Janet Clarke works with some of her social justice class students at Vanier Catholic Secondary School in Whitehorse on Dec.12. Clarke also oversaw the school’s Write for Rights event on Dec. 10.

Powerful pens: Vanier students mark International Human Rights Day by writing 160 letters

The Whitehorse high school students took part in Write for Rights

Inside the learning commons at Vanier Catholic Secondary School on Dec. 10, students from multiple classes sat at tables learning not only how to properly craft a hand-written letter, but also the impact those letters can have in bringing to light human rights violations and calling on governments for action.

The event was one of thousands Write for Rights events throughout the country and around the world that happened Dec. 10 to mark International Human Rights Day.

Amnesty International Poland began the Write to Rights events in 2002, with a 24-hour letter writing marathon to mark the day, bringing to light many human rights issues around the world.

Vanier students have been part of the international effort since 2008, teacher and school librarian Janet Clarke said in an interview in between addressing the three classes in the library writing letters.

“We’re joining thousands of people around the world doing what you’re doing,” she told students.

She spoke of the cases the students could write about before providing instructions to students on the basics of letter writing (make sure to introduce yourself in the first paragraph, make the letters personal but also make sure they stay on topic, etc.).

Amnesty highlighted 10 cases and the activists under age 25 who are taking action on them as part of its Write for Rights campaign, with Clarke opting to focus on three for students to learn and write about for the campaign.

It’s important youth learn about injustices in their own country, she said highlighting the work of youth from Asubpeeschoseewagong — the Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario — who are calling on government to address mercury poisoning in their community.

With many of Vanier’s student population coming from the Philippines and climate change being a major issue for many, Clarke also highlighted Marine Sumook Ubaldo’s work to draw attention to the impacts of climate change and call on governments for action.

Ubaldo was 16 when Typhoon Yolanda washed her family’s home and millions of other homes away. The 2013 typhoon killed more than 6,000 and financial help for those who lost their homes soon dried up. Ubaldo has become a well-known climate change activist in the Philippines and around the world “dedicated to ensuring governments around the world confront climate change and tackle its effects on her community and others like them,” as Amnesty states on its website.

Finally, Vanier students also learned of Yasaman Aryani, an Iranian woman who was sentenced to 16 years in prison for removing her headscarf, with letter-writers calling for her freedom.

“Yasaman’s cruel punishment is part of a wider crackdown on women campaigning against forced veiling,” states the Amnesty website. “Since 2018, dozens of women, including Yasaman’s mother, Monireh Arabshahi, have been arrested. Everyone has the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression, including Muslim women to decide whether to wear the hijab or other forms of Islamic dress.”

The Amnesty website says previous Write for Rights campaigns have helped to free 48 people who were wrongfully imprisoned.

Some of those letters came from students at Vanier taking part in the past Write for Rights events.

While students were instructed to write at least one letter calling for action on one of the three cases, some students were raising their voices — or pens — on all three.

Grade 12 students Prabjyot Bajwa and Shirley Lehr both said they were planning to write letters addressing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as well as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and head of the judiciary in Iran Ebrahim Raisi on the cases in those countries.

While Lehr has participated in Write to Rights events previously, including in her home country of Germany, this marked Bajwa’s first time being involved.

Bajwa said she hopes the letters from around the world will effect change.

Lehr said she was pleased Amnesty focused on the efforts of activists under the age of 25.

“They’re raising their voice to make a change,” she said.

Bajwa pointed out the recent climate strikes happening to draw attention to climate change and the impact youth are having.

“We need to change things,” she said.

In total, Vanier students drafted approximately 160 letters to draw attention to the issues and push for change.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at