By: Maitland Shaheen*
On June 22nd, Toronto’s Luminato Festival hosted a unique guest: Amal Clooney. The human rights attorney was a shift from the traditional guests of Toronto’s international arts festival. However, the evening, which also featured Amal’s father-in-law, retired journalist Nick Clooney, proved to be a perfect fit for Luminato, which aims to “connect local voices to global conversations”. While introducing the event, The Economic Club of Canada’s CEO, Rhiannon Traill, justified bringing a lawyer and journalist to an arts festival. “Arts, politics, and the economy are all intertwined,” she explained, saying that constructive discussions about the world around us are a central part of a healthy democracy in Canada.
Photo by Nadav Rosenberg for Luminato
Carol Wilding, CEO of CPA Ontario, provided an introduction on Clooney’s life. Born in Beirut, Clooney immigrated to the UK at a young age, going on to study law at the University of Oxford, and later, New York University. She quickly became successful working as a corporate lawyer in New York, but yearned to make a more positive effect. That led her to complete a clerkship at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, where she developed her impressive resume working with the United Nations.
Clooney has since worked on a number of influential criminal and human right law cases internationally, with clients ranging from expelled political leaders to women enslaved by ISIS. She works closely with the UN, consulting on a number of leading human rights cases in Europe, South Asia, and the Middle East. In 2014, Clooney and her husband founded The Clooney Foundation for Justice, which has supported a number of causes related to human rights. They’ve donated their money and efforts to causes such as refugee crises, mass shootings, and human rights abuses, and provide girls with education through scholarships and development in Lebanon.
The night began with a land acknowledgment by Mahlikah Awe:ri, an award-winning Haudenosaunee Mohawk/Mi’kmaw poet and performance artist. Her opening, which used spoken word, drums, and singing, incorporated discussions of missing and murdered Indigenous women and children. Awe:ri’s words tied together stories of abandonment with messages of unbreakable hope, providing a heartfelt opening to the night.
Next was a surprise visit from Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, who opened the event with comments on Canadian spirit and the “potential of human artistry”. Trudeau seconded the words of Awe:ri, discussing the importance of truth, transparency and a responsibility to maintain both in both policy and social life. An advocate of women and girl’s rights, she quoted Amal, who once mentioned the importance of standing up for other women when discussing equality. Throughout the introductions, there was a common theme of youth representation and engagement.
Most attendees were young women, and Traill and Trudeau both mentioned their commitment to including youth in important public discussions, in order to develop policies that encourage youth to become engaged with their communities. Tickets sold for the event subsidized youth from the Junior Economic Club and the Girls E-Mentorship program to attend for free. The notions of youth engagement and feminism both came up throughout the conversation. When asked about her idea of gender equality, Clooney said, “To me, feminism is about choice”. A woman’s right to choose - whether it be her marriage, education, or sexual encounters - is something Clooney has supported in both her legal and volunteer work. Specifically, she is currently advocating for Nadia Murad and other Yazidi women enslaved and raped by members of ISIS.
Photo by Nadav Rosenberg for Luminato
Amal’s discussion of the case provided insight to the importance of justice. In the case of ISIS and similar groups, she explained, death should never be the end goal--justice should be. While many states aim only for elimination of ISIS, Clooney and her client are seeking justice. Her clients, who both she and Clooney Sr. applauded for their strength and determination, don’t want to see their perpetrators be killed, but tried for their crimes. While advocating for Murad, she met a young Yazidi boy named “Haz” who escaped ethnic discrimination and danger in Iraq. Passionate about attending college, Amal and George’s family took in the teenager, who now studies at the University of Chicago.
Clooney Sr. brought decades of experience in international journalism to the stage. Connected by their passion for seeking truth, Amal and Nick’s conversation was tied by their own experiences holding those in power accountable. Both spoke with nonpartisan but truthful words; criticizing inhumane policies both in America or abroad. Unsurprisingly, a significant topic was the international refugee crisis and corresponding policies. “Frankly, I think it’s shameful,” Amal commented on the treatment of immigrant families on the US border. When asked about her opinions on the controversial policy, she thought for a moment before simply replying: “I am a refugee.” “I am so grateful to have been able to enter a country that showed compassion to me,” she explained. Compassionate policy, for immigration and beyond, was a recurring idea that night.
From Trudeau’s comments on Canadian spirit to Awe:ri’s words of strength and heartfelt responses from both the Clooneys, the tough discussions of the evening were made with a hopeful tone. The casual tone of conversation allowed for truth, whether happy or not, fulfilling the goals of the evening and the festival, and leaving a refreshing optimism about the power of engaged people everywhere.
Maitland Shaheen is a Level volunteer and incoming senior at the University of Ottawa, studying a joint honours BA in Communication and Political Science. An aspiring lawyer, she is passionate about human rights, feminism and justice