Gertrude Florence O’Neill, my grandmother, came into the world in 1876, more precisely on the early summer day of June 29th in what can be the very hot, humid river city of St. Louis, Missouri.
No word has made it down through the oral history of my family as to whether or not it was an easy delivery for Ellen Robbins O’Neill. We do know that Gertrude was Ellen’s fifth and last child.
Baby and mother likely had the best care available at the time. Ellen as daughter of land and cattle dealer, who had even run his own side-wheeler steamboat in the heady pre-war boom times of this Mississippi river town, had never lacked for anything.
She married an up-and-coming state legislator who would soon launch his national congressional career they could be counted among the local gentry at the very least.
It was a celebratory year in the USA. The country marked its 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Optimism abounded.
Thomas Alva Edison set up his industrial research laboratory which would generate the light bulb, the phonograph and a host of other inventions that helped shape modern life.
Alexander Graham Bell made his first phone call, initiating a communications revolution.
In 1876 an awareness of basic human rights, though, still had a long way to go.
Tsar Alexander II of Russia had emancipated serfs in Russia two years before Abraham Lincoln had issued his famous 1863 Emancipation Proclamation for slaves in the USA. But the objective reality of Russian peasants and American blacks had not changed all that much by 1876.
Slavery would not be finally abolished in Brazil, the largest slave holding country in the Americas until 1888.
Women, of course, had a long struggle to face. They would not receive full recognition of their rights even as “persons” in Canada until 1929.
Only a few days before Gertrude’s birth, though, the Battle of the Little Bighorn had been fought.
Custer’s defeat would provoke massive military retaliation which would end effective First Nation’s resistance to the invasion of their homelands in the western United States.
Similar wars against indigenous populations marked national and imperial expansion right around the world from Argentina to New Zealand.
Gertrude saw enormous changes over her 77-year lifespan. She witnessed humanity cross over a great rights divide.
Rights and privileges for the few — a hereditary elite, a entitled ethnic minority or moneyed oligarchy — gave way to the basic recognition of the equality of rights for all.
Human rights laws and charters enshrined these concepts.
Sunday is International Human Rights Day.
As we approach that day we should do so humbly recognizing how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.
As Gertrude’s generation made great progress in the recognition of basic human rights we similarly are called to cross over another great human rights divide.
We must ensure now that all are guaranteed equality of opportunity as well. Rights are hollow if inaccessible or unachievable because systemic barriers block access to their application.
This week, First Nations leaders raised their voices on Parliament Hill. Among other concerns raised, they and their supporters called on Ottawa to ratify the United Nation’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Amnesty International mirrored their stand.
It called “in particular on Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Russian Federation and the United States not to oppose this new important human rights instrument that was already adopted by an overwhelming majority in the UN Human Rights Council in June this year.”
Amnesty International affirms the rights of the more than 370 million indigenous peoples worldwide “to maintain their unique cultural traditions and (it) recognizes their right of self-determination, including secure access to lands and resources essential for their survival and welfare.”
We do not weaken our rights when we recognize those of others. In fact both are strengthened.
Maybe someday, buoyed by our example, our descendants will take on the crossing of a final fundamental rights divide, the one that seeks a minimum guarantee of equality of condition.