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A Kindness Is Never Wasted

Camping at Polly’s Cove. Carrots, contemplation, and oopsy we ruined an engagement photo shoot.

I had a feeling I would jibe with Halifax. I’m an extrovert. I get it from my dad. My family jokes that they can’t send either of us to the grocery store without supervision because we will inevitably see someone we know, or maybe meet someone new, and come back one hour later with no milk.

But here, where the pace of life is slower, I have an outlet for my chattiness. People here are extremely friendly. I have yet to meet someone from Atlantic Canada who defies this stereotype. To illustrate, the other day while out shopping I spent a solid 15 minutes chatting with a store clerk about her work as a photographer and her travel plans. We struck up this conversation because she mistook me for a client of hers—someone she’d taken wedding photographs for—when I walked in the door. Apparently, I have a Haligonian doppelgänger named… Chastity. I’m sure that as the city grows, things will change. But at least for now, it’s pretty perfect.

The Bay of Fundy. I was awestruck. The tide was coming in and I STILL winded myself running to the water. Never mind the deceased seal in the background.

What’s more, Nova Scotia is beautiful. I say this even in spite of my bias in favour of mountains. Last week, my friend took me camping for an evening at Polly’s Cove, right on the ocean side. We set up camp in a natural alcove at the base of a massive granite boulder. After a quick—and I mean extremely fast—dip in the ocean, we scrambled up some boulders to watch the sunset over the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove then returned to our campsite to watch the full moon rise over the ocean. We sat for over an hour leaning against the granite watching and listening to the waves crash against rocks in the moonlight while fireflies flickered in the brush below us. It was enchanting. I don’t want to believe that I only have a week left in this place.

We’ll just ignore the fact that this is my first blog post.

But since it is my first one, let me introduce you to the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) and what they do. The CLD is a small legal advocacy organisation that was started by Toby Mendel, a mathematician and an international expert in the right to information (RTI). He started the organisation after a long stint as Director of Article 19, an organisation that has operated in this area for years. He hired his current Senior Legal Advisor, Mike, right out of law school. They worked out of Toby’s kitchen for the first few years.

RTI refers to the right of individuals to access information from their governments and intergovernmental organisations. In other words, he’s an expert in access to information (ATI) law. RTI is often spoken about in terms of “freedom of information” and has been long been recognized as a pillar of democracy. As early as 1946, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 59(1) stating:

Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and … the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the UN is consecrated.[1]

Toby is pretty adamant, however, about the using the “right” language (pun intended). Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the “right to seek, receive and impart information”[2] as a constituent element of freedom of expression. But “Freedom of information” has only recently evolved beyond an aspiration and into a fully-fledged human right recognised by regional human rights systems,[3] international instruments,[4] and international jurisprudence.[5] In 1990, only 13 countries had ATI laws in place. That number has since increased seven-fold.

The CLD is perhaps most well known for the RTI rating they maintain (http://www.rti-rating.org/) but they also do a significant amount of direct advocacy. Both Toby and Mike are constantly jetting around the world, meeting with government officials and training bureaucrats who apply RTI laws, among other things. While they work primarily in the MENA region, Toby was recently involved in the re-draft of Sweden’s RTI legislation.

Though somewhat counterintuitive, strong democracies are often the most complacent about RTI. The quality of a country’s RTI legislation is not a direct indication of how transparent its government is. But a lack of adequate protections creates a situation ripe for abuse. It’s important that we don’t take the strength of our institutions for granted. Canada is a good example. We were one of the earliest to enact RTI legislation and were somewhat of a leader in this area. But we have failed to our laws up to date and in line with international best practices. Until this summer, the Access to Information Act had been the subject of only minor amendments. And it shows. Our system is notoriously slow and responses are often mostly or partially censored. The situation was so bad that in 2015 Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault referred to the Act as a “shield against transparency” rather than a mechanism for government accountability.[6]

Access to information is not a particularly sexy area of human rights work. It’s essentially a fight for basic institutional frameworks and bureaucratic efficiency. But I can’t overemphasize how important it is. Transparency is the core of democracy and at the heart of transparency is the right of the public to obtain and impart information about its government. Freedom of the Press, a hallmark of a free and democratic society, depends on strong protections for the right to information. The media are the most frequent users of ATI legislation. Secrecy and delays impact newsgathering and their ability to report on matters of public interest and to do so in a timely manner.

I am in admiration of Toby and Mike. They are tireless and dedicated; they devote an immense amount of energy to CLD’s work. And they never stop to question whether or not it’s worth it. This is what human rights work looks like – or at least it’s a version of it. It’s not always glamorous. You’ll write countless grant and project proposals to convince people that your work is worth supporting. You might feel distant, disconnected at times from the issues which are the subject of your work. Maybe, if you’re established in the field, you’ll get “on the ground,” so to speak, and get to meet with government officials and company executives to lobby for change; be invited to Parliamentary committee meetings to comment on incoming legislation; or even be asked to draft legislation. But working “on the ground” might mean months away from your family and friends.

Inevitably, however, you’ll feel sometimes like it’s all for nothing. Other times, you’ll feel like you’re making concessions or playing political games just to try and get things done. It might make you a bit cynical; you have to be a bit of an idealist, or what my partner calls a “grumpy idealist,” to keep going.

I think a lot of advocacy work can be compared to loosening the cap of a very tightly sealed jar. The first person to try to open it will give it everything they’ve got, but nothing will appear to have changed. It might feel just as impossible for the next person. But when someone finally gets the cap off, everyone can claim having loosened it for them! Mostly, though, everyone is just happy it’s open.

Forgive the basic analogy, but it’s one everyone can relate to. Also, I am the least creative. Ask anyone who’s ever seen me try to do art.

My experience at CLD has reaffirmed for me that there are a number of ways to contribute to our world. You don’t have to be a powerful person or big organisation to have a significant impact. What CLD lacks in size, they make up for in spirit and being smart about how and where they employ their resources. They are results oriented. They chose projects based on where they can have the greatest impact. They do a lot of work in the background. And I think there is a lot that is honourable in that.

I wear a pendant around my neck every day that symbolizes Aesop’s fable of the mouse and the lion. For those who are not familiar with the story, one day a lion is sleeping in the forest (…?). A mouse, who is basically a nobody in the animal kingdom, runs across the lion’s nose and wakes him from his slumber. The lion is not happy, so his obvious response is to kill the mouse. “Wait!” the mouse cries, “Spare me and I’ll repay you!” The lion scoffs but does the mouse a solid and lets him live. Later, the lion becomes trapped in a trophy hunter’s net. Unable to free himself, he lets out a loud roar. The mouse, hearing the lion’s roar, comes to his aid. Luckily, he is able to chew the rope loose and set the mighty lion free.

The moral of the story is that a kindness is never wasted, and even if you’re small you can still help another. Like the lion’s decision to spare the mouse’s life, or the energy the first person expended trying to open the jar, the impact of our actions is not always obvious in the short term. But that is no reason to become complacent or not to try. And just because you’re a nobody in the grand scheme of the universe doesn’t mean that your actions won’t be felt. I carry the message of the mouse and the lion with me every day. It’s a reminder to be humble, to serve others, and to remember that your work is never wasted.

[1] UN Resolution 59(1), 14 December 1946 as cited in Toby Mendel, Freedom of Information: A Comparative Legal Survey, (Paris: UNESCO, 2008), at 8.

[2] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 19 December 1966, 999 UNTS 171 art 19 (entered into 23 March 1976, accession by Canada 19 May 1976) [ICCPR].

[3] Toby Mendel, Freedom of Information: A Comparative Legal Survey, (Paris: UNESCO, 2008), at 9 (in particular, the Organisation of American States, Council of Europe and the African Union).

[4] Ibid at 14 (in Claude Reyes and Others v. Chile, on 19 September 2006, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held that “in respect of the facts of the present case, the Court considers that article 13 of the Convention, in guaranteeing expressly the rights to ‘seek’ and ‘receive’ ‘information’, protects the right of every person to request access to the information under the control of the State.” See endnote 57).

[5] Toby Mendel, Freedom of Information: A Comparative Legal Survey, (Paris: UNESCO, 2008), at 17 (the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) was the first legally binding instrument to establish “clear standards on the right to information.”)

[6] “Egregious Delays on Access to Information Must Stop”, The Star (28 June 2015), online: <https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2015/06/28/egregious-delays-on-access-to-information-requests-must-stop-editorial.html>

The Story and Relevance of Christine de Pizan (1364 – 1430)

By Monika Erzsebet Berenyi

The narratives, movements, texts and happening of the past draw us inextricably into the present, and it would be careless and limiting to conceptualize the parameters and content of the women, peace, and security agenda, so expressed by UN Security Council Resolution 1325, without revisiting the lengthy history of its progenitors. The efforts, achievements and struggles of those who fought for and forged the very ideas upon which the contemporary policy stands, continue to provide us with guidance, inspiration, and reference points – which mirror the path of our past whilst reflecting the present.

In this context, I return to the medieval era – France to be precise, and draw from the story of Christine de Pizan – a writer, historiographer, and activist, whose cunning wisdom, words and legacy – cumulatively, a representative of a watershed moment in women’s history. For those unfamiliar with de Pizan, her writings were instrumental for enabling the concept of equality for women in medieval France, and her works are considered to be among the earliest feminist writings, inclusive of novels, biography, autobiography, along with political, literary and social commentary. Here it is also important to highlight that the work of de Pizan should also be appreciated within a spectrum of other great medieval women writers, activists, warriors, and leaders – whose courage and work continues to anchor many a discussion regarding women’s rights and equality. I recount the words and actions of Christine de Pizan, thus, in company with the likes of Marie de France, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Margery Kemp, Trota of Salerno, Hildegarde of Bingen, the women troubadours, and many others. The imperative importance of and appreciation for the stories, actions and creativity of medieval women are a source of truth and inspiration to me, – which have also come to illuminate my “contemporary” workspace at Our Secure Future (One Earth Future Foundation). Encouraged to transcend space and time, from the happenings and context of medieval France to the present foothills of Boulder County, I count myself fortunate to be surrounded by individuals, who bear a consciousness and appreciation for the past. For, as history continues to show, it is our predecessors who set the tone for bringing life, energy and movement into the formation and dissemination of new policies. Thus, at Our Secure Future, we remember the story of Christine de Pizan while we face and grapple with the continued challenges of achieving equality and peacebuilding for a better future.

Christine de Pizan was born in Venice and was raised at court in Paris. In 1380, the young Christine de Pizan married Etienne du Castel – a nobleman from Picardy, who supported her passion for education, writing and advocacy. Widowed during her early 20s, she chose to continue her passion and talent for writing, supporting herself and three children, on the fruits of her labour. In sum, she may be understood, or viewed, as one of the first women in history, to have lived solely from creative endeavour.

I cite here two works, which allow me to transcend the past with the present. In The Book of the City of Ladies (Le Livre de la Cité des Dames), completed in 1405, the social importance and imperative of women’s equality in the context of relationships and partnerships is exemplified both anecdotally and metaphorically. A deeper reading of this work, or perhaps, reading between the lines, brings the notion of human security to mind, such that only through equality, can networks of sustainable and lasting peace, for society, be achieved and fortified. In this respect, I am encouraged to consider the relatively of the roots of de Pizan’s arguments, which highlight women’s independence while advocating for uniform opportunities and equal rights through a subtle and powerful approach. With clarity of vision for a better present and future, de Pizan showed how equal treatment and fairness, in everyday contexts, can improve the ebb and flow of life of equality of all. In this respect, de Pizan used the power of the written word at the intersection of the quotidian and Christian morality, coupled with a stylized ability to deploy rhetorical strategy, to illuminate and challenge societal behaviour and sources of women’s oppression. In sum, her ability to deliver a message based in gender equality, so many centuries ago, was both insightful and intuitive – and is one which echoes her visionary ability to delineate the critical role women play in the greater process of conflict prevention, conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

I also cite the work The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry (Le Livre des faits d’armes et de chevalerie), completed by 1410. This book may be conceptualized as a strategic resource for its time, as it provided a vernacular study of military strategy and warfare, coupled with a discussion on the meaning of “just” war. The work is particularly important for the perspective it provides, suggesting arguments for why and how women could be equally knowledgeable and capable as men, to the discussion of war and conflict prevention, and to the facilitation of counsel for that matter.

To conclude, Christine de Pizan conveyed her opinions with subtlety, through the medium of the written word, supported by the framework of the illuminated manuscript. In the twenty-first century, deconstructing the lessons de Pizan chose to express, the issues she addressed, and the mechanism within which she deployed her message, affirm the breadth and depth of the peace, which informed her approach to penetrating the constraints and rigidity of patriarchal society. When considering the power of documentary media, her work and integrity of character, were groundbreaking for their time, as they sounded the alarm – by way of text, image, and action with respect to the hazards, which inequality poses to society.

I am humbled by having been able to learn about the story of Christine de Pizan, by reconnecting the meaning, integrity, and relativity of her story to the work, which informs my days at Our Secure Future – affirming that justice remains a continuous work in progress.

Image from Le Livre de la Cité des dames (Christine de Pizan reading in her study). Copyright of the Bibliothèque de Genève

Following the Herd

Matyas David

By: David Matyas

It’s a bumpy ride from Rankin to Chesterfield Inlet. A short 15 minute hop and the plane flies low. As we take off, the pilot announces that the caribou herd is off the right side. I’m sat on the left and I crane my neck. I reach for my seatbelt but as the plane pitches and I think better of it. They’re down there all right. A herd I’m told is 100,000 strong. But the hoof beats are drowned by the turbo-prop engines and my vision’s blocked by the passengers across the aisle. Over the week this story repeats itself. Rumours and sightings. But as mighty as the migration is alleged to be, I won’t manage to see the caribou.

I’m travelling to Baker Lake in the Kivalliq Region of Nunavut on the circuit court. It’s the only inland community in the Territory and sits close to the mouth of the Thelon River. Baker is about as close as you can get to the geographic centre of Canada. For those in Montreal and Toronto who might describe “going north” to Sainte-Agathe or Huntsville, Baker Lake, at the longitudinal midpoint of the country, underscores this thinnest veneer of northern space that most Canadians occupy.

Like many communities in Nunavut, Baker Lake does not have a sitting judge or permanent courthouse. While some matters can be dealt with through teleconferences, others are served through a travelling ‘circuit court.’ Periodically, the crown and defence lawyers, court workers, clerks, translators and judge fly into communities to hold first appearances, preliminary hearings, trials or sentencings. Sometimes they even bring along a summer student, as is the case this week. It’s a migratory court that travels across the North from community to community and back again.

 

The days before the circuit are spent interviewing clients and meeting with the Crown. The judge and court party have not yet arrived and there is much work to prepare beforehand. Some of the individuals will be in jail by the end of the week. Others will have their matters dismissed. Defence and crown sit to discuss those matters where a joint position may be possible and determine those issues where agreement will not be possible. Nerves and anticipation of what is to come.

In a break between meetings and research I visit the Jessie Oonark centre. The centre holds a printshop, jeweller’s studio, space for seamstresses and equipment for silk-screening. I watch one seamstress repairing a hole in a high vis jacket. “We have an exclusive contract with the Meadowbank Mine and repair their clothing” says the gallery steward. Elsewhere, an elder is at a work station making earrings. They are shaped as Kamiks (traditional boots) and made from caribou antler. It is fine, detailed work. Her name is Martha Noah, one of Baker Lake’s accomplished artists and a collaborator of the renowned Simon Tookoome. When the owners learn that we are in town with the circuit court they remember past court sessions, those rulings they’ve felt unfair or viewed as ill-suited for the community. Stories, nostalgia and the reservations for circuits past.

Without permanent structure, some circuit courts are held in school gymnasiums or community halls. The Baker circuit takes place in the conference room of a local lodge. As the court arrives the first day, the owner of the lodge, a man from the Shetland Islands brought to Northern Canada decades ago to work for the Hudson Bay Company, hangs flags behind the judge’s chair. A Canadian flag on one side of the judge. A Nunavut flag on the other. A room that was silent as a tundra field prepares for the rumble of matters to come.

The first morning of court is fast and busy. Lawyers and the court are trying to clear the easier matters from the docket early and push more complicated issues to latter times. Things get adjourned to the next day or the next circuit court dates in October or December. The room is full and the tempo of proceedings is high. The court workers scramble to track down those accused persons or witnesses who should be in court but have not yet appeared. The hall reverberates with the energy of the court, finally arrived.

 

Over the next afternoon and day, the court takes over that space. Grazing on legal matters as if it had always resided there. At times it feels like it will always be there. But, gradually it thins as cases are concluded and cleared from the docket.

By the morning of the third day only the stragglers remain. A few lingering matters cut off from the herd of issues before the court on previous days. Crippled cases impaired by missing witnesses or accused who did not show up.  Some of these may join the other cases on future circuits, others never make it past this court.

 

And then, just as suddenly as it arrived, the circuit court concludes. Those finished matters settling like trampled earth.

 

As the plane takes to the sky I look again for the caribou herd. From Baker to Chesterfield and onwards to Rankin Inlet, I cast my eyes over the landscape for signs of their passing. But the migration has past, gone with only the faintest of traces that it was ever there.

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! 

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/

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