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Close to Home


By Sarah Grace Ross

Unlike the majority of my fellow interns, my placement is not only within Canada, but in the very city where I was born: Toronto.

Despite having lived away from Toronto for a few years, it hasn’t taken long for me to become reacquainted with the city. From the neighbourhoods that my friends live in, to the best roti you can find, I know Toronto.

So with the start of my internship at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, I was curious to find out what it would mean to work in human rights so close to home. My first realization during the internship was that while I know Toronto, I only know my Toronto, which is one version among millions. My internship was situated in a very different Toronto, one nested in the intersection of health and law, where I would be conducting legal research and policy advocacy for a segment of the population that, I came to realize, I didn’t know at all.

I had never met someone who was openly HIV+. Further, the only two public figures with HIV or AIDS that I could bring to mind were Freddy Mercury and Magic Johnson, a pretty short list. Fortunately, my first week at the Legal Network coincided with their annual symposium, where I met activists, mobilizers, lawyers, volunteers, and many individuals living with HIV. It became clear that while I would be working in a familiar city, everything about this job was going to feel new.

I was prepared to feel appalled at the human rights abuses of people living with HIV abroad, but as I began my first legal research projects, I realized there were many elements of living with HIV in Canada that were worse than I thought. After Russia and the United States, Canada is one of the most aggressive prosecutors of people living with HIV. Worse still, the criminal charge in non-disclosure cases is aggravated sexual assault, one of the most serious offences in the Criminal Code. Past interns have written thorough blogs about disclosure, which is when someone is legally required to disclose their HIV status prior to sexual activity. Advocates such as the Legal Network argue that the criminal justice response is heavy handed and does not reflect scientific advances regarding HIV transmission risks. Studies show that maintaining an undetectable viral load through HIV medication makes the risk of transmitting the virus effectively non-existent.

The publication’s cover photo is from the 1990 Montreal Sex Garage riots.

A few years ago, Canada’s criminal justice approach to disclosure sparked an underground, anonymous, grassroots publication titled How to Have Sex in a Police State. The publication surfaced online in 2015 and provides tips on how a person can access support from the health care system without triggering surveillance from the criminal justice system in the process. The fact that these two systems are interconnected is a huge problem; people should not have to choose between health care and privacy. Since violence, stigma, and discrimination are a reality for many people living with HIV, the publication encourages individuals to protect themselves from potential criminal charges, for example by having proof of their HIV status disclosure (such as screenshots of text messages) or even going so far as having a signed waiver for sexual partners.

There’s an often-used slogan that captures the connection between the health care and criminal justice systems: ‘take the test, risk arrest’. I heard the slogan mentioned a few times during the symposium last month, which made me suspect that the ‘police state’ described in the publication was still a reality for some people living with HIV today, even in large, arguably progressive cities like Toronto. ‘Take the test, risk arrest’ refers to the assumption that whoever is diagnosed with HIV first is presumed to have brought it into the relationship. This misattribution of infection is particularly stigmatizing for vulnerable women whose diagnosis may take place as a result of prenatal care or other routine visits to the doctor. The fear of partner retaliation upon discovering HIV or risking criminal charges related to disclosure can lead vulnerable women to seek prenatal care at very late stages in their pregnancy, to stay in an abusive relationship, or to deter testing.

I haven’t been surprised to see flagrant HIV-related human rights abuses in my international research projects. But the extent to which a segment of the Canadian population has to intentionally protect itself from the criminal justice system on a health matter gives me pause. It troubles me to imagine that in my own city, people living with HIV are, even if unintentionally, treated as a threat from which criminal laws are meant to protect. Are people living with HIV not worthy of protection too? Or an even simpler question: what does criminal law have to do with HIV anyway?  Even when a person’s viral load is undetectable due to medication and therefore untransmittable, their sexual activities are subject to surveillance. Safe sex should be about protecting the health of one’s self and partner, not about protecting one’s self from the long arm of the law.

On Oceans, Borders and Belonging

Jessye Kilburn

“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is clearly Ocean.” (Arthur Clarke)

Recent birthday celebrations for Québec, Canada, the US and France have made me reflect on borders and what they mean in both our imaginations and our laws. Whether marked by shoreline, waterway, fence or wall, national boundaries have a profound impact on our freedom of movement and our sense of identity.

These national holidays have induced a slight identity conflict. Though I’m thankful for Canada, how do I celebrate July 1st when the date represents 150 years of the imposition of colonial borders and a colonial state? How do I celebrate 150 years of borders that still turn away too many refugees? How am I so lucky to have a visa to work in the USA this summer, when so many others are turned away? Can I celebrate St Jean Baptiste when I’m not really québecoise, though it’s been my home for almost 7 years? And how on earth did I end up celebrating Bastille Day for the first time ever from a parking lot in downtown Denver?!

Amidst my personal reflections on borders and belonging, thoughts from my internship work on maritime governance began to seep into the mix. In a sense, oceans and waterways are what connect our nations, in contrast to the borders that divide. The root word of ‘territory’ means ‘land’ in Latin (like «terre» en français), and the concept of national territory is rooted to that of land.

Borders, territorial sovereignty, and national jurisdiction do not work as well on sea as they do on land, despite the efforts of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to draw various kinds of boundary lines on the world’s waters. Sparse state control and scarce state responsibility can mean both opportunity and danger for those who work and travel on the open seas.

In some ways, the sea means opportunity. The lack of state control on the world’s oceans provides the opportunity for migrants to escape desperate situations in their home countries and have the chance at claiming asylum in a new land. Oceans also provide employment to many, with fisheries and aquaculture assuring the livelihood of about 10-12 percent of the world’s population.

In other ways, the sea means danger. A lack of state control opens the door wide for human rights abuses: from fishermen on boats where labour laws are neither respected nor enforced, to a gruesome murder captured on cellphone video that still remains unprosecuted, to a coast guard shooting with impunity at migrants they were supposed to rescue, the ocean can be a dangerous place.

On the high seas, state accountability often fades into the horizon along with the shore. It is not uncommon to have a ship that is (for example) owned in China, flagged by the Bahamas, licenced to fish by the Seychelles, and crewed by a mixture of Filipinos, Indonesians and Sri Lankans. It becomes easy for states to avoid accountability when they can always point the finger at someone else, and countries less likely to exercise oversight are often the ones chosen as flag states. This makes human security at sea a trans-jurisdictional problem, in a system where responsibility is primarily state-based. Seafarers, fishermen, and migrants—usually from non-western countries—are the ones who slip through the cracks.

My slight feeling of displacement and identity disjunction around mid-summer national holidays pales in comparison to the ways in which some people’s lives move with the open seas. Researching maritime law from landlocked Colorado—just about as far as you could get from the sea in North America—I feel a sensory disconnect from those to whom these laws apply. I know the black texts of law written on the whiteness of a page, but I don’t know the colour of the stories that are woven around them.

The closest I can get is the blue of this Colorado mountain lake, although it is so far removed from the ocean. Eventually, these waters flow down through Mexico and the western US to the Pacific, where they’re joined by waters from my homeland, British Columbia, and perhaps eventually even from my adopted land, Québec. Once the fresh water has intermingled with the salt, who can tell anyway? Unlike us humans, the waters don’t get territorial.

The blue space on the map provides a beautiful metaphor for our interconnectedness, as Lights sings so eloquently:

“No matter how far we get
Oceans we are in still connect
And when the currents circle back again
They’ll carry us with them
To the arms of the same sea”

I cannot fully make sense of the ways in which our world is both globally intertwined and sharply divided, and I cannot single-handedly address all the injustice this creates. But I want to remember that—in some small way—my work here in Colorado is connected to all of it.

(And, hey McGill—when I get back to school in the fall, I swear I’ll never laugh at the word “transsytemic” ever again….except maybe at Skit Nite…)

Blog Post 1: First Lessons and Impressions

By: Sara E.B. Pierre

A few months preceding my internship, I saw a news story on my Facebook page about how the President of a small country in West Africa accepted defeat after 22 years of dictatorship, but quickly changed his mind. The President’s name was Yahya Jammeh, and the country was The Gambia – where my internship was taking place in the summer. For a long time after this news, I was not sure whether the internship would happen. In the end, Jammeh was pressured enough to accept defeat and left the country. I did some more research on him before I left for The Gambia. It was only later that I found out how the Gambians I saw on my screen, cheering him in the streets, were forced to do so every time he made a public appearance. Through my work, I started to realize how he ruined the reputation and endangered the health of those he claimed to have personally healed of AIDS, and how terrifying it must have been to live in a place where any member of your family could go missing and be tortured without ever getting any answers.

   

The first week of May I was greeted into the New Gambia. Billboards, T-Shirts and graffiti all proclaimed, “Gambia Has Decided”. I saw people selling smartphone data plans, shoes and fruit on the side of the street, I saw monkeys waiting for a safe time to cross those same streets, and I saw vultures resting on top of the street lights. I ate mangoes every day and soaked in the sun at the beach.

On my first day of work I took multiple taxis which have designated stops, kind like the public transportation system I was used to back in Montreal. After getting lost and telling the taxi driver I was working in human rights, I was dropped off at the African Human Rights Commission. This was not actually my workplace. It was, however, as I would soon come to realize, the place our complaints (“Communications”) would sometimes be sent, seeking redress for those across the continent whose rights have been violated by their government. Some cases and presentations I have done research for include those advancing the complainant’s right to health, right to work, right to not be tortured, right to education and to freedom of expression. These, and many more, are enshrined in a Charter I have gotten more and more familiar with over the months – the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The part that I find most impressive about this Charter (which was set up in The Gambia itself), is that it not only protects civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, but it also protects group rights (such as the right to a “generally satisfactory environment”), and lays out duties incumbent upon these same individuals and peoples.

After a very friendly Gambian woman helped me find my actual workplace, I realized it was only a short walk away from the Commission. We walked past the roundabout (adorably named “Turn Table”) and found The Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHDRA).

I was impressed with the pan-African non-governmental organization even before I arrived in The Gambia. Besides reading about their mission to defend, educate, and inform, what struck me most was how they included professional pictures of staff members, such as the gardener and cook, on their staff page. The idea that justice and the fight for human rights involves so much more than what superstar lawyers do is a big lesson that I am learning. At our staff meeting, we all had the chance to say what we had been working on, whether this had to do with the organization’s website, a conference someone would be presenting at, or making sure we have clean and running water. When everyone’s voice was heard, I felt there was transparency, accountability and fellowship. The value of these things cannot be dismissed because it reinforces the underlying truth that we, those who work to uplift the dignity of human beings, are not there to “save” or “fix” anyone; we are there to build safer and more just communities, and to empower people. And what a better way to project that vision than by reflecting it in the way we uplift our own neighbours?

 

Post #2

Caroline Lavoie

By Caroline Lavoie

Hi everyone,
In my last post, I didn’t say much about where I was actually interning this summer. So here is some information and thoughts about Morocco’s National Human Rights Council (CNDH)!

The CNDH was founded in 2011 by the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, in the context of a significant wave of protests (known as the February 20th Movement) that took place in Morocco, inspired by the Arab Spring. Its mission is to promote and protect human rights in the country. It does so by conducting research, advising the government, cooperating with national and international human rights organisations, doing advocacy work, conducting awareness-raising activities, promoting a culture of human rights in the country and by responding to allegations of human rights violations submitted by citizens. The CNDH receives thousands of such complaints a year, about a number of different types of violations- allegations of mistreatment in detention centres and violations of the right to peaceful protest are just a few examples. The Council does not have the power to enforce human rights laws when an allegation is proven- its role is to ensure better access to justice for victims and monitor whether justice is being served.

During my internship, I noticed very little coordination and cooperation between the different departments of the CNDH. This was unfortunate for me, as I would have liked to have learned more about the institution’s procedures regarding complaints of human rights violations, which are handled by the Department of Protection. Working in the Department of Cooperation and International Relations, I felt very removed from the human rights situation ‘on the ground’ in Morocco, and had little sense of what the CNDH did to protect and promote human on a practical level. Nonetheless, this in itself was an important learning experience for me- it made me realize that ultimately, I think I prefer working in smaller organisations where I can have a more direct relationship with people affected by human rights issues.

Since I didn’t post pictures last time, I’ll end this post with a few of Rabat!

Like Montreal, the city has beautiful public art.

Street markets are very common, and active late into the night.

The beach! 

Access to Justice and Health Services for Women in Rural Uganda

by Jillian Ohayon

I came to Uganda this summer to work as an intern for the Center for Health, Human Rights, and Development in the city of Kampala. I want to use this post to focus mostly on one aspect if the work that I have done here, and will likely use the next to write more generally about life in Kampala (which, spoiler alert, has been pretty amazing and an incredible experience of self-growth).

The Center for Health, Human Rights, and Development is an organization comprising about thirty employees. Most of them are lawyers, although vital members of the organization also include administrators, research officers, communications officers, and accountants. CEHURD has three programs which generally function separately from one another, though they are intentionally and intrinsically interlinked. They are Community Empowerment; Research, Documentation, & Advocacy; and Strategic Litigation. In Ugandan NGO terms, I have come to understand that CEHURD is a rather well-known name, despite it being a young organization of only about seven years.

I began my time at CEHURD by attending a court session regarding Ugandan tobacco laws with the Strategic Litigation team, but was soon after incorporated into a project with the Community Empowerment program. This will be a two-year long project supported by The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). CEHURD’s project is under a PEPFAR partnership with the DREAMS project, which stands for “Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe Women.” The DREAMS goal is to create country-owned and country-driven sustainable programs to address the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa. The vision is to combine evidence-based approaches with regards to the structural drivers that directly affect adolescent girls and young women in their risk of contracting HIV. This is where CEHURD comes in. CEHURD’s fieldwork on the DREAMS project involves going into villages to interview adolescent girls and young women as well as a variety of stakeholders. The work is focused predominantly on access to HIV services and the legal and societal context surrounding sexual assault. Due to the societal framework and corresponding views prevalent in rural Uganda, young women who are village dwellers are heavily susceptible to sexual assault. This, in turn, drastically heightens their risk of contracting HIV.

My work on this project began in the Kampala office, where I wrote a literature review for the Community Empowerment team. I researched past work that had been done on this topic, and noted the successes, failures, and recommendations that came out of those studies. This helped to shape and inform the fieldwork. I was also involved in editing and writing many of the research tools for the interviews we conducted in the field. Once the surveys were completed and the stakeholders had been mobilized, I joined the team to spend a week in the district of Gomba, about three and a half hours outside of Kampala. We visited three villages where we interviewed adolescent girls and young women, as well as various stakeholders, including police officers, parole officers, healthcare providers, NGO officers, and various members of local government. I had the opportunity to engage both with the stakeholders and women alike.

Village of Kanoni, District of Gomba

sitions in local government. In relative terms, these interviews were relatively encouraging experiences. Most spoke English very well, and they were all quite highly educated. They were also all quite familiar with the prevalence of HIV among adolescent girls and young women in their district, and seemed to have been very aware the structural drivers that perpetuate the problem. They shared with me their plans and programs that are being developed to address the problem, and all of them seemed serious and committed to the work. I am confident that CEHURD will be able to work with them toward the implementation of programs that will improve upon this situation in a significant way.

Health Facility Assessment

On my last day, I conducted a facility assessment, which took the form of an interview with the in-charge at a health facility in the village of Mamba. Luckily, I had been given a detailed assessment tool, because if I had been told to assess this facility according to my own standards, I’m not sure how I would have proceeded. The health facility does not have a doctor. From what I understood, the in-charge is trained in nursing, and, occasionally, they have a midwife come by. The facility has no electricity, no bathrooms, no running water, and had run out of stock on about half of its medication. Unfortunately, CEHURD’s area of expertise does not lie directly in facility improvement. From what I understand, it is the government that is responsible for that.

Interviews with Adolescent Girls and Young Women

In total, I surveyed 17 girls. 15 of them were transactional sex workers, all of whom were in relationships, some of whom were married, and all of whom had been tested and were HIV negative. I asked them questions about their experiences with gender-based violence, ranging from verbal abuse to being violently forced into sex using a weapon. Only one of the 17 told me she had never experienced any abuse, and the translator seemed to think that she wasn’t telling the truth. One of the girls, after I asked her whether her husband insults her and humiliates her in public, looked deeply confused, and then replied, “Of course.” Others laughed when I asked whether or not their partners had ever slammed them against the wall as if to say, “What kind of a question is that? Doesn’t that happen to everyone?”
To say the least, it was a lot to process.

One main issue that revealed itself from the interview responses we received is the lack of access to justice and the necessary HIV services in cases of sexual assault. The problems that amount to this issue are extensive and interlinked. Girls are very often married off at a young age in order to bring money to their families. If a girl has been sexually assaulted, she may be considered impure and possibly not suitable for marriage. Therein lies the first problem. Next, there is a 72-hour window in which a person can visit a clinic after sex in order to get the medication that would prevent HIV had they contracted it. However, since many girls are too afraid to tell anybody when they have been assaulted, and are also unaware of the 72-hour window, many do not receive the proper preventative care. Furthermore, most of the women with whom I spoke told me that they were too afraid to tell police officers about their experiences with sexual assault. They fear not being believed, being stigmatized, and having to face the anger of their perpetrator and/or their families. Furthermore, often, private negotiations will take place between the victim’s family and the perpetrator, and so the perpetrator is rarely formally punished. Beyond this, even if a victim does go through with the process of successfully filing a police report, there are two related access to justice problems that lie beyond that. The first is that the only court that hears those cases is quite a significant distance away from the village, and transport is both inconvenient and costly. The second is that the law states that the health worker who examines the victim after the assault took place must testify at the hearing. However, there exists no means of compensation for the worker’s time or transportation. Therefore, the large majority of the time, the health worker simply does not show up. When this happens, the case is thrown out.

***

On a more personal note, I have to say that as emotionally challenging as it was, speaking with these girls and women was a humbling privilege. Despite the hardships they shared with me, I sensed nothing but kindness and positivity radiating from them.


I sincerely hope that the empowerment programs that CEHURD implements will effect real change in the lives of these girls and women. Given the passion, focus, and dedication of the Community Empowerment team, I have faith that they just might.

Sunset over Lake Walamo in the village of Mamba

Divisional Court as a small world: cultural homogeneity or a forum for dialogue?

 

“Small world,” remarked another Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) summer student sitting next to me. We were looking around the Ontario Divisional courtroom at Osgoode Hall in Toronto and we were both waving at or pointing out friends and acquaintances dotted across the wooden benches.

“Ah, there’s my friend Ella, I guess she’s working at the firm that’s doing pro bono for another intervenor.”

“Oh, there’s my classmate Sean, I forgot that he’s at the Attorney General this summer.”

“Woh, I think that woman pleading right now is a cousin of my good friend Dave!”

We’d taken the day out of the CCLA office to sit in on closing arguments for Christian Medical and Dental Society (CMDS) v College of Physicians and Surgeons (CPSO), a constitutional challenge to policies requiring that doctors give “effective referrals” when the doctors are themselves religiously or morally opposed to certain procedures—procedures like abortion and doctor-assisted dying.

CMDS’ counsel was arguing that with the new requirement that they give referrals, CPSO is making medical professionals decide between their religious beliefs and their professional role, and hence infringing their section 2(a) freedom of religion Charter rights. CPSO, on the other hand, asserted that the rules around effective referrals adequately balance the competing rights and freedoms with the statutory objective, maintaining access to healthcare services, while only minimally impairing certain physicians’ freedoms.

Fascinating though the case may have been (and may continue to be once the decision is rendered and potentially appealed), what I initially took away from the courtroom was an eerie feeling of cultural homogeneity. In part by virtue of my attendance at a central-Canadian law school, I was acquainted with a sizeable percentage of the people in the room before I walked in the door. Drawn largely from an urban, white, progressive background, a set of like-minded folks appeared to fill the benches.

But what dawned on me as the day unfolded was that not everyone in the room was cut from the same cloth. After speaking over the lunchtime adjournment to a couple of students and young lawyers whom I did not recognize, I realized the intervenors and partisan spectators on the other side of the argument brought with them noticeably more religious and conservative worldviews.

It became clear that the demographics were not homogenous after all, but rather reminiscent of a kind of bifurcation that I’d observed while working on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. There, my colleagues in the Parliamentary Internship Programme were generally progressive and more often than not believers in the positive potential of state power. But while we would mostly socialize amongst ourselves on the Hill, the program placed us in both opposition and government offices, at a time when the Harper Conservatives ran the show. I realized through that experience that a steady stream of young conservatives churned through those offices as well, many drawn from evangelical backgrounds and many of them more fiery and committed to politics than I’d previously grasped.

Like on the Hill, the population in the courtroom was lined up mostly along partisan lines, even sitting on different sides of the room. These proceedings could be understood, I realized, as politics in another arena. Charter rights would take the place of policy, judges opinions the place of MP votes—but the crowds would still root for their side and one would temporarily prevail over the other.

What’s more, at least in one framing of the dispute, each side had its own bit of the Charter to root for; the CMDS was rallying behind the importance of the section 2(a) freedom of religion while the CPSO and many of its allies were arguing that section 1 should carry the day, saving any apparent infringing policies in the process.

“Nobody here is doubting the sincerity of your clients’ beliefs,” said one judge to the CMDS counsel in the dying moments of the hearing. The judge was staring the counsel down as if to act out the drama of the Charter, as if to say: yes, your clients have this right but whether it prevails depends upon what we find to be necessary for the functioning of a free and democratic society.

In that courtroom and mediated by the language of law, the perspectives of people like me hopefully came into dialogue with those of people from a markedly different background and set of convictions. In that sense, it would be all of our arguments and sentiments that would constitute the real small world of this case—the microcosm of opinion, arrayed around this particular dispute and working itself out in the reasoning of the judges, striving in their way to do justice to each and to all.

Opinions expressed are my own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the CCLA.

Flagstaff Mountain and the Bluebird


By Monika Erzsebet Berenyi

This poem, penned in the moment, chronicles a glimpse into the experiences and perceptions felt, whilst ascending and descending Flagstaff Mountain. It is a panoramic portrait of the wild and alluring world which informs the current place I call home – Boulder County, Colorado. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Nothing is certain, save for eternity.

In Boulder County,
The sun is rising,
With cadence
And with song.
A clock in space and time,
Set to cradle, this world of beauty.
The certainty of light
Stands the hero here,
Or so the Bluebird tells me.
And one, I dare not miss.

What dances along with Nature,
Therein lies –
A truth so bold.
I am humbled by Her –
Subservient to the call of
Morning calm, and daybreak drawing.
Lines of symmetrical light
Envelope this climb –
To a summit so near, yet to an elsewhere land.
Here, I am one.

The air is cold –
Dangerous at times.
Dense with volume, like a hot air balloon,
I rise through space and time.
The blue hour fades.
There are no constraints.
Only the soft sounds of morning.
So this is rocky mountain high?
The Bluebird nods,
And I surrender.

The elevation is grand,
A mile high if not more, so the locals say.
Calling out for consciousness,
I step higher
Into a realm which touches the sky.
A perfect light comes into the fore
And the sun…
On Flagstaff Mountain,
In Boulder County –
5:37am.

I pass Chautauqua Park.

Columbine rules and foothills meander
Below the great Flatirons on Green Mountain.
Steadfast and careworn,
With glowing permanence –
These “Chautauqua Slabs” – known colloquially,
Are readied for the break of day.
I am awestruck by their faces,
Shifting from tones of pink and orange,
Yellow and red,
With hints of Violet and Magenta Blue.

I coast along,
Cascading lightly –
Around jagged edges,
Bends and Turns.
With moon and sun exchanging faint hellos and goodbyes,
There is no end to higher grounds.
The Bluebird flies ahead,
And the wild woods sing softly.
The wind –
A vortex, untouchable.

Ascending higher,
The portal awaits –
To a space which holds
A thousand shades of Colorado blue.
Indigo
Cobalt
Cerulean
Phthalo
And Viridian reign,
With clouds of powder.

Passing Realization Point,
The compass points toward Tenderfoot Trail.
Beyond a fragrant thicket of Ponderosa Pine –
Blanketing jagged rocks and crags,
The Bluebird –
Perched high,
Calls out from Flagstaff Mountain.
I pause.
I am filled.
I am there – beholden now to the Colorado Continental Divide.

There is no beginning.
There is no end.
Nor will there ever be.

Turning again,
Charged with inspiration,
I take another bend with curve,
Traversing unmarked earth –
Fearlessly,
No ceilings known.
I reach Chapman Drive –
A remnant project of the Civilian Conservation Corps,
Forged during the New Deal,
At the time of the Great Depression.

I reach Morse Well –
Built in 1929.
I then touch down at Flagstaff Stone Shelter,
Continuing toward Sunrise Amphitheatre –
Storied places which conjure
History…
The determination…
The hardship of America…during the 1930s.
I imagine “the” hopes and dreams,
Once vested in these structures.

At 7400 feet, the air is thin.
I recover my thoughts;
I recover my breath.
Acknowledging the Bluebird –
The guide to my morning path,
I turn again,
And face a landscape, ever enduring –
Dotted by the wildflowers of Boulder County.
Grounded and anchored by Flagstaff Mountain,
I enumerate:

Wild Chokecherry
Boulder Raspberry
Miner’s Candle
Common Mullion
Silvery Lupine
Arkansas Rose
Golden Banner
And the Rocky Mountain Phlox.
Burgeoning,
Commanding magnificence.

And the trees, known by name
Leaf and ornamental needle
Stand prudently tall,
Interspersed amongst the Ponderosa Pine.
They are tomes of their own.
Rocky Mountain Maple
Blue Spruce
Limber Pine
Rocky Mountain Juniper
And the great White Fur.

And at times, the animals along the way –
Mule Deer
Elk
White-tailed Deer
Colorado Chipmunk
Deer Mouse
Pine Squirrel
Coyote
Rabbit
And the Prairie Dog.

And the butterflies –
Parnassians
Swallowtails
Whites
Sulphurs
Gossamers – the likes of Coppers, Hairstreaks, Elfins and Blues
Metalmarks
Snouts
Milkweeds
Longwings
True Brushfoots
Admirals and Relatives
Emperors
Satyrs and Wood Nymphs
Spread-wing Skippers
And Grass Skippers.

And to the elements,
Nature’s dear forces –
Which have come to punctuate
These mornings,
So Untamed, so free at will –
Snow
Hail
Wind
Rain
Electricity and Lightening.

With gratitude for Nature,
The presence of Flagstaff Mountain,
And Bluebird as guide,
I look out once more – grateful.
This is Boulder County.
I fill my lungs,
With an expanse and vastness,
An endless panorama –
Colorado.
Is it possible to count such beauty?

Today I draw in words,
Though envision the paintings
And hear the symphonies of sound –
Spawned only on such grounds.
And rest – in knowing,
That before I descend,
The sun will rise,
And tomorrow,
Once again –
I will return to all that Nature holds here.

 

¡Buenos días desde Argentina!

Since I’m the first McGill student to intern in Mar Del Plata, I think it’s appropriate to use my first blog post to describe what life is like here in Argentina.

Mar Del Plata is a city of about 1 million some 400km south of Buenos Aires. The city is known within Argentina as a summer resort spot owing to its beautiful coastline, which stretches for 47km along the Atlantic Ocean (and makes for a spectacular view on morning runs).

One interesting thing about Mardel is that unlike Buenos Aires, which is an international tourist hub, very few tourists come from outside of Argentina. In fact, I’m the first Canadian that most people I know here have ever met. Similarly, English is not widely spoken here, and the only way to learn it is by attending costly private institutes.

The food here is nothing short of incredible—milanesas, empanadas, locros, alfajores, and of course a steak with chimichurri sauce and a bottle of red wine from the Mendoza region of Argentina are must-haves for anybody visiting the country. One thing to know, however, is that supper in Argentina is not normally served until around 9 or 10pm, and trust me, you will be laughed at if you go to a restaurant at 6pm and ask for the dinner menu. Another thing to get used to is that most stores, offices, and buildings close between 1 and 4pm for siesta. Personally, I think a 3-hour naptime is something we should bring to McGill.

MDP offers some of the best nightlife in the country, but a Saturday night out in Argentina is very different from a night out in Canada. An average night on the town consists of meeting up with friends around 1am to catch-up and enjoy a few drinks together. Then, around 3 or 4am, head to the bar, which will only be beginning to get busy. Stay and dance to the hottest Latin-American music until the bar closes at 630am—by the time you get home the sun will be rising, and you’ll probably hungry enough to eat breakfast before going to bed.

Parque Nacional Tierra Del Fuego

Climbing Monte Olivia in Ushuaia

 

Argentina is incredibly geographically diverse. Two weeks ago, I had the amazing opportunity to visit Ushuaia, the capital of the Tierra Del Fuego Province of Argentina, and the southernmost city on the planet. It is the middle of winter there and the temperature hovered around -5 to -10 degrees.

On the other hand, last week I went on a two-day trip to Las Cataratas del Iguazú, breathtaking waterfalls in the north-eastern part of the country along the border of Paraguay and Brazil. The climate in Iguazú was tropical and the temperature reached nearly 35 degrees with the humidity. The distance between Ushuaia and Iguazú is roughly 4,500km. In perspective, this is double the distance from Winnipeg (my beloved hometown) to Montreal.

Iguazú Falls

 

A view from the Brazilian side of the falls

Between Mardel and Iguazú lies Buenos Aires, the largest city in Argentina and one of the largest on the continent. During my 2 day layover between Iguazú and Mar Del Plata, I had the chance to tour some key landmarks of the city: Boca Stadium, the old sea port, and the Recoleta cemetery. Likewise, I made a day trip to Uruguay in order to see Colonia Del Sacramento, which is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

When I returned to Buenos Aires that same evening (July 1st), I went to a Canada Day party organized by the Canadian Embassy where there were over 100 Canadian travellers and expats. At the bar, I got the chance to sit down and have a beer with Robert Fry, the Canadian Ambassador to Argentina and Paraguay. We had some very interesting conversations about my internship, his daily life as an ambassador, and of course argued about which NHL team was the best (go Jets).

Hanging out with some lobos marinos on the beach

Argentine lifestyle, in most respects, is not all that different from life in Canada, but there are a few quirks. One thing that I have noticed is that people here are much more affectionate. For instance, every time you meet someone or see someone you know, instead of shaking their hand, you give them one kiss on the left cheek…Needless to say the first time I met a group of 5 male coworkers, the greeting caught me off guard.

All in all, my experience here in Argentina has been absolutely amazing so far and I’m looking forward to the last few weeks of my internship.

Stay tuned for my next post, where I’ll be providing an update on some of the human rights work I’ve been up to.

¡Nos vemos!

Re-Visioning Justice in the Yukon

Jones Rebecca

By Rebecca Jones

The Yukon Human Rights Commission

This summer I am living in Whitehorse, the land of the midnight sun, and working as a legal intern at the Yukon Human Rights Commission (YHRC). The YHRC is responsible for enforcing the Yukon Human Rights Act, advocating for legislative change, and human rights education and outreach. In general, the Commission performs a “screening” or “gate-keeping” function. When someone enquires about a case of discrimination or harassment the staff at the Commission must first determine whether this person’s inquiry falls under one of the “grounds” (characteristics such as ancestry, sex, religion etc.) and “areas” (employment, service provision etc.) protected under the Yukon Human Rights Act. Generally, if these two criteria are met, and there are no additional jurisdictional issues, then the Commission might investigate the complaint. After investigation, a complaint might be referred to the Board of Adjudication, informal resolution, or might be dismissed. The Board has the power to impose remedies such as compensation, or even mandate human rights education. As a legal intern, I am helping with inquiries (some of which might turn into human rights complaints), investigations of complaints, preparations for hearings in front of the Board of Adjudication, and some legal research and development of educational materials. I am enjoying this opportunity to dive into the intricacies of how a small statutory human rights agency operates.

Working at the office

The Yukon River. This is my view during my bike ride to and from work everyday.

Re-Visioning Justice in the Yukon

A highlight of the first month of my internship at the YHRC was participating in a conference called “Re-Visioning Justice”. The Commission collaborated with other local organizations to hold a conference to address systemic discrimination issues in the Yukon. This event created a space for First Nations governments, the Yukon Government, the RCMP, civil servants, advocates, and citizens to discuss the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Calls to Action. The conference was held at the beautiful Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, by the Yukon River, on Kwanlin Dun and Ta’an Kwӓch’ӓn traditional lands. Each morning, the conference started with an opening prayer that included drumming and singing by the sacred fire. This ritual allowed all participants to come together in solidarity and silent reflection before embarking on the tasks of the day. A main theme of the conference was the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice and child welfare systems.

Dr. Cindy Blackstock, the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and Professor at McGill’s School of Social Work, opened the conference with her passionate keynote speech. As she pointed out, there are more First Nations children in child welfare care than at the height of the residential school system.[1] While provinces fund child welfare for children living off-reserve, the federal government is responsible for funding child welfare on-reserve (ultimately because the federal government is responsible for First Nations on reserves under the Indian Act) and these children have been receiving less funding. As Dr. Blackstock noted, our country has a two-tiered child welfare system where First Nations children on-reserve systematically receive less funding for child welfare services than First Nations children off-reserve.

Dr. Blackstock has been successful in proving that the federal government practices racist fiscal policy; she was responsible for filing a human rights case against the federal government for discrimination against First Nations children living on reserve.[2] I remember excitedly reading this Canadian Human Rights Tribunal landmark case during my first year of law school. Dr. Blackstock fought this case for nearly 10 years with consistent setbacks, mostly due to the federal government trying to argue procedural issues. In one of the decisions, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal even found that the federal government retaliated against Dr. Blackstock by spying on her during the case.[3] Unfortunately, since the decision first came out in 2016, there have been 3 non-compliance orders against the federal government.[4] To this day, Dr. Blackstock continues to fight to ensure that these First Nations children are not forgotten. During her keynote, she spoke about the moral courage that it takes to activate our values and the importance of “having the guts to get into trouble for the right thing”.  She reminded us of the personal sacrifices that sometimes have to be made, and the long-term vision and perseverance required, when engaging in social justice and human rights work.

Another notable conference guest was Effie Snowshoe, a First Nations woman who courageously shared her story as a single mother who struggled to keep her children out of the child welfare system; she eventually lost her son Eddie to suicide while he was in solitary confinement in prison. Unfortunately, Eddie’s story is not unique. His, and his family’s experiences, illustrate how our “justice” system consistently fails Indigenous people and people with mental health issues. The use of solitary confinement and segregation in our correctional facilities is a public health problem. Conference attendees spoke of justice reform requiring public health reform in the way that we approach addiction and mental health issues and trauma. Too often, due to stigma and a lack of social support, people with mental health issues are criminalized which exacerbates their situations. Some jurisdictions across Canada have started revising the use of segregation in corrections by ordering reports and developing guidelines.[5] We still have a long way to go. Overcriminalization is a symptom of a society that lacks the appropriate social services. It is evident that we require a multi-pronged and intersectional approach to reforming our justice system that addresses prevention and early intervention. Moreover, prison reform must look beyond the justice system to address the ongoing legacy of colonization.

Find Your Call: A Workshop Bringing Reconciliation to Life

The day after the conference, the Commission hosted a workshop on reconciliation. The session started with the “Blanket Exercise,” an interactive history lesson and empathy-building experience that walks participants through pre-contact, treaty-making, colonization of Indigenous peoples in Canada and their resistance. [6] Blankets are arranged on the floor to represent the land, and all of the participants imagine themselves as Indigenous people. The Indigenous facilitators step into the role of the colonizers. Several participants are given scrolls to read out different moments in history. As the exercise progresses, blankets are moved or taken away and participants perish from small pox, their experiences in residential schools, and other denials of Indigenous nationhood. During the exercise, participants are told that they can resist. It was painful and powerful to see the few people left near the end splayed out and clinging to their blankets. During the debrief, several participants shared how much energy it took to consistently resist. Another emotional moment occurred when participants were asked to turn their backs on the children who had survived residential schools and who had returned to their communities. This action symbolized the loss of culture and identity that these children experienced and how they struggled to fit back into their families and communities. The most poignant part of the exercise for me was the sharing circle at the end. Half of the participants in our exercise were First Nations, and hearing them share their personal experiences – as survivors of residential school, children of survivors, or children of the Sixties Scoop – was a stark reminder of the ongoing legacy of colonization. As a law student, I was also reminded of the law’s sinister role in implementing and enforcing colonial violence through legislation such as the Indian Act. This exercise acted as an important primer, reminding us to understand where we came from before we start to work together on where we are going.

After the “Blanket Exercise,” UVic Law professor Rebecca Johnson asked us to raise our hands and share five of our favourite Calls to Action. These 94 recommendations, published by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, aim to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of reconciliation.[7] While the public might assume that these calls are only for the government, they engage multiple organizations, institutions, and even individual Canadians. Professor Johnson’s question prompted a humbling, personal realization – despite having read the Calls several times, I had never actually understood the Calls. As the Associate Director of UVic’s Indigenous Legal Research Unit, she introduced us to a particular method of engaging with the Calls by paying attention to the nouns (who is being called) and to the verbs (called to do what). It is only after an in-depth reading of the Calls to Action that I realized how much potential and creativity are captured within these 94 statements.

Final Reflections on Re-Visioning Justice

Throughout my involvement in these events, I noticed repeatedly the frustration expressed by Indigenous people. This frustration sometimes appeared as apathy among some of the elders and as anger among some of the youth, resulting from all the “talk” about reconciliation without substantive action. For years, Indigenous people have been working to de-colonize and re-indigenize. The self-governing agreements signed in the Yukon by 11 First Nations are just one example.[8] Yet progress is slow and the government has stalled. How do we ensure that the TRC does not eclipse the significant work already accomplished by previous generations of Indigenous people? How do we ensure that the TRC Calls to Action do not become another report in a long line of good intentions collecting dust on a shelf? What can I do in my life right now – as a law student, community volunteer, and member of society – to work towards reconciliation? How do we “re-vision” justice when justice has never seemed to exist for certain members of society in the first place?

While I am convinced that I will never have complete answers, I will continue to ask myself these questions. Human rights work consistently requires us to engage with uncertainty.

Downtown Whitehorse, an architectural allusion to the Yukon’s Gold Rush past.

Fish Lake, located a short drive from downtown Whitehorse. Snow and ice still covered this lake at the beginning of May.

Almost at the top of Caribou Mountain.

Looking out at the mountains from the remnants of an old mining structure left over from Sam McGee’s silver mine in 1905.

[1] https://fncaringsociety.com/fncares

[2] First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada et al. v. Attorney General of Canada (for the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada), 2016 CHRT 2.

[3] First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada et al. v. Attorney General of Canada (for the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada), 2015 CHRT 14.

[4] First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada et al. v. Attorney General of Canada (for the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada), 2017 CHRT 14.

[5] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/ottawa-provinces-to-pursue-universal-guidelines-on-solitary-confinement/article35210516/

[6] https://www.kairoscanada.org/what-we-do/indigenous-rights/blanket-exercise

[7] http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=890

[8] https://cyfn.ca/agreements/umbrella-final-agreement/

Elections in Cambodia: Redirecting Forces of Repression into Winds of Change

Rintoul Andrew

By: Andrew Rintoul

As the sun rose over Boeung Tompun in Phnom Penh on a Saturday morning, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporters began arriving in droves. This was the first day of the campaign period, with the elections still several weeks away. Tuk-tuks, moto-bikes, and vehicles were all emblazoned with CNRP motifs while matching hats, shirts and flags were passed around the 10,000 supporters present. Through the lens of a DSLR, I observed supporters celebrating and dancing, honking their horns loudly as smiling spectators waived and asked for party hats to be thrown their way. I listened to the cheers and calls for change in Khmer and popular Cambodian pop songs dubbed over with CNRP-supporting lyrics. I heard a recorded speech of Sam Rainsy, former CNRP leader and now exiled man due to spurious criminal charges pressed against him in Cambodia, through a loud-speaker hitched to the top of a Jeep.

The mood was festive, the people were excited and passionate under the 40-degree sun, and the diverse amalgam of security personnel and military police under the auspices of the CPP did nothing but stand idly by as songs were sung late into the evening.

CNRP supporters cheer in Phnom Penh

It has been nearly one month since the country took to the polls for the first time since 2013. The ruling party, eventually settling on the current name, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has held power in the country since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. For over three decades, Prime Minister Hun Sen has sat at the head of this regime, carefully crafting his image as a pseudo-deity and a generous and supreme leader. His heavy-handed policies and powerful military arm and security forces have been instrumental in maintaining this lustre and preserving the power of his party.

Four years ago, this armour revealed an unexpected crack as the general elections witnessed an extremely close race between the CPP and what has come to be the main opposition, the CNRP. Following results depicting a slight victory for the CPP, CNRP members and outside observers demanded accountability and argued election-rigging. Yet, in what appears to be familiar Hun Sen-style, the storm eventually blew over and the CNRP, which had boycotted the National Assembly for a year, finally came back into the fold and returned as the opposition.

It is this tumultuous political climate that provided the backdrop for the lead-up to the commune elections of June 4th. In the past four years, the voices of opposition supporters and any calls for change disruptive to the status quo have faced a string of new repressive legislation designed specifically for suppressing dissent. Under the guise of vague language such as public order, national security, incitement, colour revolutions, and confusion, new laws have created an arsenal of inaccessible rules giving authorities the capacity to manipulate and arbitrarily apply them to their liking. Human rights defenders are increasingly targeted and vulnerable, as are the organizations which set out to defend them.

CNRP rally through Phnom Penh

The streets seemed eerily quiet on the morning of June 4th. When I arrived at the office, citizens across the country had already been voting for thirty minutes. I quickly took a seat at my desk alongside several others to assist in running the organization’s live-stream of the event as reports and photos from monitors in the field began flooding in. In the afternoon, I accompanied a senior lawyer to a polling station and observed the last of the voters trickling in, followed by a closed-door counting of the ballots. Moments before the counting began, voters had been ushered out of the premises by heavily-armed security personnel who stood guard at the gates until the ballots were fully counted and relocated in transport vehicles.

Security guards sit at a polling station in Phnom Penh

In the weeks following the elections, the atmosphere in the capital has taken on a much different tone. The energy of the pre-election period has faded, likely to come back ten-fold in the national elections next year. According to the official results released last week, the ruling party maintained its grip on power by a large margin, in line with the expected result. Though not victorious, the opposition party made massive gains from the last commune elections, moving from winning only 40 communes in 2012 (combining the wins of the two parties who merged the following year to become the CNRP) to winning 489 out of the 1646 communes this year. Despite its apparently poor performance in the 2012 commune elections, the CNRP still took home 44.46% of the popular vote in the 2013 general elections to the CPP’s 48.83% of the vote; with twelve times more communes won this year, a continuation of the trend could mean a strong victory by the opposition in 2018.

It remains to be seen exactly what the ruling party has in store for the country in the lead-up to next year’s general elections. Certainly, much of this is dependent upon the actions and movements of civil society and the opposition party in the months to come. A glimpse into what may be in store occurred last week as Prime Minister Hun Sen called upon the Interior Ministry to investigate the legality and neutrality of an NGO collective after they reported several concerns over the recent elections. Amidst the uncertainty of the immediate future lies an inevitable truth; repressive legislation and targeted crackdowns will persist, but as they do, they will be met with a resilient and robust civil society capable of redirecting forces of repression into winds of change.

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