Looking back on my summer at Equitas

By: Nathalie Laflamme

The few months I worked as an Education Intern at Equitas went by in a flash. In some ways, the internship almost seemed too short, and yet, as I look back, I realize just how much work we were able to accomplish in such a short period of time during the three-week-long International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP). I thought I could use this blog post to write a little more about exactly what my role was during my internship, and to give you a better idea of what it was like to be a part of the IHRTP.

Before the IHRTP

In the first month of my internship, I worked at the Equitas office, located right by McGill campus. All the interns – 2 Education Interns, 9 Coordination Interns, and 1 Communications Intern – shared one conference room. It goes without saying that we all got to know each other quite fast. The funky ice breakers (or “energizers,” as they are called at Equitas) we did every day after lunch definitely helped our friendships blossom. During this time, my main task was working on a lengthy and fascinating report, which compiled much of the information incoming participants included in their Pre-Training Assignments. Using this information, I was able to write a report which included sections such as most prominent human rights violations, separated by geographic location. While this was a lengthy, often quite technical task, I found myself completely engrossed by the information provided by participants. The 40-page report is one of the things I am most proud of accomplishing during my internship. I learned so much about different parts of the world I previously knew nothing about, and got to learn it directly from the mouths of experts—it was unlike any learning I had ever done before.

All the Equitas interns! Photo by Michael Cooper/Equitas.

This task also allowed me to learn so much about the participants before meeting them. Not only did I learn their names, but I also got to learn about their organizations, the projects closest to their hearts, and their reasons for wanting to take part in the IHRTP. This also turned the first week of the IHRTP into a fun mental puzzle for me—putting faces to names was a neat experience, to say the least!

During the IHRTP

I blinked, and then we were moving to John Abbott College. I must say that it is impossible to list all the tasks I completed during the IHRTP, as there was so many and they were often quite technical. The days were filled to the brim with task after task, making for a very interesting—and definitely never dull—work environment. My main tasks consisted of setting up rooms for plenary presentations and working with resource persons to make sure their presentations went smoothly. During the plenary sessions, the other Education Intern and I would take notes (one in French and the other in English) that we would later publish on the Equitas Community (a forum for IHRTP participants), with translated PowerPoint presentations and other relevant documents. We also worked closely with Facilitators—former IHRTP participants who lead the small group sessions that participants take part in during the day—to make sure they had all the materials they needed. This involved many last-minute runs to the store to buy markers and flip charts. We also did instantaneous translations during many events, which was so much harder than I thought it would be. Additionally, I ran evaluations at the end of every “stream,” which is what Equitas calls the chapters of the program. This involved many hours working with participants in the computer labs, where I assisted them to make sure they completed the surveys.

A photo of me taken for the 2017 IHRTP photo campaign. Photo by Gabrielle Vendette/Equitas.

If this does not seem like much, I can guarantee quite contrarily that the days were packed. At the end of every day, when the intern in charge of driving the van back to Montreal texted everyone saying they were leaving, I was always left scrambling, hoping I had one more hour to finish up. The pace was like nothing I’ve experienced before (and I have worked in very stressful work environments!), but I must say that it was a pace that made me more productive than ever.

The IHRTP allowed me to meet so many incredible, passionate human rights defenders. While I was introduced to the facilitators on the very first day of their orientation during a meeting, I met most participants during meals, or at IHRTP events, and even sometimes while playing soccer! My biggest regret is not spending more time getting to know them. Getting to meet all of these amazing people was by far the highlight of working at Equitas for me.

I also had the privilege of spending some time in the classrooms while assisting a participant living with a disability. This allowed me to see the participative approach Equitas uses in action while also getting an intimate look inside the program. The program does not use a “classic” teaching style where a teacher lectures the class. Instead, a facilitator and co-facilitator facilitate the activities in the classroom. Participation is crucial, as participants are the true experts. The program works so well because participants get to learn from one another. The small groups are also purposely diverse to create an interesting blend of ideas and experiences. Participants learn through various interactive techniques so getting bored is not an option—the schedule is packed with activities. While in the classroom, I got to see all of this in action, and I have to say that it had me questioning whether a similar system could somehow be integrated into the law school curriculum.

The next thing I knew, the departures weekend was among us and it was time to say goodbye. I volunteered to help drive participants back to the airport, which allowed me to spend a few more minutes with the them. I truly hope I will have the pleasure of seeing some of these amazing people again in the future.

After the IHRTP

Returning to the Equitas offices once the internship was completed felt very odd. It was almost like that feeling we got as children when returning home from sleep-away camp. We all missed the participants, and generally the lively atmosphere of the IHRTP. Still, I had a lot left to wrap up in a very short time, so those last few weeks with the interns, back in our old conference room, flew by too. During this time, I mainly finished translating and uploading documents to the Equitas Community.

Looking back

Working with Equitas this summer was an unforgettable experience. Never in my life have I been in such an action-packed, diverse, multi-lingual environment, and I doubt I ever will again. I went into my internship knowing very little about human rights education or its crucial role in the protection of human rights on a global scale, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to learn so much about it. This is a topic I plan to further delve into this semester with my research. And, who knows, maybe one day I will work with some of the amazing human rights defenders and educators I met at the IHRTP.

Here is a photo of all the participants, facilitators, co-facilitators, staff, interns and volunteers at the IHRTP. Photo by Michael Cooper/Equitas.

“What’s it like, up North?”

Jones Rebecca

Rebecca Jones

This post is a reflection of my own personal experiences and it is not my intention to make generalizations about life in the Yukon or in the North.

Before I left for my internship, I received a lot of unsolicited well-meaning advice about what Northerners were like, how expensive my groceries were going to be, and how to handle bear attacks. Luckily, I never had to figure out that last one (although I did have a few close encounters with large foxes). Thinking about the Yukon conjured images of Ted Harrison’s colourful and vibrant artwork[1], a few vague historical facts about the Gold Rush, and the line from Robert Service’s famous poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun…”[2]. People’s reactions when they learned that I would be spending some time up North ranged from surprised and concerned to curious and confused. During my time in the Yukon, I was often asked by friends and family from back home: “So what’s it like, up North?”

I was excited to spend a summer in the Yukon; several years ago, I had travelled across the country for a Canada-wide art project without enough funding to make it to any of the Territories. I knew that the North was unique and that, as “southerners,” we are sometimes guilty of forgetting that it exists. I certainly do not remember learning much about the Yukon, other than a brief history of the Gold Rush, despite growing up in British Columbia.

So here are some of my personal observations during my summer in “the North.”

Interaction with wildlife is often a daily occurrence. The city of Whitehorse is small and the various subdivisions are surrounded by forest. A few steps in any direction will take you on a back-country trail or into the woods. Foxes are often seen roaming the city. There are stories of wolves chasing road cyclists and dog-scaring porcupines. Whitehorse residents are frequently reminded to bear-proof their garbage bins and refrain from leaving out “attractants”. The number of bears that conservation officers have killed this year alone is a stark reminder that this land is not ours and that we are the intruders disturbing the animals’ habitats.[3]

The Yukon River flowing through Miles Canyon.

Many locals that I met were very proud to call themselves “Northerners”. I learned that life up North can sometimes be very challenging and unforgiving due to extreme weather conditions, remoteness, and lack of resources. Early on in the summer, I arrived at the grocery store to discover empty shelves with no fresh produce and a simple note from the staff – it instructed customers to return in a few days because the produce truck had a flat tire and would not make its scheduled delivery time. Several locals explained to me that this was not an uncommon occurrence and that sometimes the trucks can’t make it in because the road is washed out due to weather. That being said, Whitehorse is one of the most Southern communities in the Yukon and quite easily accessible compared to fly-in communities in the Territory, such as Old Crow, where people who visit often bring fresh produce with them as gifts.

I experienced the infamous Northern hospitality from everyone I met – perhaps, due in part to the demands of life in the Yukon and in part to the nature of living in a small community. It started with my new roommate picking me up from the airport at 1:00 am. People were eager to show me around, lend me their outdoor gear, or share a meal. Everywhere I went I was made to feel welcome. During my first few weeks, I was quite taken aback at people’s generosity. I actually remember my big-city roots thinking that “there must be a catch.” After a few weeks, it became my new normal.

About 25% of the Yukon’s population is Indigenous.[4] The Gold Rush, the building of the Alaska Highway during World War II, and the residential school system have all permanently impacted these First Nations in various ways. The Yukon is unique in that the majority of it was never subject to Canadian government treaties until a Final Agreement was signed in 1990.[5] This lack of treaties allowed for Yukon First Nations to work with the Canadian government to negotiate land claims and self-government agreements. 11 out of the 14 First Nations in the Yukon have Self-Government Agreements which allow the First Nations to “make and enact laws in respect of their lands and citizens, to tax, to provide for municipal planning, and to manage or co-manage lands and resources”.[6] I spoke with a few First Nations people working in their Nations’ Justice Departments and they described their association with the territorial government as a “Nation-to-Nation” relationship. The oldest Self-Government Agreements have only been in effect since 1995 which means that devolution processes and capacity-building are still underway.

View from the top of the Venus Mines hike to explore an historic mining structure from an old silver mine.

I had the privilege of meeting with a member of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation Justice Department and she explained some of their current and long-term community justice initiatives, including the development of their own court system, child welfare programs, and community security officers. Throughout this conversation, I was reminded that it is often important for justice initiatives to have a local focus. Canada is hugely diverse in its geography, demography and histories. It is easy to imagine how certain legal instruments developed in other jurisdictions would have different impacts here and fail to take into consideration the distinctiveness of Yukon realities. In my previous blog post, I spoke about my experience at the Re-Visioning Justice conference which provided a forum for Yukoners to come together to discuss systemic discrimination and access to justice issues. These inter-disciplinary initiatives listen to and amplify community voices to promote local participation in forging solutions.

A conference for Yukon lawyers to explore the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Report’s Calls to Action in their law practice.

When locals would ask how long I was in the Yukon, they would chuckle at my response and reply, “That’s what I said 25 years ago!”. Perhaps they are right. There is something magical and captivating in the wild beauty of the Yukon. I hope that I am fortunate enough to return one day and eventually travel to other parts of the North.

At the top of Grey Mountain just outside of Whitehorse.

View of glaciers in Kluane National Park, one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world.

Hiking in Tombstone Territorial Park.

[1] https://tedharrison.ca/

[2] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45081/the-cremation-of-sam-mcgee

[3] http://whitehorsestar.com/News/summer-of-2017-has-claimed-dozens-of-bears

[4] http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-656-x/89-656-x2016012-eng.htm

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

[6] https://cyfn.ca/agreements/self-government-agreements/

the oppression tree

Early in the summer at CLD, I volunteered to write an open letter to the Minister of Public Works and Procurement regarding an “interim prohibitory order” (IPO) she had issued against James Sears, the editor-in-chief of a particularly abhorrent publication called “Your Ward News.” I would suggest you look up the publication (TW: anti-Semitism, racism misogyny, general white supremacy), but I don’t know if you want that in your search history.

The IPO, issued in 2016 and under review in 2017, prevents Sears from receiving or posting any mail. It was issued pursuant to s. 43(1) of the Canada Post Corporation Act, which allows the Minister to step in when they have reasonable grounds to believe that someone is using the postal service to commit a criminal offence. In Sears’ case, Minister Judy Foote’s office stated that it had reasonable grounds to believe that Sears was committing the criminal offences of defamatory libel and wilfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group under ss. 300 and 319(2) respectively of the Criminal Code. The Minister did not identify the specific articles or comments which she and her office considered to be libellous or to constitute hate speech.

When I first read about the IPO, my gut response was “Good. You go, Judy.”

I mean Sears is (in my unprofessional and unclinical opinion) a narcissist. And if not, he is definitely racist and definitely harbours some deeply entrenched and alarming beliefs about male superiority.

In addition to being the “editor-in-chief” of a publication I don’t even want to legitimize by characterizing as rag, he considers himself a professional pickup artist. He goes by the name “Dimitri the Lover” and runs “seduction workshops” through the “Toronto Real Men” club, which he refers to “the world’s FIRST and ONLY Seduction Lair” (emphasis in original).

James is also a former physician but was ultimately stripped of his medical licence in 1992 after a long history of sexual impropriety towards female patients. He, in fact, pled guilty to two counts of sexual assault, though those convictions were overturned and an acquittal entered on appeal.

Needless to say, I was not super comfortable with the idea of writing a letter in support of this dude. So why did I volunteer to write it? Because it’s good practice. By virtue of the nature of their role, lawyers are bound to represent interests that are not their own and argue the law even when they don’t agree with it. This is particularly true of defenders of civil liberties. I’m sure Sukanya Pillay, Executive Director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, has no particular desire to be associated with the views of James Sears, but she has spoken up on his behalf nonetheless. As a student particularly interested in criminal law, I figured I’d better get used to navigating these situations

It was a great learning opportunity. I became familiar with the arguments commonly used in support of “free speech”. One argument that came up time and again was that “people don’t have a right not to be offended”. I have a hard time with this one. Such an argument denies that there are real issues and rights at stake. Further, this argument too often betrays the privilege of the speaker and their failure to understand the self-sustaining character of systems of oppression. The dissemination of prejudicial speech is harmful not because it’s offensive, but because it legitimizes and reinforces the systems of oppression at the root of social inequality and discrimination.

I recently participated in an anti-oppression workshop in which the facilitators analogized various systems of oppression to a tree. The objective of the exercise was to impress upon participants the complexity and rootedness of these systems. I believe (or suspect) that the exercise was inspired by ‘The Tree of Patriarchy’ metaphor, which appeared in sociologist Allan G Johnson “The Gender Knot”. In our adaptation, the leaves of the tree represented discrete moments of discrimination – manifestations of prejudice. The branches were the beliefs and values that underlie these moments and which are in turn supported by institutions, represented by the trunk. Far more than just words, hateful or discriminatory speech is an expression of the values and ideas reflected in our institutions. Ultimately, systems of oppression are rooted in deeply entrenched normative theories and principles about human nature and the operation of society. In the same way that a tree is fed by both its roots and leaves, systems of oppression are self-sustaining

But what happens when we strip away the branches – when we censor harmful expression? Would it just create a “PC culture” – as the facilitator referred to it – or would it have an impact in creating a more just society?

…sounds like a term paper.

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