the oppression tree

Miller AilsaBy Ailsa Miller

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.

A Kindness Is Never Wasted

Miller AilsaBy Ailsa Miller

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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 the law program at 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>

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