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Human Rights Work and the Ontario Provincial Election: Before and After  

I began my internship at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network in Toronto at the beginning of June, just days before the Ontario general election. As an Ontarian and a registered voter, I was listening closely to what each party was saying about major election issues, such as revisions to the school curriculum, the future of the province’s cap-and-trade program, funding for child care, and changes to personal and corporate income tax levels.

One issue in particular stood out from the rest: harm reduction services. The Legal Network is committed to reducing the harms associated with drugs and the harms caused by harsh, misguided drug laws. As an intern, much of my research focused on how we can ensure greater, equitable access to harm reduction services such as supervised consumption sites (SCS) and overdose prevention sites (OPS).

At the same time as I began diving into research on the legislative framework that governs the creation and operation of SCS and the legal barriers that women in particular face in accessing harm reduction services, the leaders of Ontario’s three major political parties were refining their stances on these necessary health services.

At work, I read through swaths of peer-reviewed, scientific literature that pointed to the benefits of SCS and OPS. I looked at evidence from other jurisdictions like Australia, Switzerland, and Spain which confirmed that SCS and OPS reduce the risks of disease and overdose death that are associated with injection drug use. I read reports concluding that SCS reduce public drug use and can connect people who use drugs to necessary health and social services when they are ready. The health and social benefits of harm reduction services are clear – I saw that repeated by the Supreme Court of Canada, front-line clinicians, academic researchers, and people who use drugs.

Then I’d return home, turn on the news, and hear the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario telling voters that he was certainly “not going to have injection sites in neighbourhoods.”

I began to see the immediate impact that the election results would have on the work of human rights organizations in Ontario like the Legal Network. When the Conservative Party, led by Doug Ford, won a majority government at the beginning of June, they reasserted a dangerous, anti-harm reduction view and promised to review existing SCS to determine if they “have merit” and are worth continuing. Hearing this only bolstered my motivation to support the Legal Network’s work.

Witnessing how a change in government can complicate human rights work, literally overnight, was frustrating. It also offered important reminders. At both the provincial and federal levels, the governing party’s agenda has a direct impact on the type and scope of human rights advocacy performed in Canada. The government influences how much funding is available to human rights organizations, how issues are framed in public discourse (and especially in the media), and even the means by which human rights are advocated for and protected; is the government of the day open to engaging in conversation with human rights organizers, or is positive change more likely to be achieved via adversarial means like strategic litigation?

We’re facing the “worst drug safety crisis in Canadian history,” and a change in provincial government can’t and won’t stop the work that is being done to save lives and protect the health of people who use drugs. It just means that Ontarians who are committed to improving access to SCS and OPS may need to adapt their strategy in response to Doug Ford’s stance on harm reduction services.

Distilling our Rights

By Pouya Dabiran

There I was, sitting at my first panel at the 2018 annual national human rights conference, organized each year by one of the human rights commissions across the country. I was eagerly listening to learn from esteemed professionals, academics, and leaders in human rights work. In the course of the panel presentation, one of the conference speakers made a joke which the entire room seemed to laugh at in agreement. I was struck by how readily accepted this joke was, and how universally accepted it seemed to be by everyone in the room. The speaker had remarked [paraphrased] that if an action is being taken which bothers the evangelical Christian community, you can be assured that the action is right, or just. For the purposes of this blog, I won’t disclose who the speaker was or in which panel this took place. I was shaken, confused, and almost angry by the inflammatory remark thrown against a religious institution and people. At the end of the presentation, I didn’t discuss this incident with anyone, and took on my other duties as normal.

Approximately two weeks prior, the SCC had released Law Society of British Columbia v. Trinity Western University and Trinity Western University v. Law Society of Upper Canada. Both cases were the final judgement rendered on a long list of cases and appeals from multiple jurisdictions on Trinity Western University’s controversial plans to open a law school with a mandatory covenant in place, which (among other things), prohibited “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman”.

This blog will consist of a short opinion on the judgements of the majority, and Chief Justice (at the time) McLachlan’s concurring but separate judgement on the LSBC v TWU case. This blog will focus on this case, and my own experiences at the Commission with human rights.

Both the majority decision and Chief Justice McLachlan’s found that the Law Society of British Columbia engaged the members of the TWU community’s S. 2(b) rights to religion under the Charter [paras 60-75; para 120]. Both decisions found that the LSBC, under their mandate to protect the public interest, acted properly in considering equality concerns to protect the rights and freedoms of all persons pursuant to this jurisdiction [para 93; 142]. Both decisions also found that the decision proportionately balanced the statutory mandate with which the LSBC is tasked with, with the implicated charter right [para 105; para 108].

The primary difference between the decisions seemed to center around the impact the decision had on the infringed religious rights in question. The majority decision considered the impact on the religious rights engaged to not be severe [para. 85]. The decision explained, saying the interference with the right was limited to preventing prospective students from studying law at TWU with a mandatory covenant. The impact of this was then taken to be minimal, since the court found that this was merely a preference, not a necessary requirement, of the sincerely held religious beliefs of the TWU community. The majority considered comments by TWU’s own affiliates when coming to this conclusion. The majority then compared this to prior rulings on sincerely held religious beliefs, such as Multani, to indicate its apparent minor significance.

The majority then shifted the analysis to the impact on the LGBTQ community, correctly noting that the LSBC’s decision promoted the public interest by preserving rights and freedoms – by preventing considerable harm towards LGBTQ people who would attend TWU’s proposed law school. The majority decision looked at potential LGBTQ law students at TWU potentially suffering harm to their dignity and self-worth, confidence and self-esteem, and experiencing stigmatization and isolation [para 97].

In reaching their decision, the majority noted that there can be no compromise between the extremes [para 84]. The parties had both deemed the existence, and non-existence, of the mandatory covenant to be non-negotiable. The majority concluded their balancing exercise by holding that the denial of the proposed law school did not constitute a significant limitation on the religious rights of the TWU community. Interestingly enough, in the same paragraph, the court concluded that “no evangelical Christian (as a result of this decision) is denied the right to practice his or her religion as and where they choose” [para 102]. I will discuss the significance of this language later in the blog.

The decision by the Chief Justice contrasted from the majority primarily through determining a greater impact on the religious right. The Chief Justice gave due consideration to the fact that the religious right in question included within it, in these circumstances, the right of expression and association as well [para 122]. The Chief Justice, like the majority, noted that a separate analysis is not necessary for each right in this instance because of how the right could be framed, but that each right should be considered to fall within the gambit of the religious right.

While this may seem unimportant, noting this more properly characterizes not only the right itself, but also the impact of the right on the people the decision affects. A decision maker would more readily deem of minor significance a right to practice religion, than a right to express one’s religion through a medium (in this case, the mandatory covenant) in an association (the TWU community). Looking back at the majority conclusion of the balancing exercise, the final sentence of paragraph 102 stated “no evangelical Christian is denied the right to practice his or her religion as and where they choose”. However, if the right is properly framed to include within its gambit the right to expression, and association, it is uncertain whether at least some evangelical Christians would be denied that right, since they may consider the uniformity of the community in some aspects (such as adhering to the covenant) a sincerely held part of their religious belief.

In fact, In the majority’s own decision, they express that religion, both generally and specific to the evangelical Christian religion, is both individual and “profoundly communitarian” [para 64]. To conclude that the majority decision denies no evangelical Christian the right to practice his or her religion as and where they choose seems to contradict the majority’s own words on the matter just a number of paragraphs before.

I do not believe the majority intended to marginalize the associative and expressive aspects of the right to religion in this case. I believe this case shows the difficulty of analyzing, balancing, and enforcing human rights when they attach to a community, as opposed to an individual, since Canada’s (and the United Nation’s) conception of these rights is largely conceived of as individualistic. It could be said that the Chief Justice’s inclusion of the right to associate within the right to religion resulted in the infringement being considered more impactful, and the majority’s exclusion led to the opposite. Of course, this is conjecture.

Ultimately, both the majority and Chief Justice found that the decision by the LSBC was a reasonable one. However, the description of the rights and language of the judgement may have an impact on whether claimants bring forward future claims in the court. If future claimants who believe they have had their religious rights infringed perceive the nation’s court system as marginalizing their rights, they would be less likely to bring a costly and time-consuming action in the court system. Further, it has the potential, and negative, impact of marginalizing the impact on the rights of the LGBTQ community to equality. If lower courts are faced with a situation which seems to hold a “more serious” violation of religious rights, that also clashes with equality rights, they may [relative to this decision] find that the religious right ought to prevail. I believe the Chief Justice’s decision did a better job of distilling the true impact on the conflicting rights at issue in this case, and that her decision would better guide lower courts in the future.

More broadly and related to my experience at the Yukon Human Rights Commission – I found that the proper description of rights and the impact of any infringements of those rights are critical to the protection and enforcement of human rights. In this exercise, I believe political preferences can play a role. Eliminating our biases is no easy task. A seemingly obvious solution is remaining concretely embedded in the facts, and always keeping in mind the complainant and respondent(s), rather than an abstract notion of a right that is attached to a complainant. It also seems to help to gather and maintain, throughout court or tribunal procedures, a robust factual matrix for reference. There is a tension in doing so however, since the gathering, organizing, and continual reference to such a matrix drains valuable resources and time. To put it succinctly, if every right is ensured to be fully protected, but only by lengthening the already lengthy and expensive tribunal/court procedures, then fewer claimants would come forward.

In my last week at the Commission, I was mostly handing off my open files to my colleagues. I remember handing off a potential complaint which had been written and undergone through several edits already to my colleague and having a discussion over the length of the complaint. My colleague said they preferred to have each potential complaint distilled into a short and concise document which outlined the relevance of the potential complaints to the necessary requirements of a human rights complaint under the Yukon Human Rights Act. Of course, if the complaint were to be accepted, it would undergo a robust investigation and culminate in a carefully scrutinized discussion at a disposition hearing in deciding whether it should go to hearing or not. However, even before this, the Director of Human Rights considers the complaint for approval. I disagreed with my colleague that at this stage, the factual matrix is not important enough to warrant even a somewhat robust record for the Director to consider. Facts can be diluted to the point where the focus is on whether the scenario “checks off boxes” necessary for a human rights complaint. However, in doing so, we are vulgarizing the very real event which transpired, and therefore changing the narrative of the complaint. This in turn distances us from the impact the violation (allegedly) had on the complainant.

My colleague was not convinced, and neither was I. However, I don’t claim to know the right answer, or that there even is one. The only conclusion I can take is that a good advocate of justice – whether in an advocacy position, or neutral position – must stay vigilant and aware  of this tension, and seek to balance the scales of access to justice, and the proper distillation of our rights.

My time in the Yukon was a special one, not only because of my experiences at the Commission, but also because of the wonderful people I met during my time there. I hope to visit again soon – hopefully in the winter so I can explore on snow shoes and see the northern lights. I have learned tremendously from the experience, and look forward to bringing these stories back into my education at the Faculty of Law at McGill.

On being “American”

By Sara Gold

My last day in San José, Costa Rica – September 8, 2018

“Along the way we have even lost the right to call ourselves Americans […]. For the world today, America is just the United States; the region we inhabit is a sub-America, a second-class America of nebulous identity” (Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America, 1971, p.2)

What does it mean to be “American”? In the English language, this word often refers to the United States rather than to the continent, whose name it derives from. Frustration with this idea has been publicly expressed as early as 1971 by Galeano in Open Veins of Latin America. The concept remains part of present day discourse in the English-speaking world.

No individual better exemplifies this line of thinking than President Donald Trump. Throughout his campaign and in his published foreign policy, he explicitly stated that his “foreign policy is putting the interests and security of the American people first”. [1] Informally, this notion bleeds in our day-to-day speech; I myself have often carelessly referred to the people of the United States as “Americans” or to my travels to the United States as a trip to “America”.

“Being an American, for me, is being born or living in the United States. I’m not sure if it’s because of geography or intention, but firstly, the word South America represents me the best and secondly, Latin America, but not America”.Colleague from Argentina (translated from Spanish)

But what does it mean to be “American”? [2] Interning at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights this summer, working with colleagues from all over the Americas, and then subsequently travelling by land and sea through Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia allowed me to reflect on this question.

“Being American is a commitment. A commitment of having to bear the burden of unfairness, from the past and the present, but always worrying how to help. Being American is being proud of the mixture of races, ways of thinking and belief systems that constitute the American continent. Being an American is to live life’s hardship and trying your best in dealing with it”.Colleague from Colombia (translated from Spanish)

First, my experience at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica showed me the implications of a regional human rights protection system. In my opinion, this institution interprets “being American” as being a member States of the Organization of American States (OAS) and as being located on the continent. After all, it is the Inter-American system; all countries are considered as part of the Americas. The decisions issued by this Court have often been tailored accordingly to regional considerations.[3] Unfortunately, they have also reflected the consequences of the tragic side of this continent’s history, which has been marked by conflict, exploitation, and inequality.

Being American is not limited to being born in this great continent, it implies belonging to a great multicultural heritage, full of traditions, and thousands of different ways of seeing the world and living life. Americans enjoys a rich history that continues to be written every day, in which we are all its characters. – Colleague from Mexico (translated from Spanish)

Second, my experience working with colleagues from all over the Americas allowed me to realize that “being American” cannot be defined in one singular way. I worked with individuals from the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. I learnt about their legal systems, their customs, their slang, their prejudices, their food, their realities. I learnt that everyone’s preoccupations are different, but that many are concerned about things that I take for granted, like their country’s democratic process, like their right to safe and free abortion, like their job security, like their future as a young lawyer in their countries, just to name a few. These concerns reminded me of how privileged I am, which is easy to forget in the daily grind of McGill Law and Montreal.

For me, “being American” has a double meaning which, despite the political rhetoric coming out of my country lately, is not mutually exclusive. In one respect, I am American because I am from the United States. I probably think of this aspect of my identity fist when I hear the word “American”, not because I believe that only people from the US are Americans, but because we do not have another word to describe our nationality, and this is the aspect of my identity with which I come into contact most regularly. However, and equally important, I am American because I am also from one of the many rich cultures of the Americas. This aspect of my identity locates me on a global scale and ties me in a much larger community. Colleague from the United States of America

Third, following my internship, I furthered reflected on what it means to be American throughout my travels by land and sea in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia. In these countries, I witnessed the inequalities that are very much part of the Americas. I listened to individuals tell their stories, list their concerns, reflect on their history, and debate their place in the world today.

These stories led to two current issues that have strongly impacted me. Both are related to migration. The first is the influx of migration of Nicaraguans into Costa Rica, and the extreme racism they face on a daily basis. Second, is the mass exodus of Venezuelans into neighbouring countries. While in Colombia, I encountered many Venezuelans who had left the country, in search of safety and stability. I learnt about what actions countries like Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are taking in order to try and alleviate the crisis. I wondered what the role of other Americans was in order to help our fellow citizens.

Finally, I realized that being American means sharing your culture with others. On several occasions, I was welcomed into people’s homes (such as my former colleague), shared life stories, and was invited to discover what made their country unique. This generosity allowed me to realize that “being American” does not only mean living in and being from the Americas, but also means being part of a larger community, that shares, that supports, and that helps. Ultimately, as my colleague from Costa Rica put it, maybe the term that should prevail is “human”.

“For me being “American” is a label that is useful for expressing a distinct cultural process that took place in the past. However, it is often used merely for reasons of discrimination, criminalization, stigma, etc. Nowadays it seems to me that the label “American”, “European”, “African”, etc. loses legitimacy as we mix more and more, it is social myopia to deny multiculturalism. In my opinion, the label that must ultimately prevail is “human”. Colleague from Costa Rica (translated from Spanish)

 

My colleagues from all over the Americas 🙂

 

[1] See: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trumps-foreign-policy-puts-america-first/

[2] Note: I asked five colleagues from the Inter-American Court, all from different countries, to reflect on what it means to be American. Their reflections can be found in the Italic portions of this text.

[3] The Inter-American Court (alongside the Inter-American Commission) were created to “safeguard the essential rights of man in the American continent”. See: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/index.php/en/about-us/historia-de-la-corteidh

 

Are We Really Surprised?

By Cassandra Richards

During my time at Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik Legal Services in Iqaluit, a riot broke out at the Baffin Correctional Centre in June. Baffin Correctional Centre, known colloquially as BCC, carries a reputation as an abhorrent facility, among the worst prisons in North America.

BCC is a men’s territorial medium security prison in Iqaluit and the largest correctional facility in Nunavut. Anyone in Nunavut who is detained will be immediately brought to this facility. This has widespread implications for individuals who do not live in Iqaluit. For example, if you are arrested in Cape Dorset, you will be flown to Iqaluit (1hour flight). For many family members of individuals who have been detained in Iqaluit yet who live in other communities, visiting is not an option for multiple reasons, particularly travel time and costs.

There are no federal prisons in Nunavut. Therefore if a person must be detained at a federal prison (determined by the crime they have been found guilty of committing and their sentence for the latter), they will be flown to a prison in Ontario.

BCC was designed in the 1980s by Bruno Freschi. It was constructed to hold a maximum of 41 inmates. However, since it’s original construction it has been upgraded. The most recent upgrade targeting the amount of inmates the facility could hold was in 1996, during which the capacity was increased to 66 beds with two segregation cells. The prison is constantly over its 66 bed capacity.

There are three other prisons in Iqaluit. Accordingly: Makigiarvik Correctional Centre (men’s prison), Nunavut’s Women’s Correctional Centre, and the Isumaqsunngittukkuvik Youth Facility. Before having gone to Makigiarvik (Maki) or BCC, many people in Iqaluit had described Maki as a hotel compared to the “shit hole” of BCC.

Unfortunately, after my first and many repeated visits to BCC, it lived up to the “shit hole” reputation it has received. What is most frustrating is that many people have long known about the appalling conditions at BCC. A 2015 Report to the Auditor General of Canada stated that “Housing inmates at the Baffin Correctional Centre compromises the security and safety of inmates and staff” and that the “Department of Justice has not addressed its most critical facility needs.”[1] Justice Cooper of the Nunavut Court of Justice has previously called the jail “intolerable” in R v. Uniusaraq, 2015 NUCJ 16.[2]

There are numerous issues with BCC I could speak of, however it would take up a lot of space. Briefly, BCC is constantly overcapacity. The facility itself is severely under resourced and unsafe.  Inmates have often be said they are given 30minutes outside their cell  per day. The facility equally lacks adequate programming for its population.

[Picture taken from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/baffin-correctional-centre-inmate-riot-iqaluit-1.4715657]

BCC houses some of the most vulnerable people in Nunavut. Accordingly, many individuals who are detained at BCC live with serious mental health issues, substance abuse, and/or trauma that must be properly treated. The facility itself and the programs  it offers (or lack thereof), fall completely short of offering many individuals detained at BCC the treatment they need and deserve. It is also important to remember that many of the people detained at BCC are still presumed innocent, therefore have yet to be convicted of a crime.

Prior to the riot in June, I had used an interview room to speak to a client about their upcoming court appearance. The client I was seeing struggled with serious mental health issues. As him and I sat down in the interview room, I noticed someone had engraved words into the wall saying: “Kill yourself so you don’t need to live in this shit hole.” The situation was extremely upsetting. As I sat with my client with severe mental health concerns the words on the wall reconfirmed to me that BCC and many other facilities across Canada, are doing more harm than good to people in serious need of support. An ethos of rehabilitation has not yet been fully embedded in our prison systems.

The riot which occurred in June 2018, was the second riot at the Iqaluit jail in less than a year. Last September, multiple inmates had damaged 85 per cent of the building’s medium-security bed space. There have been various other riots at BCC since it was first constructed. Inmates have stated that they lashed out in June again to bring attention to the deplorable conditions in the jail.

In an interview with CBC, Director of BCC JP Deroy and Satah Smith a policy analyst at BCC, made statements about the riot and the prison:[3]

“It’s going to happen again. It will. As long as we have this building, and we’re dealing with these issues, it’s going to happen again.”

 “Now, take the same inmates and put them in a proper facility. Different story. Completely different story. In general, they want to help themselves,” Deroy said.

 “For the sceptics who want to put this on the inmates and say the inmates are bad people, or maybe even the staff are bad people, we’ve seen the success,” Smith added.

 Smith, too, added as long as BCC is open, riots will happen again.

 “This building has far exceeded its life-cycle, and we’re just seeing the repercussions of it now. It’s not like our inmates are getting more bad, or savvy, or whatever,” she said.

If we know riots will continue to occur, what are we doing to change this reality?

Prisoners remain human, with human rights that cannot be violated. Accordingly, prisoners have the right to be safe from cruel and unusual punishment. It is imperative that facilities which house those who have been detained seek to rehabilitate, not punish or ignore basic human rights. Prisoners detained at BCC will one day return to their communities. Nunavut Corrections and the Canadian Department of Justice are currently failing these inmates and these communities.

 

[1] http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/nun_201503_e_40255.html

[2]https://www.canlii.org/en/nu/nucj/doc/2015/2015nucj16/2015nucj16.html?autocompleteStr=R%20v.%20Uniuqsaraq&autocompletePos=1

[3] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/baffin-correctional-centre-jail-conditions-riots-1.4720831

A tale of two ideals

By Roxanne Caron

My work this summer at the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) focused on issues of access to information, government transparency and freedom of speech. A significant component of what this NGO does is the evaluation of access to information policies put out by countries. This right to information (RTI) rating, with a possible total of 150 points, evaluates many different aspects of government transparency and the concrete implementation of a citizen’s right to access information, such as the existence and strength of an oversight body, the possibility to appeal a decision, clearly defined and not overly broad exceptions to this access, clear, identified and easy procedures to request information and obtain a reply in a swift manner, and so on.

In relation to this, one of my tasks this summer was helping in the evaluation of a forthcoming policy from the Inter-American Development Bank aimed at its private sector arm, IDB Invest. I quickly learned that a lot of reading between the lines was involved with evaluating these policies, and that the devil truly was in the details. Even with the very clear assessment grid from the RTI rating, my first draft overlooked many important issues, and the comments that came back to me made me realize it is ill-advised to consider most of the criteria as black and white, and to look for nuances and crucial details in how they are worded, framed and implemented. A longer second look at the policy showed gaps that affected the document’s potential to truly enhance access to information. A good thing however was that IDB Invest itself invited this type of assessment, as it opened a 6 months public consultation period on the recently written draft. The final and official document should then see the light of day somewhere in late 2018 or early 2019, hopefully reflecting the comments CLD and other organizations and experts formulated on the draft.

As mentioned, a key aspect is the implementation of these policies themselves. Even if the policy is perfect on paper, there needs to be a further assessment on how it translates on a day-to-day basis in the country or organization where it stems from. This idea of implementation is at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals that are following the Millennium Development Goals that completed its cycle in 2015. Assessing the effective implementation of policies proves to be a lot more difficult than assessing the policies as a written document. How to make sure prescribe delays are respected? That the appeal mechanism described is indeed accessible for citizens making requests? Fact-checking this kind of details is a time-consuming endeavor, that requires a lot more knowledge about the country or organization’s operation. Furthermore, providing access to information engages costs, and may sometimes pit other values or principles against it.

This fact has never been clearer to me than when the topic of access to information in Canada came up around some excellent craft beer in the North End neighborhood of Halifax. In Canada, there is a large backlog of documents that could be made freely available online, but are not since they ought to be translated (in most cases from English to French), and publishing unilingual documents would go against other federal government principles. This results in most documents being available only on a per request basis, which significantly hinders the free flow of information. For some around the table, the way to go was evident: documents should be released, and if not in the two languages, at least in the language they were originally written – this is what would promote greater access to information, after all. For others, though, it was a more complex issue. As I said before, most documents are originally written in English.

Publishing original documents regardless of initial redaction language would without a doubt end up giving a lot more weight and space to English information on federal websites. This sat uneasy for some around the table, myself included. At the time however, I couldn’t really explain in great detail why this was the case. I understood and still think of access to information as a crucial human right to ensure a free and equal civic society. But something about this “better than nothing” stance did not work for me. Furthermore, as the daughter of two unilingual francophones, I also knew that the argument uttered by anglophone colleagues that “everyone spoke some basic English, even in Quebec”, was far from the truth. After a few weeks, I came across a short op-ed in La Presse, Le français n’est pas une langue secondaire, which put in better words the concerns I had with by-passing language requirements to strengthen access to information. The text commented on the poor quality of the French documents available on the Canadian website for tendering. The Commissaire aux langues officielles found that not only some documents were published in English only, the majority of documents that were published in French and English were not translated in a consistent and quality manner. This creates a situation which is far from the “two official languages” concept found in federal statutes.

This op-ed worded better than I could why I was uneasy with the argument that publishing documents in English was better than nothing. I am not saying that it should absolutely not be done, but forgetting the issue of language inequality in the context of access to information does not serve, in the end, the very same ideals this right aims to defend. This post has been a long time in the making, simply because I continued thinking I would clarify my stance on this eventually. This has not been the case. I am still thorn between two ideals that each need to be upheld, in a scenario where imposition of one over the other necessarily brings out some cost. The best I can hope for, however, is that the debate around this issue continue to bring those two ideals together and acknowledge the potential setbacks of each option. Implementation of access to information policies is a multidimensional endeavour, and the example of the translation problematic in Canada is a good example of the challenges each country may face when furthering access to information. I can only thank Halifax’s wonderful craft breweries for providing the perfect background for animated, and necessary, discussions on these issues.

Strawberries, Nature, Culture, and Community

By Allen Brett Campeau

I spent most of my Akwesasne internship in Kana:takon in Akwesasne Mohawk territory, but I also had the opportunity to participate in several excursions, both on and off reserve. Two of the most enriching for me were my trips to Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC), a correctional and remand facility in Ottawa, and the Thompson Island Youth Cultural Camp (Tsikionhet Onkwawen:na tanon Tsiniionkwariho:ten), which was held on reserve in the St. Lawrence River. I met with Indigenous inmates at OCDC and Indigenous youth at the Cultural Camp.

At both OCDC and the Cultural Camp, we were joined by Mohawk elders and knowledge-keepers, who shared their knowledge of Mohawk culture and the Mohawk creation story. These teachings emphasized respect for the natural world and humanity’s connection with the land and non-human beings. I was particularly intrigued by the important role of traditional food in medicine and ceremony. Food was prominent in the teachings of the elders and knowledge-keepers at both the OCDC and Thompson Island events. Although the audiences were different, the key message was largely the same: “Whatever life’s hardships, the natural world—Mother Earth—will sustain us.”

At the Cultural Camp

I visited OCDC on June 21st for an Indigenous Peoples Day Celebration. Over the course of the day, we met with close to fifty Indigenous inmates—in groups of ten—in the OCDC prison yard, where we shared traditional foods, danced traditional dances, and listened to Mohawk teachings. Many of the inmates had gone months without seeing grass, I learned; they were immensely grateful for the chance to sit outdoors on this sunny day, with grass beneath their feet. Many inmates took off their shoes to make the most of their brief time in the yard. After less than an hour, they would be ushered back indoors. Our moments together were quite short, but they still felt significant. The inmates were all very kind and happy to meet with us.

After listening to the knowledge-keepers and dancing a few dances, we sat around a fire for a traditional meal: corn soup, frybread, and strawberries. I helped to prepare the food the night before, so the opportunity to share it with the inmates, and to learn about its significance from the knowledge-keepers, was very rewarding. The heart-shaped strawberry is symbolic of life and heath. It is recognized as a leader of the medicine plants because of its early ripening in the new year. It was also, I learned, one of two plants (along with tobacco) to have descended to Turtle Island with Skywoman in the Mohawk creation story. It is a food of incredible cultural significance, but likely one that few OCDC inmates had enjoyed since their incarceration. However, as one elder pointed out, strawberry plants could be found growing in the prison yard.

Around the fire

In the relatively lush surroundings of Thompson Island, strawberries and other traditional food and medicine plants were abundant. The rich natural setting made the perfect backdrop for the mid-August Cultural Camp. I acted as a chaperone for some of the twenty-odd Mohawk teenagers that came to learn about their culture, practice traditional skills, and enjoy the outdoors. We swam, canoed, played lacrosse, and ate good food. After burning off some energy, we would also sit and listen to traditional Mohawk teachings, including an hours-long telling of the Mohawk creation story. Here too, like at OCDC, we learned about the central importance of love and respect for Creation.

Many of the young people came to the Cultural Camp because they wanted to be there, but presumably some came at the insistence of their parents or loved ones—“it will be good for you”. It was, after all, an opportunity to learn more about Mohawk language, traditions, and stories. For a young Indigenous person—indeed, any person—knowledge about and pride in your culture and identity is crucial to living a good life. It keeps you grounded in and connected to your community. In Indigenous worldviews, this connection to community easily extends to the natural world. It is maintained through time in nature and participation in traditional practices, including those surrounding traditional foods.

In my last evening at the Cultural Camp, we sat around a fire and danced many of the same dances that we tried at OCDC. It was easy to see parallels between the experiences: we were all connecting or reconnecting to nature and culture, and in so doing, nurturing a part of ourselves that is often underdeveloped in modern urban or reserve life. For the OCDC inmates, the sense of estrangement from nature, culture, and community was likely more acute, but it is something that many of us struggle with, even in ideal circumstances. We can all benefit from time immersed in nature and culture, learning from our elders and peers, whether at camp for a week or just an hour with good food in the sun.

Selling Justice Short: Reflections on Reconciliation, Accountability, and Weight Loss

By Tiran Rahimian

A night view of the Empire State Building, where HRW’s offices are located.

One of the very first remarks made by my darling mother upon my return to Montreal was, perhaps unsurprisingly, that I had lost a fatally dangerous amount of weight. At first, I curtly brushed off the observation as an archetypal exaggeration of maternal love. But confronted to the cold, hard numbers of our bathroom scale, I couldn’t help but ponder on the reasons of this incontrovertible reduction of my body mass. It surely wasn’t malnourishment? I spent the equivalent of my Montreal rent every month at the delightfully nutritious Whole Foods Market buffet near Bryant Park. Certainly not over-exercising either? As much as I liked to profess to my friends that I was jogging every morning in Central Park (in part by recycling saved snaps of the same run over and over again), I simply lacked the stamina and willpower to stick to a proper cardio routine.

I realize that, surely for physiological reasons beyond my understanding, I tend to lose significant weight whenever I’m pushed out of my comfort zones for a protracted amount of time. I lost weight when, after a comfortable upbringing in Montreal, I returned to my native Tehran to finish my middle school. I also lost weight in my first months of law school, and again when I began clerking at the Court of Appeal last year. And HRW undeniably fit into that trend: my time in New York city profoundly challenged me on both intellectual and personal fronts, and, while ultimately cementing and confirming many of my previous convictions, compelled me to go through a long process reflection on of some of the drivers that had underpinned my interest in international justice.

“I would give all my fame for a pot of ale…” –Henry V. A riotous mix of high art and low comedy, Drunk Shakespeare is an Off-Broadway must-see where a professional actor ups six shots of Whiskey before embarking on a classic Shakespeare performance.

In IJ circles, the enduring debate on whether seeking accountability for grave international crimes interferes with prospects for peace is close to always brushed off with the self-evident response that there is ‘no peace without justice’. But the tension, I came to learn, is anything but axiomatic. With the inception of the UN Security Council Commission of Experts for the Former Yugoslavia in October 1992 – at a time when the UN-EU International Conference was already managing a peace process – the stage appeared set for a tense relationship between accountability for core international crimes on the one hand, and international mandates for peace and reconciliation on the other hand. The already polarized ‘peace versus justice’ debate crystallized with the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 1994, paving the way for a broad discourse on the compatibility of the two.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission– and its wide media coverage following the fall the Apartheid government – was heralded by some ‘peace-before-justice’ proponents as demonstrating the importance of pacifying, or at least postponing, calls for criminal justice accountability until after peace has taken proper hold. The temptation to suspend justice in exchange for promises to end a conflict has similarly arisen with respect to the International Criminal Court’s work in places like Darfur and Uganda, and threatens to recur in coming years as conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Myanmar approach their conclusion. Thankfully, the symbiotic relationship between peace, justice, and building a sustainable culture of human rights isn’t merely heralded as a self-evident truth, but has also been subject to empirical analysis by scholars and organizations like HRW itself.

Slight cultural shock

Rereading myself, the relationship between my weight loss and reflections on justice and reconciliation is perhaps…spurious. But I still like to think that my time working at HRW pushed me out of my professional and intellectual comfort zones, and was ultimately one of personal growth. Witnessing firsthand the inner workings of an NGO as influential and remarkable as HRW, hanging around diplomats at UN meetings, and working on the most pressing matters of international justice across the globe will certainly stand out as one of the more delightful challenges of my time at McGill law.

Les règles de l’hospitalité

Par Renaude Morin

Nous étions un groupe d’amis en randonnée dans la région de Taza. La nuit allait tomber et la fatigue nous gagnait. Onze heures de marche et nous étions encore loin de notre site de campement. Alors que la journée s’était écoulée sans trace de présence humaine, une petite figure entourée d’une vingtaine de moutons se dessina sur le flan d’une montagne. C’était un berger qui rentrait son troupeau au bercail. Il vient à notre rencontre et insista pour que nous venions passer la nuit chez lui. Dès notre arrivée, la maisonnée s’activa. On mit le thé à bouillir, le pain à chauffer, le tajine sur le feu. Un vrai festin. Le lendemain, on m’assura que notre hôte avait été compensé pour sa générosité, mais sans me donner les détails. J’étais agacée : j’avais l’impression de devoir quelque chose à quelqu’un.

Des situations similaires se répétèrent souvent pendant mon séjour au Maroc. À Belyounech, ce fut Khaoula, une jeune femme de mon âge, qui fût ma guide pour gravir le Jbel Moussa et m’hébergea pour quelques jours. À Tétouan, ce fut Souhail qui me fit faire le tour de la ville et m’offrit le repas. À Rabat, ce fut Lotfi qui m’offrit un toit après des embûches avec mon ancien colocataire. À Agouti, ce fut une famille qui nous recueillit sur le bord de la route alors que, sans succès, nous faisions du pouce à dix heures du soir.

À chaque fois, je me retrouvais dans la même situation : je ne savais pas quoi donner en échange. L’argent est à éviter, m’avait-on dit, car mes hôtes pourraient s’en offusquer. De la nourriture, des gâteries à déguster? Seulement s’il y a des commerces ouverts à proximité. Et puis, quoi? Et quelle quantité? La plupart du temps, je me retrouvais à passer en revue les objets dans mon sac pour trouver quelque chose d’intérêt à donner ou je dessinais un truc que je laissais discrètement derrière…

Malgré tout, je repartais avec le sentiment que j’avais profité de mes hôtes. On me répéta encore et encore : ce que tu donnes n’est pas grave, c’est donner qui est important, c’est l’intention qui compte. C’est l’intention qui compte. Pour moi, cette phrase était utilisée pour se faire pardonner une erreur commise, une gaffe, un cadeau pas super, une recette gâtée… Bref, c’est donner comme excuse « la bonne intention » pour justifier les conséquences de nos actions. Après tout, un autre proverbe dit que l’enfer est pavé de bonnes intentions. Je n’arrivais tout simplement pas à justifier mes (très modestes) cadeaux par mon intention.

Naviguer les eaux de l’hospitalité marocaine, c’était pour moi tenter de comprendre un système de règles, de devoirs et de droits qui m’étaient inconnus. Le père d’une famille qui m’avait hébergée m’offrit certains repères dictés par le Coran et les hadîths : honorer son invité est une vertu et un devoir, car ici l’hospitalité est un droit plutôt qu’une faveur. Il m’expliqua que le prophète Mohammed a dit : « Quiconque croit en Dieu et au Jour Dernier, qu’il honore son invité comme il en a le droit. »  On lui demanda alors : « Et quel est ce droit, ô messager de Dieu? »  Il dit : « Le meilleur traitement pour un jour et une nuit.  Et l’hospitalité est pour trois jours et tout ce qui dépasse ces trois jours est considéré comme une charité de la part de l’hôte. » (Hadîth rapporté par Sahih Al-Boukhari).

Malgré les lignes directrices qu’on m’avait offertes, j’avais la théorie du droit de Hart qui me trottait dans la tête: je demeurais un observateur qui n’arrivait pas totalement à adopter le point de vue interne, à accepter et à utiliser les règles pour guider sa conduite. Ce fût un bon rappel : les règles de l’hospitalité, tout comme le droit plus généralement, sont une pratique humaine régie par des normes, des principes, des valeurs, des attitudes, des idées.

Ce qui m’empêchait de comprendre les règles de l’hospitalité marocaine n’était pas mon ignorance des règles (plusieurs hôtes ne connaissaient même pas les spécificités dictées dans les textes sacrés). En fait, c’était plutôt, de un, que j’attribuais trop d’importance à la valeur monétaire de l’échange. Pour moi, la réciprocité, c’était d’offrir quelque chose qui avait la même valeur que ce qu’on m’avait offert : une nuit, deux repas… je faisais des calculs pour obtenir « le compte exact ». De deux, je me préoccupais trop des « règles » et « actions » plutôt que de ce qui les motivaient : l’intention. Je devais apprendre à accepter que l’intention compte indépendamment du résultat. Dans un hadîth rapporté par Al-Boukhari et Mouslim, il est dit que « les actions ne valent que par les intentions qui les motivent et chacun n’a pour lui que ce qu’il a eu réellement l’intention de faire… ».

Petit à petit, de foyers en foyers, j’ai commencé à saisir la vraie valeur de l’intention et, peu à peu, j’ai commencé à accepter de recevoir et de donner sans gêne. Le stress initial s’est atténué et m’a permis de me sentir chez-moi un peu partout à travers le pays. Comme l’écrit l’anthropologiste Wade Davis: « the full measure of a culture embraces both the actions of the people and the quality of their aspirations, the nature of the metaphors that propels them onward ».

Attentes et découvertes

Par Elisabeth Beauchamp

Au début de mon stage, j’ai été un peu effrayée en constatant la légèreté de mon horaire de travail. Tout ce temps libre que j’avais devant moi, comment allais-je l’utiliser ? Cependant, au final, mon temps libre m’a permis de beaucoup en apprendre, surprenamment même, sur les mots ‘human’, ‘rights’, et ‘work’. Je reviens à Montréal avec plus de questions que de réponses, ce voyage n’ayant pas confirmé des idées que je possédais déjà, mais bien plutôt ouvert des fenêtres dont j’ignorais l’existence.

Grâce à la flexibilité de mon horaire et suite à la suggestion du stagiaire précédent, j’ai pu obtenir une journée de congé pour aller visiter une institution pour personnes handicapées dans la campagne serbe. Cette visite a été une opportunité de comprendre l’ampleur du travail nécessaire dans le cadre des droits des personnes handicapées en Serbie.

L’institution est si éloignée dans la campagne qu’elle est virtuellement inaccessible. Les gens de la région étaient complètement ahuris de savoir que je m’y rendais. Quasi tous les résidents de l’institution ont été privés de leur capacité juridique. On m’a expliqué que plusieurs y ont été placés contre leur gré, et qu’aucune réévaluation de leur statut n’est effectuée. À partir du moment où ils sont jugés « incapables » de prendre des décisions, ils conservent ce statut et restent dans ces institutions pour longtemps.

Beaucoup de femmes ont voulu me raconter l’histoire de leur vie, et la travailleuse sociale peinait à traduire de manière cohérente. Celles qui avaient des enfants voulaient me montrer les photos de ces derniers, dont elles ont toutes perdu la garde et avec qui elles ont souvent perdu tout contact. L’une de ces femmes m’a montré une photo d’elle avec une jeune fille. La travailleuse sociale m’a expliqué qu’il s’agissait de sa fille, qui lui a été retirée à la naissance, et qu’elle avait revue pour la première fois le jour où la photo a été prise; elle m’expliqua que c’était un moment très important dans la vie de la dame, et qu’elle voulait le partager avec moi. En même temps, plusieurs autres personnes essayaient d’attirer mon attention. Elles voulaient me montrer leurs vêtements, l’une d’elles m’a demandé de l’appeler ‘maman’, parce que sa fille lui manquait. Une seule parlait l’anglais, et elle m’a dit : ‘You, do you speak English ? Listen well and remember what I say. My name is N., I miss you house, I miss you boyfriend, I miss you coffee, I miss you sugar, I am not happy here, I want to go home. Did you listen? Did you hear what I said?’ Une vieille dame m’a saisie par le bras et m’a répété plusieurs fois qu’elle aussi voulait partir. La travailleuse sociale m’a expliqué qu’elle est là depuis qu’elle a 13 ans, lorsque que sa grand-mère est décédée, et qu’elle a été placée là par sa famille. Les chances qu’elle sorte paraissent malheureusement inexistantes.

La visite de l’institution m’a permis de constater combien la loi qui régit présentement la capacité juridique est problématique, ou tout du moins n’applique pas vraiment les standards prévus par la Convention relative aux droits des personnes handicapées. Je me suis néanmoins aussi rendue compte que même la restitution du « droit à la capacité juridique », ou de n’importe quel autre droit, ne suffira jamais pour tout redonner à ces personnes – par exemple, le droit ne leur redonnera pas une famille qui les aime comme ils sont, ou les années passées loin de leurs enfants.

Cette visite m’aura toutefois permis d’être aussi le témoin du travail discret de certaines personnes, telle que la travailleuse sociale qui m’accompagnait et de ses collègues, et du dévouement de ces dernières pour rebâtir un environnement plus humain malgré toutes les contraintes imposées par le système.

Mis à part cette visite, mes après-midi libres m’ont permis, dès la première semaine, de rencontrer dans mon quartier Kristina, une femme exceptionnelle qui habitait sur ma rue. Kristina est une religieuse et doit avoir aux alentours de 70 ans. Au-delà des récits fascinants de sa vie pendant la période communiste, que j’aurais pu écouter pendant des heures, l’histoire et la présence de Kristina m’ont aidée à aller au travail et, plus généralement, à vivre en Serbie.

Plusieurs fois, le rythme de travail au bureau où je travaillais était lent, et le sens de ma présence, difficile à saisir. Un jour, ma tâche consistait à faire des allers-retours entre le bureau de ma collègue et la machine à numériser, une mission quelque peu répétitive et différente de mes attentes. Mais quand j’ai dû numériser la pile de papiers qui m’était assignée après avoir entendu l’histoire de Kristina, je ne pouvais pas m’empêcher d’être contente de partager cette tâche avec ma collègue, parce que chaque aller-retour me rappelait mon amie, et combien elle était heureuse de partager la vie des gens de Belgrade, même en faisant un travail aussi simple que celui de laver les planchers.

Un autre jour, j’ai pris une marche dans mon quartier avec Kristina. Elle saluait chaque personne qu’elle voyait sur la rue, autant les passants que les gens qui travaillent dans les magasins. En marchant avec elle, je me suis rendue compte de l’existence de mes voisins, et de la fille chez qui j’achetais mes tomates le matin. Avec elle, les figurants de ma solitude sont devenus des personnes réelles. Avec elle, j’ai donc découvert une manière plus humaine de travailler et de vivre.

Kristina m’a aussi conseillé de m’inscrire à un cours de Serbe, si je voulais vivre en Serbie pendant trois mois, plutôt que d’y être une touriste pendant trois mois. Au cours de Serbe, j’ai rencontré mes amies Fei et Soha, qui viennent respectivement de la Chine et de l’Égypte, et qui espèrent s’établir en Serbie. Avec ces deux amies, je me suis rendue compte du privilège que j’avais, avec mon passeport canadien, d’avoir autant de mobilité en Europe et dans les Balkans.

Lorsque nous apprenions les verbes modaux (devoir, pouvoir, vouloir, etc.), j’ai réalisé que, face à la question de l’enseignante : « Devez-vous apprendre le serbe ? » ma réponse était non, je ne dois pas, par contre je le veux, mais la leur était : oui je le dois, parce que je dois me trouver un emploi. Rester avec elles fut un cadeau enrichissant, parce que j’ai constaté qu’elles percevaient la Serbie comme un endroit où il y avait une promesse pour leur vie et où un avenir les  attendait, alors que moi j’étais arrivée en sachant que j’allais en repartir éventuellement.

Pendant le reste de mon séjour, je me suis  posé la question, comment est-ce que le temps passé ici peut ne pas être seulement une parenthèse dans ma vie? Je n’ai pas encore formulé de réponse, mais l’amitié avec Fei et Soha a semé la question.

Tout compte fait, ce stage fut très différent de ce que j’avais imaginé avant de partir. Plus exigeant du point de vue de l’initiative et de l’autonomie, mais aussi beaucoup plus enrichissant du point de vue personnel. Je suis reconnaissante de ce que j’y ai découvert, et de tous ceux que j’ai eu la chance de rencontrer.

Pour conclure…

Par Guillaume Lebrun Petel

J’aimerais conclure ma contribution au McGill International Human Rights Internship Blog par une courte réflexion sur ma première expérience de travail en droit et sur ma vie en Afrique. Je souhaite ainsi informer et, peut-être, inspirer les étudiants qui souhaitent se lancer dans l’aventure des stages internationaux.

Ce n’est un secret pour personne que les études à la Faculté sont principalement axées sur la maîtrise des concepts théoriques du droit. Sans chercher à critiquer cette orientation pédagogique, mon expérience m’amène à soutenir qu’un étudiant a fort à gagner en confrontant cesdits concepts aux réalités de la pratique en droit. Ainsi, le savoir qui naît de la rencontre entre la théorie et le réel peut avoir un impact considérable sur la façon dont nous approchons les problèmes juridiques.

Dans mon premier billet, j’ai décidé de vous parler de Maryam, de son travail et, plus largement, de l’impact que celui-ci avait sur mon quotidien durant mes trois mois au Sénégal. Au cours de mes dernières semaines à la RADDHO, je me souviens avoir lu un texte de la professeure Adelle Blackett où celle-ci mentionnait que le travail domestique – celui effectué par ceux qu’on appelait au Sénégal les « employés de maison » – avait une market-enabling function dans nos sociétés.

Si cette caractéristique m’avait paru audacieusement énoncée et intéressante en théorie, ce n’est qu’aujourd’hui de retour au confort de la bibliothèque Nahum Gelber que la formule me semble prendre tout son sens. En y réfléchissant bien, les tâches ménagères entreprises par Maryam rendaient possible l’envoi d’un foyer entier sur le marché du travail, de sorte que dans mon cas, elles me permettaient de me consacrer entièrement à mon stage et aux intérêts nouveaux qui en émergeaient.

Bien sûr, je comprenais pendant mon séjour que son travail facilitait le quotidien de ma famille d’accueil, mais c’est l’importance économique de son rôle qui, toutefois, me demeurait invisible. Malgré la proximité avec laquelle je bénéficiais de l’aide de Maryam, je ne perçois qu’à présent le grand décalage qui existait entre ma compréhension des concepts théoriques du travail domestique et le véritable impact que celui-ci a eu sur la qualité des apprentissages retirés et des expériences que j’ai vécues pendant mon stage.

Mes trois mois à Dakar m’ont enseigné l’immense savoir qu’il y a à gagner quand la théorie se fond au réel : les problèmes de droits de la personne s’en trouvent plus vrais, plus précis, plus complexes, et habitent plus rapidement l’esprit qui sait que leurs solutions n’attendent qu’à être traduites de concept au concret. Pour ma part, il me semble que c’est à ce niveau que réside toute la force du programme de International Human Rights Internship de McGill, et il s’agit du principal enseignement que je retire de mon été 2018.

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