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Leaving Akwesasne: Much More Than Just a Legal Internship

by Brandon Bonspiel

My summer at the Akwesasne Justice Department is over. For the last 12 weeks, I participated in the development of a Child Rights & Responsibility Law for the community. I researched the implications of Bill C-96, the act promoting the French language laws in the province of Quebec. I was a counsellor for a week at the community Cultural Youth Camp on Thompson Island. Finally, I helped build a diorama replicating the multiple geographical jurisdictions of Akwesasne. Although my experience interning will benefit my professional development, it was far more than just that. The internship allowed me to reconnect with my culture and gain focus on what truly matters to me.

I grew up in Akwesasne’s sister community of Kanehsatake. I had not visited our neighbours in over a decade, but upon arriving in Akwesasne I was welcomed with open arms and quickly treated as if I was Akwesasro:non. I was invited to Longhouse ceremonies and social events; I was asked to speak at community meetings and even to be a counsellor at the community’s Cultural Youth Camp. I was encouraged to speak our language, Kanien’kéha regularly. I made friends with whom I danced, played Lacrosse, and shared traditional stories with. By the end of my time in the community, people knew who I was. I waved to people as if I had known them my entire life. Running into a friend or a colleague was not an occasional occurrence but rather a daily and common thing.

The people of Akwesasne made me feel at home. At work however, my responsibilities required stepping out of my comfort zone. The workload was heavy and complex. Although I was an intern, I was not treated like one, but I would not have had it any other way. I was responsible with creating my own agenda, my own research documents and even my own work schedule at times. At the Justice Department, there is no such thing as “training wheels”, you must have the answer or find it because the community depends on it. This approach forced me to grow quickly. I no longer felt like a student. Instead, I felt like a Jurist working in the real world. Deadlines were not months away but days or hours away. Grades are non-existant, but the professional opinions of your colleagues matter above all else. This approach influenced my productivity and work quality in the best of ways. I stopped second guessing my work. I learned to read quickly and to edit even quicker. I learned to listen to my gut and to ask questions when in doubt.

The most significant project I worked on during my internship was the Child Rights and Responsibility Law. Researching and discussing the findings of the bill took up roughly ten of my twelve weeks spent in Akwesasne. Working on the project tapped into my willingness to work with my people and to strive towards Indigenous self-determination. I have always been intrigued by Indigenous Law; the Human Rights Internship simply confirmed this curiosity.

 

I leave Akwesasne feeling happy and satisfied. My internship accelerated my career, but it is my time spent in the community that truly made the internship memorable. Working with the team at the Akwesasne Justice Department helped me become a better student, employee, and person.

Stage à la CDPDJ – Bribes d’un été mouvementé

30 mai 2022. C’est ma première journée. Je suis paralysée devant le majestueux bâtiment qui me surplombe, le 360 rue Saint-Jacques. Je m’apprête à devenir officiellement stagiaire pour la Commission des droits de la personne et de la jeunesse, non seulement un organisme phare de l’écosystème québécois, mais un vrai pilier de notre démocratie. Pour être honnête, je suis un peu stressée de rentrer, mais je sais que je dois le faire. Après tout, il ne faudrait pas être en retard pour sa première journée.

Le 360 rue Saint-Jacques

Et son hall d’entrée…

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Aujourd’hui, nous sommes le 15 juin 2022. Un mercredi. Cela fait deux semaines environ que mon stage a débuté, ici à Montréal. Cette journée est un jour spécial, un jour où tous les employés de la Commission, peu importe leur département, se réunissent à l’hôtel l’InterContinental du Vieux-Port pour la rencontre annuelle de l’organisme. Au menu, des conférences sur notre mandat jeunesse ainsi que des activités pour apprendre à se connaitre et créer des liens. C’est aujourd’hui que je rencontre enfin les autres départements, moi-même faisant partie de celui des Affaires juridiques. Nous nous occupons surtout de représenter les citoyens dont les droits ont été enfreints devant les tribunaux. Avant cet après-midi, je n’avais pas réellement réalisé l’interdépendance nous liant tous. Que ce soit le département des enquêtes, qui s’occupe d’amasser toute la preuve nécessaire à notre travail litigieux, ou encore celui de la recherche, qui s’adonne davantage à l’étude des projets de lois déposés par le gouvernement, chaque département n’est qu’un rouage dans cet imposant système. Nous sommes tous une pièce du puzzle, un puzzle qui, je le réalise aujourd’hui, est caractérisé par l’ouverture, la gentillesse et la passion qui habitent ses employés.

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Cela fait maintenant deux mois que je suis stagiaire à la Commission. Mon stress a peu à peu été remplacé par une certaine aisance, un sentiment d’appartenance même. Alors qu’auparavant, tout mandat de recherche que je recevais m’apparaissait comme une gigantesque montagne, un mont insurmontable, dorénavant, je ne le vois que comme ce qu’il est : un simple défi. En fait, j’éprouve même du plaisir à recevoir des mandats difficiles. La satisfaction de partir d’un sujet dont on ne connait rien – ce qui, il faut l’avouer, m’arrive plutôt souvent – et en devenir experte en quelques semaines, voire jours seulement est un sentiment inégalé. Dans les dernières semaines, j’ai l’impression d’avoir été jetée dans une piscine de procédures, de règles de preuve et de principes de droit et d’avoir peu à peu appris à nager. Bien sûr, on m’a donné des flotteurs et des conseils lorsque j’en avais besoin, mais on m’a toujours laissé développer mon savoir et mes capacités par moi-même. C’est d’ailleurs un des éléments que j’apprécie le plus de mon stage jusqu’à présent : le respect et l’indépendance qu’on nous accorde. Loin des stéréotypes du stagiaire qui se démène à aller chercher des cafés, j’ai l’impression d’avoir au contraire été poussée à me dépasser et de m’être immensément développée de par les simples interactions que j’ai eues avec les avocates et autres stagiaires qui m’entourent. Il me reste encore un mois et je compte en profiter. Après tout, le droit québécois comporte encore tant de subtilités à découvrir.

Dismantling “Bureaucratic Colonialism”

By Hannah Reardon

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone.

*This post contains some descriptions of colonial violence, including mentions of residential schools and displacement.

 

In my work for the Cree Nation Department of Justice and Correctional Services I have been providing support to the team of Gladue[1] writers by researching the history of each of the nine Cree communities that make up the Cree Nation in Eeyou Istchee, the traditional territory of the Eeyou Enouch, which stretches from Lake Mistissini to the northern limits of James Bay. While Gladue reports focus primarily on the individual’s life story, they should also include reference to the individual’s community history. The community history provides context in order to elucidate the inter-generational impacts of colonialism, such as displacement and residential schools, and their effects in generating conditions which can lead to a higher incidence of criminality, including poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, and lower educational attainment.[2]

A map of Eeyou Istchee. Photo taken at the museum in Ouje-Bougoumou.

One of the things that has struck me the most in my research has been the observation that many of the most severe instances of colonial violence in Eeyou Istchee have occurred within the past century and are the direct result of malicious policy initiatives spearheaded by the federal and provincial governments. This has been particularly striking to me because it flies directly in the face of the false, but commonly-held, belief of many Canadians that the colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples occurred in a distant past and under a different political regime. Although for many people reading this post this is surely not a revelation, there is something about reading of specific instances of recent and devastating colonial violence and reflecting on their ongoing impacts in the lives of people you interact with in an intimate professional setting that makes something you “know” in the abstract really sink into your bones.

Let me provide a couple of examples of what anthropologist Tony Morantz has called “bureaucratic colonialism”[3] in order to illustrate my point. Comprehensive Western health services did not arrive in Eeyou Istchee until after WWII. Early government planning documents demonstrate a desire by federal officials within the department of Indian Affairs to impress “civilization” upon the Cree by demonstrating “white man’s skill in healing”.[4] Ironically, this “skill in healing” was catastrophically ineffective and it had the additional consequence of subverting many traditional forms of healing. Poorly-funded programs were unable to stop public health crises in the communities and many community-members were flown south to receive treatment for illnesses such as tuberculosis, measles, smallpox or influenza.[5] These displacements were undoubtedly traumatic, particularly for those who were sent to southern sanatoriums to heal from tuberculosis and were forced to remain there, dislocated from their communities and their loved ones for years at a time.[6]

Education policies also represent concerted efforts from the federal and provincial governments to assimilate the Cree into Western society. Anglican day schools were run in Waskaganish, Nemaska, Mistissini, and Waswanipi.[7] Residential schools – both Catholic and later public – ran in Chisasibi (formerly Fort George), Whapmagoostui, and Mistissini.[8] Other children were taken and sent further afield to residential schools in Amos, La Tuque, or in Ontario. The separation of children from their families created a great generational divide. The trauma resulting from these institutions is well-known, but it is not distant history. The last Catholic residential school in Eeyou Istchee closed in 1981.[9]

The Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Ouje-Bougoumou.

Today, health, education, policing, and justice services (among many others) are provided by the Cree for their own communities. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA)[10] and numerous subsequent agreements have created a framework for the Cree Nation in Eeyou Istchee to exercise its administrative sovereignty over many aspects of community life. By way of example, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services offers services in all nine Cree communities, including a regional hospital in Chisasibi. It delivers services in accordance with Cree values, as per section 14 of the JBNQA. [11] Similarly, section 16 of the JBNQA allowed for the establishment of the Cree School Board, which now offers high quality education to students. Classes offered in Cree, English and French integrate Cree culture and values, thereby fostering a revitalization of Cree language and culture for the next generations.[12]

Of course, the Cree Nation Department of Justice and Correctional Services is also very much a part of the JBNQA’s renewal of Cree sovereignty over internal affairs. The DJCS offers support to victims and perpetrators of criminal acts in their interactions with the provincial and federal justice systems. It can even divert some cases out of the provincial and federal criminal justice systems by working with local Community Justice Committees.[13]

The justice building in Waswanipi, Eeyou Istchee.

I am proud and humbled to be working for this incredible organization this summer, and to be working with all the amazing people who provide the department’s innovative and meaningful services. The JBNQA was transformative for the Eeyou Enouch, and the power of Cree governance demonstrates that returning land and sovereignty to Indigenous peoples is the key to healing from the violence of colonialism. Just as misguided centralized governance created institutionalized violence in the recent past, we might ask which current policies contribute to the ongoing institutional violence that many Indigenous people still face in the criminal justice system, the child welfare system, and the health system (to name just a few). As law students, we have a role to play in addressing these failures of the current system. For those of us who are settlers on this land, we also have a crucial role to play. As we rise to the challenge, we must remember to tread with humility, and to remain critical of the status quo.

 

[1] For those unfamiliar with Gladue reports, see Tim Parr, “Some Thoughts On Gladue” (28 July 2021), online (blog):  McGill Human Rights Interns <blogs.mcgill.ca/humanrightsinters/tag/timparr>.

[2] See R v Gladue, [1999] 1 SCR 688 at paras 67-69. See also R v Ipeelee, 2012 SCC 13 at para 60.

[3] Tony Morantz, The Man’s Gonna Getcha (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002) at 134.

[4] See Ronald Niezen, Defending the Land: Sovereignty and Forest Life in James Bay Cree Society, 2nd ed (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009) at 40.

[5] Morantz, supra note 3, at 189.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gowling WLG, “Schedule K” (last visited 26 July 2022), online (pdf): Federal Indian Day School Class Action < https://indiandayschools.com/en/wp-content/uploads/schedule-k.pdf>.

[8] National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, “Quebec Residential Schools” (last visited 26 July 2022) online: University of Manitoba < https://nctr.ca/residential-schools/quebec/>.

[9] Indian residential School History & Dialogue Centre, “Fort George Roman Catholic (QC)”, (last visited 26 July 2022), online: University of British Columbia < https://collections.irshdc.ubc.ca/index.php/Detail/entities/1160>.

[10] James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, 11 November 1975, online (pdf): Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) Cree Nation Government < https://www.cngov.ca/resource/james-bay-and-northern-quebec-agreement-1975/01-_james_bay_and_northern_quebec_agreement__consolidated_to_september_13__2013_-1/>.

[11] Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James, “Our Mission” (last visited 26 July 2022), online: Cree Health, <https://www.creehealth.org/about-us/our-mission>.

[12] Cree School Board, “Our Organization: Teaching & Learning” (last visited 26 July 2022), online: Eeyou Education, <https://eeyoueducation.ca/org/teaching>.

[13] Cree Nation Government, Department of Justice and Correctional Services, “Community Justice Committee”, online: Cree Justice <https://www.creejustice.ca/index.php/ca/community-justice/community-justice-committee>.

The realities of human rights work

Going into my internship at Equitas, I was expecting to help big-shot lawyers defend victims of human rights violations, just like Just Mercy! Maybe it was the lack of research on my behalf, maybe I watched too many movies, or maybe it is a combination of both haha. But my internship at Equitas proved human rights work to be much more than what I was led to believe. Thus, I am dedicating this blog post to 3 lessons I learned working at Equitas.

Firstly, human rights work does not equate to human rights advocacy and defence. Working on Equitas’ Global Right Connection (GRC) program, I learned that human rights education was another means of doing human rights work. Their program aims to teach human rights to activists worldwide, who in turn produce a project that marginalized individuals in their communities while applying concepts learned during their training. Some have even gone on to create their own human rights program to have a greater impact on victims of human rights violations.

Second, no matter how trivial you believe your work is, it has a purpose. During my first few weeks at Equitas, I struggled with understanding the meaning of my tasks. I was told to do an online training, answer emails and make lists; tasks which I did not think were related to human rights work at all. However, my supervisor assured me that the emails I sent encouraged potential GRC participants to sign up for the program and that the lists I made allowed them to reach out to organizations worldwide and have greater outreach.

Lastly, human rights work is not limited to individuals with Law degrees. Going into Law school, I believed that the only way to have a meaningful impact in the human rights field was by going to Law school and working for big organizations like the United Nations or private litigation firms. In reality, many people working in the field, do not have Law degrees, and that does not mean their work is any less meaningful! Many participants of Global Rights Connection only base themselves on personal experiences with human rights violations to make a change. As well, many of my coworkers do not have Law degrees and still participate in various international human rights projects. Thus, human rights practice is not as inaccessible as it is portrayed to be!

My experience at Equitas has shown me the intricacies of human rights work and that there is no just way to do it. As long as you are making a change…that is what counts!

“Never, never again!”

Trigger warning: Mentions of death and state violence.

Image credit: Danielle Santos (@anye_santos)

I arrived in Manila during a challenging time for human rights supporters. Just a few days before, on May 9th, the Philippines held their 2022 presidential and vice-presidential elections, something I had been aware of upon first connecting with my host organization, the Ateneo Human Rights Centre (AHRC). During my introductory zoom call with my supervisor, I remember learning through her passionate enthusiasm about a largely youth-supported political movement taking place like none other before in preparation for the election. She and many others in the human rights line of work I’ve met were backing Leni Robredo, the vice-president at the time running as an independent and the only female candidate in the race. Robredo’s volunteer-led grassroots campaign termed the “pink revolution” was marked by mass youth volunteerism, crowdfunding and massive rallies calling for change and instilling a sense of hope to move forward from the Duterte Government.  

Anyone who’s heard of the Duterte regime is bound to know about his infamous war on drugs, marked by mass arrests and extra-judicial killings, which has had a devastating impact on the state of human rights in the country. The perceived threat to human rights in the 2022 elections was not over a re-run from Duterte but from Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. who is known for placing the Philippines under Martial Law from 1972 to 1986 until him and his family’s exiled.

Image credit: Danielle Santos (@anye_santos)

  Incessant extrajudicial killings, documented tortures, forced disappearances and mass incarcerations marked this period of martial law. Although enacted to reduce the increasing separatist rebellions and violent urban crimes at the time, the dictatorship suppressed calls demanding freedom, justice and democracy, with waves of arrest for any political opposition and accusations of corruption and power-grabbing, extending even to journalists. Furthermore, the Marcos’ authoritarian regime revealed unexplained wealth amassed over 21 years while the country’s debt mounted, with estimates reflecting significant amounts that are still a topic of primary discussion today.

Despite all this precedent and uncontested awareness of graft corruption, the seemingly promising “pink movement” was unsuccessful in winning over the presidential seat from the Marcos family, with Robredo losing by a wide margin of 16 million votes.

Wall of Remembrance at Bantayog ng mga Bayani (“Monument to the Heroes”) in Quezon City, Metro Manila

 Disappointment, fear, burnout and shock are a few words to describe the feelings I sensed from my colleagues following the election results, starting from the first virtual staff meeting I joined. Each colleague invested much of their labour and energy into the movement in the prior months, coupled with the fact that their everyday work deals with different aspects of human rights and government relations, and I could only imagine the hurt they were experiencing. As people who engaged with human rights advocacy during a Duterte government for the last six years, my colleagues at AHRC found themselves in limbo on what to expect next as the new government establishes their committee appointments, many of whom the staff would inevitably have to work with. They could only be left to speculate if things would remain the same, or if they needed to brace themselves for worse. Fears of history repeating itself is a shared sentiment for many other CSO with a human rights agenda/mandate in the Philippines, creating a suspended state of uncertainty impacting their strategic planning. 

Attendees surrounding a floor stage listening to a youth speaker for the martyr commemoration event on May 21st, 2022

 My first in-person internship experience was attending an annual commemoration event in honour of martial law victims at the end of May in Quezon City with two of my colleagues from AHRC. It took place in a beautifully enclosed courtyard outside a landscaped memorial center called “Bantayog ng mga Bayani“, or “Monument to the Heroes” in English. The memorial center honours the individuals who lived and died standing up for freedom and justice during the authoritarian Marcos regime (1972-1986), with the names of hundreds of martyrs etched into a black granite Wall of Remembrance. The event was attended by anywhere between 150-200 people, including journalists and loved ones of victims listed on the walls. With a sound speaker system in place, the program included a series of powerful speeches, family testimonies, and performances of poetry, song and music. While a reasonable portion was in English, the program was primarily in Tagalog, and my colleagues kindly took some time to translate some key moments. For example, they told me about how one speaker in his mid-50s  recounted with pride how his father was abducted during the 1988 elections because he was protecting the ballot.

What really stood out to me what the intergenerational attendance of the friends and families of some victims, where I observed what might have been four generations of relatives of a victim in a said group. One speaker was as young as seven, and I was overcome with emotions hearing him chant, “never, never again!” regarding martial law and state violence. Tragedy stays with a family through generations, and to have an awareness of this injustice at such a young age is never an easy thought to swallow.

It was a beautifully moving moment of holding space for collective rage and grief for past atrocities and the unknown that is feared to come with the incoming administration. However, event speakers and organizers stressed that they would not stop sharing and passing down these stories of lost ones, no matter how much the government may try to silence or scare them into submission. These stories will live on through the younger generation, and journalists are crucial for uncovering these stories of injustices, rendering them all the more worthy of support and protection.

 

Image credit: Danielle Santos (@anye_santos) Some candid images captured of me reading the names of Martyrs on the Wall of Rembrance courtesy of a photojournalist attendee named Danielle.

During a program break, I took some time to walk around and read through all the names on the Wall of Remembrance, where attendees had already placed some flowers and were taking what I assumed to be family pictures next to the etched names of loved ones. As I was nearing the final panel, I was approached by someone holding a camera I had spotted a few times prior during the event. She introduced herself as Daniella, and after sharing the reason for my attendance at the commemoration event as well as my summer internship, I came to learn that she was familiar with AHRC through past collaborations with the organization she was working with called IDEALS, and even kindly offered to send me resources on the topic of EJKs after I expressed my desire to learn more in my research tasks to come. Before parting ways, she showed me some candid shots she took of me while I was reading through the panels, and has permitted me to share them in this Blog post, alongside some other beautiful pictures she captured of the event. 

 

The candle that was given to me as the names of martial law victims were read out and the crowd was invited to light and place them against the Wall of Remembrance.

Afterwards, the event resumed with a concluding program of reading off of all the names of known martial law martyrs, where candles were distributed around for all attendees to light and place alongside the marble panels. The emotive instrumental music paired with the solemn reading off of names off the list as the large crowd of attendees migrated towards the Wall of Remembrance left me with goosebumps all over.

Image credit: Danielle Santos (@anye_santos)

This experience was such a critical moment that I am very thankful I was able to experience early on, as it was able to inform much of what I continue to come across in my work as an AHRC intern. It provided an important lesson always to remember the raw nature of human rights work; there are victims and their loved ones most closely impacted doing the frontline advocacy work, and that it is not just some theoretical and far removed phenomenon one such as myself has the privilege of only researching. Amidst feelings of dismay and frustration, there is resilience and courage in the testimonies shared at the event, keeping human rights work alive. As I continue to engage in human rights research and advocacy, I must remember these families and treat these testimonies and statistics with the respect they deserve. 

Subsidiarity and Complementarity: Guiding Principles in International Human Rights Work

by Renée Lehman

Upon beginning my internship at Avocats sans frontières Canada (ASFC), it quickly became clear that the principles of subsidiarity and complementarity are front and centre to the organization’s operations. Not only was this prioritized during my training, but this has held true during each project I have been involved with this summer. My training in these concepts emphasized that the voices and input of local actors are not merely a factor which must be consulted and considered, but that positive long-term relationships with local actors are crucial to both the existence and success of any project involving western organizations operating abroad. It has been extremely rewarding to work with an international organization which recognizes that success would be impossible without strong local relationships.

History has shown that in the absence of collaboration with local actors, international support organizations risk perpetuating neocolonial dynamics, and consequently heading inefficient or downright counter-productive projects. I have seen how this awareness permeates both ASFC’s strategic planning and daily operations. For example, some of my research mandates this summer have been dictated directly by local partners, meaning that I have served as additional manpower to their own projects. This is very common at ASFC, as centralizing the principles of subsidiarity and complementarity sometimes means that project management is not what is required of ASFC, as a local partner might instead ask simply for additional resources – such as a legal intern to conduct research.

Similarly, one of my very first mandates this summer was to assist in the drafting of an amicus curiae in support of the families of human rights defenders in Colombia. The case in question has been brought before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) by the Jose Alvear Restrepo” Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), meaning that ASFC’s drafting of this brief was done in support of the local organization’s project.

In addition to participating in projects in direct support of local partners, many of my other tasks this summer have related to supporting internal projects. From assisting with the creation of a training program in sexual and reproductive rights for ASFC colleagues working in Mali, to researching the impacts of gender inequality on conflict resolution and transitional justice processes – I have been amazed at the projects I have had the opportunity to work on from my apartment in Montreal.

Keeping the principles of subsidiarity and complementarity in mind has also helped me to feel more connected to the work I am doing, despite working from home. Centralizing the importance of subsidiarity to local actors reminds me of my privilege, which includes being able to work from a safe and comfortable location with reliable wifi and access to innumerable resources while conducting my research. One of the most stark examples of this was perhaps when I was researching international legal mechanisms to address the arbitrary confinement of human rights defenders, and reading case law which detailed the terrible conditions faced by many of those detained – as I sat in my kitchen. There is definitely something very special about doing international human rights work from home, and I already know that this experience will stay with me and inform both my career and life choices going forward.

Seeing Myself in Human Rights Work (by Mariana Furneri)

Ahead of our internships, my peers and I attended information and preparation sessions where we discussed what to expect from human rights work. I remember being told that human rights work can often feel far removed from one’s self – after all, we get to shut our laptops at the end of the day and return to our lives that are typically unaffected by the types of problems facing those in less privileged positions. Though this certainly holds true for many types of human rights work, it did not always turn out to be the case with my work at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). I often saw myself in the work that I was doing.

My first four weeks at the CCLA were spent with the Privacy branch, where I worked on policy reform surrounding the use of facial recognition technology in Canada. Surveillance and the collection of data on Canadians, by corporations like shopping malls or government actors like police forces, is something that affects everyone. It was not difficult for me to recognize that the antiquated state of Canadian privacy laws impacts the way I move through the world, both physically and digitally, and that effective policy reform would produce positive change for everyone.

I am now with the Fundamental Freedoms branch, where I worked on a case in which the CCLA is seeking leave to intervene. The case involves a 24 year-old woman who recently graduated with a Master’s degree in Social Justice and Community Engagement and is now being sued by an anti-abortion group for her online activism. In her TikToks, she encouraged others to sign up for “vigils” outside of hospitals without the intention of ever showing up, which mirrors tactics seen at Trump rallies in the United States. I wrote a legal memo on freedom of expression, the legal limits of protesting, and the impacts of online activism since there is no Canadian jurisprudence on virtual protests. My research was later used in the factum of two partners at a Bay Street firm who were taking on the case on a pro bono basis for the CCLA. Throughout the whole process, I really identified with the defendant and recognized that what happened to her could certainly happen to me, a 24 year-old who also uses social media and is inclined to participate in similar activism.

Finally, I also saw my past self through the education work that the CCLA conducts in their Civil Liberties in the Classroom and Teaching Civil Liberties programs. I remember being in elementary school when my teacher got a poster of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for our classroom, and learning more about later in high school when my ethics teacher assigned a creative video project on various Charter rights. I also had the opportunity to sit in on the CCLA’s National Council meeting, where I listened and took notes on progress reports, ideas to continuously improve the organization, funding initiatives, and more. Through this, I saw what long-term future involvement in human rights work could look like.

What my life currently looks like is sitting on my balcony (besides when it’s over 40 degrees outside) and enjoying the company of my neighbour’s husky and cat as I work. It’s a beautiful view, if you ask me.

 

 

Tunisia on the precipice

Five days after the start of my internship at Aswat Nissa, a feminist organization in Tunisia, President Kais Saied published his constitutional project in the Official Gazette. What followed was a whirlwind that taught me the value of democracy, institutions, and the rule of law. Before I dive into what was the most incredible few weeks of civil society advocacy, I want to share a little more about the context of my internship.

A sunset captured from my grandmother’s house in Ezzahra.

This isn’t my first time in Tunisia. In fact, my father is Tunisian, and I have many family members that live here. When I was offered this internship, my heart and mind immediately went to my grandmother, Emna. She lives in the small coastal town of Ezzahra (“the flower”), a few kilometers away from the offices of Aswat in Tunis. Growing up, I only got to spend a few days a year with her, during short summer vacations. Spending the last few weeks with my grandmother and living in the family home, where my father was born and raised, has been incredible. What this means for my internship in Tunisia is twofold; first, my experience is coloured by an attachment and sense of belonging to my homeland, and second, that the current political and economic crisis has been emotionally challenging and overwhelming (I will expand on this in another post).

To understand the current political crisis in Tunisia, I will first start with a short timeline of important events:

  • July 25, 2021: the president invoked emergency powers, fired the prime minister, and suspended parliament in what many critics called an attempted coup. He has since ruled by decree and further consolidated his power by removing key political actors, dismantling political institutions, and dismissing members of the judiciary.
  • December 6, 2021: the president announced his intention to draft a new constitution that will be voted on via referendum to be held in July 2022.
  • June 30, 2022: Saied’s unilaterally drafted constitution is revealed in the Official Gazette. All political parties and civil society have condemned this constitutional project as antidemocratic and ironically, unconstitutional.
  • July 25, 2022: a popular referendum will be held on the new constitution. Civil society and political parties are boycotting the referendum claiming that the process and constitution are anti-democratic.

Caricature published by Aswat Nissa of President Kais Saied mowing over the slogan of the 2011 revolution: Freedom, Dignity, Equality.

Since June 30th (4 days after the start of my internship in Tunisia), the work at Aswat, and in virtually every other civil society organization in the country, has revolved around this new constitutional project. If adopted, the new constitution will threaten the Arab Spring’s only successful democracy and steer the country back into authoritarianism. To name a few changes made to the previous constitution: the civil state is removed, the parliamentary system is replaced by a hyper-presidential system with no checks and balances, and the president has ultimate powers over all three branches of government. Given that the opposition is boycotting the referendum, it is almost certain that the Yes vote will win, and the new constitution will be adopted. The passage of the proposed constitution will consolidate a return to autocracy and jeopardise decades-long advances in human rights.

The Aswat Nissa team carrying slogans for a protest opposing the referendum and the proposed constitution.

As a militant feminist organization, Aswat is leading social media campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers of the new constitution, speaking on radio shows, hosting panel discussions, issuing warnings to international partners, organizing a popular protest, and strategizing with other civil society organizations. I have spent many hours reading and analyzing the proposed constitution and what it will mean for the rule of law and democracy in Tunisia. In parallel with what is happening in the United States and around the world, my trust in democratic institutions has never been weaker. Within a few months, a democratically-elected president – who ironically happens to be a constitutional law professor – unilaterally drafted a new constitution that will change Tunisian society forever.

The other interns and I at a conference organized by the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, Lawyers Without Borders, and civil society organizations developing an action plan to challenge Kais Saied’s proposed constitution.

I cannot really describe the atmosphere in Tunisia right now, other than feeling both eerily normal and alarmingly tense. Tunisia is at the precipice of a democratic collapse, and civil society is scrambling to save it. The next few weeks and months will be full of uncertainties. What is certain however is that grassroots organizations like Aswat will continue to work tirelessly to restore democracy, protect human rights, and honour the hopes and dreams of the 2011 revolution.

And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

The title of this post is taken from the Talking Heads’ 1980 song Once in A Lifetime. In that song, singer David Byrne finds himself living a life that feels foreign and surprising to him. How did I get here? It is a question I find myself wondering bemusedly on an almost daily basis.

I have now been in Namibia for over two months and I frankly cannot believe how incredible the experience has been so far. This country is beautifully desolate, with otherworldly deserts, exotic animals, and the most incredible sunsets and starry skies I have ever seen.

Windhoek itself is a very small, calm, quiet, and safe city; my life here has been anything but small, calm, quiet, and safe.

I have been staying in a backpacker hostel since my arrival, and I’ve met a motley crew of vagabonds, European interns, energetic dogs, artists, and activists. We’ve had tremendous fun travelling the country, and exploring this city on foot, much to the consternation of my local friends and co-workers.

It is difficult for me to be concerned about my safety in this town though, both because it is very quiet, and because I’ve become something of a local celebrity after a video of me with the caption “The almighty Jesus of Nazareth is on holiday in Namibia for 5 days” went viral. It is not uncommon for me to be stopped on the street and asked to pose for a photo.

 

In the desert, you can’t remember your name…

The sundowner — a classic Namibian experience!

I like elephants!

Sossusvlei is perhaps the most incredible sunrise-watching spot in the world. Climbing a dune for an hour and then running down in 30 seconds is also a highly recommended experience.

The many mountains in this country make for incredible hiking opportunities!

The tweet that made me ekfamous…

In addition to all that, my actual internship – the reason I’m here – is completely bonkers. Everyday I am bombarded with challenging, interesting, and high-profile work! In my role in the Office of the Minister of Justice, I write case briefs, memos, and discussion papers, correspond with the Government Attorney and other Ministers, write speeches for the Minister, review legislation, attend public consultations, advise the Minister. Somehow, I have essentially stumbled my way into being a political staffer.

I still pinch myself sometimes, but it seems that this life full of joy, chaos, laughter, mental stimulation, and love is actually mine.

To quote another brilliant Talking Heads song, “I guess I must be having fun!”

Creating a System Navigator for People with Disabilities

by Laiba Asad 

This summer, I am interning with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD): a national human rights organization that advocates for people with disabilities through law reform, public education, litigation, and consultation. The majority of my time at CCD has been spent assisting the organization develop a system navigator to help people with disabilities better understand the federal and provincial/territorial disability benefits they are entitled to, as well as the application and appeal processes for each benefit. The system navigator aims to improve the chances of people with disabilities in securing benefits and services and, in doing so, lead to better outcomes for them and their families. 

According to a report entitled ‘Looking Into Poverty: Income Sources of Poor People with Disabilities in Canada,’ people with disabilities who are of working age are around twice as likely as other Canadians to live below the poverty line. The report also found that while the largest component of the income of poor people without disabilities is market income, generally from employment, the majority of the income of working-age poor people with disabilities comes from social assistance, along with federal and provincial child benefits and the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans. Therefore, it is imperative that people with disabilities be able to effectively access disability benefits. In the CCD’s System Navigation Pilot Project Feasibility Study, service providers and CCD representatives noted that people with disabilities may face challenges when trying to access different benefits and services and that for people with disabilities who face multiple marginalization — such as those with low income, Indigenous people, new immigrants, and women — it is disproportionately challenging Some of the main barriers that people with disabilities face when accessing government programs, benefits, and services include:

  • a general lack of awareness of the services, benefits, and programs offered by the different levels of government;
  • complex eligibility criteria and application procedures;
  • a lack of clarity on how all the services, benefits, and programs offered by the different levels of government interact with each other and affect the amount of support received;
  • hidden costs related to the applications such as costs of medical documentation; and
  • the absence of a common definition of disability and a national strategy.²

To address these barriers, the CCD’s system navigator aims to have three components: 

(1) provide navigation services including one-on-one individualized meetings in-person, via telephone, email or online live chat to help applicants identity their needs and eligibility, complete their application forms, refer them to other services providers, etc; 

(2) serve as an online Information Hub that will share information about the different programs, benefits, and services available to people with disabilities in a variety of formats; and 

(3) make training available online or in place for organizations for people with disabilities so that they can provide the CCD’s system navigation services.³

Part of my role entails helping develop the Information Hub notably by conducting research on the disability benefits provided by the federal and provincial/territorial governments, drafting information sheets for each of the benefits explaining their eligibility criteria, application process, and appeal process, and creating diagrams summarizing the procedures. 

Although it is sometimes challenging to ensure that the information sheets and diagrams are accessible and in plain language, I look forward to continuing to support the CCD with their system navigator project and collaborating with others in the organization to make the Information Hub more accessible during my internship. 

[1] See Susan L. Hardie et al, “Council of Canadians with Disabilities: System Navigation Pilot Project Feasibility Study” at 15 (2021) Canadian Centre on Disability Studies Incorporated operating as Eviance. 

[2] See Djenana Jalovcic, “System Navigator Service Consultancy Report” at 26 (2020) Council of Canadians with Disabilities. 

[3] See Ibid at 28-30.

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