VANCOUVER — Eloge Butera has seen some ghastly things in his life – things no one should ever have to experience or witness.
The 29-year-old Rwanda native, who immigrated to Canada in 2002, saw people being hacked to death right in front of him, as well as rape and other brutal acts of violence in the genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda.
Between April and July of 1994, Hutu extremists murdered more than one million Tutsis in Rwanda, among them Butera’s father, grandfather and entire family units of his relatives.
“We were left with broken families, broken memories,” he said. As the first-born son, his family made it their priority to cobble together their savings and send Butera to Canada where he could continue the family name, safe from political violence.
He spoke at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs conference last month in Vancouver in his capacity as an honorary witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which is investigating the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools.
“Part of my job is educating fellow Canadians on this sinister history that’s made so many of our First Nations communities vulnerable to abuse and injustices,” he said. “The way we’ve learned our history of racism visited on the First Nations has been fraught with problems for many years, and it’s encouraging that Canada is finally moving forward and taking positives steps on that front.”
Butera, who graduated from McGill’s Faculty of Law and will be called to the Ontario Bar in September, has been involved in Jewish communities across the country since he first arrived in 2002. Initially, while studying in Winnipeg, he was connected to the Winnipeg Jewish Federation, where he spoke about genocide and met survivors of the Holocaust. “Through that work I met some of the people who have become my lifelong mentors,” he said.
Later, when he moved east to Ottawa and Montreal, he continued his involvement and work in the Jewish community. “The Jewish community became my community,” he explained.
Butera shared with conference attendees his experience of coming to Canada as a new immigrant and being adopted by the Jewish communities in Montreal and Winnipeg.
“I spoke about the kinds of bonds that get created when you take time to listen, hear people’s stories and connect our shared humanity on a deeper level,” he said.
Among his mentors is Mont-Royal Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, who was the minister of justice when Butera first met him in Winnipeg. The two became better acquainted when Butera moved to Montreal to study law.
“I’m very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with him over this past year,” Butera said. “Prof. Cotler has committed his life to pursuing justice in human rights and has been my inspiration, role model and an important guide for a number of years. I continue to learn from him and rely on his wisdom on a daily basis.”
Butera has also been a champion of human rights, using his experience to lecture and build awareness about genocide. Since coming to Canada he has visited Poland on the March of Remembrance and Hope and worked with the Montreal and Vancouver Holocaust Education centres on various educational programs. He was involved with peace education programs with the Israeli Mission in Montreal and took leadership roles in Hillel and Jewish Law Students.
He’s received many accolades for his work, including being chosen by the Quebec government as “Young Volunteer of the Year” in 2009, receiving the Claude-Masson Award to mark his involvement in community life and being honoured with a Sauvé Scholarship in 2009-2010. He plans to continue his work in human rights around the world and hopes someday to teach law “like my mentor, Professor Irwin Cotler – to universities both in Canada and in my native Rwanda,” he says.
Married to a Canadian now, Butera considers this country his home and says his memories of Rwanda are complicated. He’s been back twice since he first left and plans to visit as much as possible. “But I don’t yet know about living there,” he admitted.