A push for human rights

August 27, 2010

The Donors: Gordon and Penny Echenberg

The Gift: $1-million

The Cause: McGill University

The Reason: To sponsor conferences on human rights

Gordon Echenberg's devotion to human rights started when he was six years old.

He got into a fight at his elementary school in Sherbrooke, Que., and was hauled into the principal's office. "Can you tell me what started the fight Gordon?" Mr. Echenberg recalls the principal asking. "I said to him, 'You tell me what started Hitler and I'll tell you what started the fight.' Someone had called me a dirty Jew."

Mr. Echenberg, now 70, went on to study law at McGill University in Montreal, but he never gave up his interest in human rights. While at McGill in the early 1960s he was a founding member of Les ligues de droit de l'homme, or the Civil Liberties Union, and in 1988 he co-founded InterAmicus, a McGill-based international human rights advocacy centre.

A few years ago, after retiring from a law practice, Mr. Echenberg and his wife, Penny, donated $1-million to McGill to establish regular conferences on human rights. The first Echenberg Family Conference on Human Rights was held in 2007. It focused on genocide and featured dozens of speakers from around the world including Senator Roméo Dallaire, former leader of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda; Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka of Nigeria; and Juan Mendez, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide.

The second conference runs from Oct. 7 to Oct. 9 and it will focus on human rights and diverse societies. Mr. Echenberg expects 300 registrants and speakers including a member of Afghanistan's National Assembly, the solicitor-general of India, and South Africa's chief electoral officer. There is also a special program for 25 young leaders from 24 countries.

Mr. Echenberg, who also finances a school in Cambodia, hopes the conferences will broaden the understanding of human rights to include issues such as the right to food, shelter and water.

"It's very much designed to ... encourage people to think about the issues we're discussing and to involve themselves in change," he said. "My wife and I have this feeling that if only one person makes a difference, whether on the national or international scene, in terms of human rights, it will be a well-invested $1-million."


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