid concert for Africa. Brigitte also asked for this paper’s support through articles covering the progress of the event and encouraging people to buy tickets. That support we gladly gave over a period of four months. Cassie became the face of the effort. The concert — appropriately titled “Cassandra’s Lilacs: The Gentle the Condition Concert” — was a great success. Over 1200 people packed the Théatre St-Denis in October 2008 and nearly $100,000 was raised for three organizations fighting poverty, underemployment and homelessness. And as a happy bonus, The Suburban won first place for Community Service in the SNA North American Newspaper Awards.

As Cassie grew, her community involvements broadened and her academic achievements shone. She went to LCC and graduated having been awarded the Stephen Penton Best All-Around Student Award as well as the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Medal. Through her LCC years she was engaged in everything from West Island Community Shares youth committees to model United Nations programs. When it came time for college, the young girl who had collected money for African relief became a young lady with a passion for international affairs. She was accepted to George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in DC where she made the Dean’s List. Through her first three years she has also interned at the Canadian Embassy and at the Woodrow Wilson Centre while maintaining the highest academic standards. Just last year she spoke at my Institue for Public Affairs “Israel at 70” Conference sharing the rostrum with dozens of elected officials and diplomats. Since January of this year she completed her semester abroad in Geneva while interning at UN Watch under Hillel Neuer, himself a former Montrealer. It was through this work that she found herself with the opportunity to address the UN Human Rights Council on the status of women in Afghanistan.

The brave and powerful words she spoke to a Council that included representatives of some of the globe’s worst tyrannies merit reprinting. Here are some of them: “We remain deeply concerned by the treatment of women in Afghanistan. On the ground reports reveal that the situation in the country remains extremely dire for women, notably as a result of Taliban remnants and terrorist factions. Millions of women continue to face domestic abuse and harassment by law enforcement. Violence against women — particularly in the domestic setting — has become institutionally normalized, which has led to a vast underreporting of abuses. Furthermore, there have been multiple accounts of murders by the Taliban of women fleeing their homes due to domestic violence. women continue to face discrimination within the justice system. A majority of cases of violence against women are referred to traditional mediation rather than adhjucated in courts — thereby enabling impunity for perpetrators. Finally, baad marriages — which is the practice of settling disputes between families through forced marriage — remains widespread throughout the country and has yet to be criminalized. Just last year, a man killed his 9 year old wife — sold to him by her family — for $13,500. Mr. President, the UPR working group document fails to adequately depict the urgency of the human rights violations against women in Afghanistan. This is our opportunity to provide a voice to Afghan women who have been silenced and betrayed by those who they claim as brothers in their own country.”

With her mother living in Beaconsfield and grandparents in Kirkland, the West Island will always be home for Cassie Heward.

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