Professor wins human rights prize for work with victims of torture

Image of Professor Joan Simalchik
Wednesday, May 9, 2012 - 9:55am
Kimberley Wright

When historian Joan Simalchik arrived at the University of Toronto in 1976, she expected to focus on her Masters studies and to get to know her way around the city. Instead, she met Chilean refugees fleeing Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship and heard horrific stories of torture and oppression.

Simalchik could not turn away. She headed the Canadian Committee for Solidarity with Democratic Chile and campaigned to denounce human rights violations in that country. Then she learned that a colleague had been tortured and held in solitary confinement for five years. “He was taken from his wife, his children, his art, his work, his life,” Simalchik says. “His personality was destroyed: his hair turned completely white.” Galvanized by his story, Simalchik devoted years to human rights work and supporting refugees who had escaped to Canada.

Now a U of T Mississauga history professor and coordinator of the Women and Gender Studies (WGS) program, Simalchik has won the 2012 Ludwik and Estelle Jus Memorial Human Rights Prize. Established in 1995 in memory of two Polish educators who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, this award recognizes Simalchik’s positive and lasting contributions to education and action against discrimination.

Simalchik has helped torture victims from virtually every continent find support, security and a sense of justice, long after their physical injuries have healed. She chairs the Canadian Centre for International Justice (CCIJ) Gender Working Group and is the former Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT). “Thousands of people living in the GTA are victims of torture,” Simalchik says. “The CCVT sees people from over 100 countries, particularly Columbia, Sri Lanka, Somalia and recently Mexico. Growth is not good—it indicates a failure of policy in other areas.”

According to Simalchik, it’s not uncommon for victims of torture to come face-to-face with their abusers who have also migrated to Canada. The CCIJ aims to bring perpetrators to justice and to help survivors feel safe. “Perpetrators need to know that they cannot come here and spend the money they have stolen,” Simalchik says. “They need to know that there is no safe haven in Canada or the US. When they know that, torture abroad will decrease.”

Simalchik brings her zeal for championing human rights to her role as coordinator for UTM’s Women and Gender Studies program. She highlights human rights issues in her courses and challenges students to think critically about the complex ways in which gender, class, race, ethnicity, sexuality and ability affect oppression. With over 250 students in the program and waiting lists for nearly every course, Simalchik plans to add faculty, expand courses and link to St. George’s WGS graduate program to meet the demand for their unique curriculum.

Whether professor or activist, Simalchik brings the stark reality of torture into focus for Canadians. “This award is meaningful for me,” she says. “As a historian, my role is to talk about what torture is, what we can do to help survivors and what we can do to prevent it from happening again.”