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Navigating the Boundaries of Remote Work at Avocats Sans Frontières

With only two weeks left at my placement at Avocats Sans Frontières Canada (ASFC), I am incredibly grateful to have worked with such a supportive and invested team, albeit remotely, over the past three months.

Like many fellow interns, I worked from the comfort of home this summer. Although working for a Quebec organization from Montreal did not entail different time zones, like those faced by some of my McGill colleagues this summer, the experience still required making up for a lack of in person interactions. Successful communication throughout the day meant being active on Slack and reaching out for a quick video call when questions arose. My colleagues established an open environment where I felt comfortable getting in touch with any queries. Outside of clarifications related to my mandates, my colleagues were generous enough to answer questions about their respective paths in the field of law, which provided me with valuable insight into life post-McGill.

The legal team also hosted weekly “café d’équipes” where new employees, such as myself, were invited to share not only our current projects at ASFC but also our star signs and weekend plans. The casual atmosphere at these brief meetings set a comfortable tone and made up for the water-cooler chat I missed out on due to the pandemic.

During my internship, my supervisor Claire thoughtfully chose mandates centered around my interests, particularly in health law and discrimination. I have completed projects on jurisprudence related to sexual and reproductive health as well as intersectionality. I have also had the chance to research topics I might not have otherwise studied in law school, such as the legal concept of the querulous litigant.

Not only has my internship been an opportunity to fine-tune my legal research skills, it’s been an excellent chance to brush up on my French. Based in Quebec, ASFC operates primarily in French and Spanish. Reading, writing and conversing entirely in French has certainly boosted my confidence in my language capacities.

My internship at ASFC has provided me with everything I could have hoped for this summer: engaging work, friendly coworkers who doubled as mentors, and countless opportunities to branch out my pre-existing legal knowledge. While I am eager to spend my last couple weeks of summer vacation with family in New Brunswick, I will miss being engaged in the interesting projects and brilliant environment my colleagues have established at ASFC. I am very grateful to have been a part of the team if only for three months.

Battered Woman Syndrome and Plea Bargains: Gaps in Defending Vulnerable Women

Co-Authored by Noa Mendelsohn Aviv (Canadian Civil Liberties Association Equality Director) and Kassandra Neranjan; Originally Published: https://ccla.org/blog-ccla-2/

Helen Naslund, a 56 year old grandmother, was sentenced to 18 years in jail for manslaughter after killing her abusive husband while he was sleeping, and then hiding his body. This exceedingly long sentence is 16 years longer than the average sentence imposed for manslaughter by a woman of a male partner,  according to a 2002 report. Helen’s sentence was decided within a criminal justice system that imposes  mandatory sentences (and deters self-defence claims). And it seems to take minimal account of the trauma, threats, and very real dangers faced by women who live with intimate partner violence (also known as “battered women’s syndrome”).

These are the facts of Helen’s case, accepted by both her lawyer and the government lawyer who prosecuted her: Helen’s husband, Miles, had for over 27 years, been physically violent with her, and made comments to her that made her fear for her safety while he was heavily intoxicated and wielding firearms. Helen was depressed for years and made a number of suicide attempts, but did not feel she could leave the marriage due to the “history of abuse, concern for her children, depression, and learned helplessness.” On the weekend before she shot him, Miles became angry with Helen over a broken tractor, ordered her around while “handling his firearm,” and hurled wrenches at her. On the day she shot him, he threatened to make her “pay dearly,” and his threatening behaviour increased throughout that day. That night, Helen killed Miles while he slept. In the morning, she hid his body in a pond where it remained for six years while she misled police as to his whereabouts.

 These too are facts: in Canada, on average every 6 days, a woman is killed by her intimate partner. Women with disabilities, Indigenous women, and queer women are subjected to increased rates of intimate partner violence.

Courts have for decades recognized battered women’s syndrome (BWS) as a subset of post-traumatic stress disorder. Some courts have explained women’s experience of the cycle of violence in terms of their fear, shame, terror and victimization that led them to pull the trigger. Courts have also recognized non-stereotypical, rational explanations as to why a woman might stay in an abusive relationship – to protect her children from abuse, limited social and financial support, and the lack of a guarantee that the violence would end if she left – and how her use of deadly force against her abuser, even outside the heat of a conflict, may have been reasonable to preserve her own life.

BWS has been used to support a claim of self-defense for women who have killed their abusers in “quiet” moments, such as when the abusive spouse was sleeping or not actively going after her. Yet to claim this defense in court, one has to go to trial and risk conviction. If convicted, currently, there is a mandatory penalty: life in jail without parole for 25 or 10 years for first or second degree murder, respectively.

 Helen Naslund was charged with first degree murder. Faced with this terrifying risk, she pled guilty to manslaughter. Other women who have done the same then raised BWS as a factor that should lessen their sentence. However in Helen’s case, the plea bargain required her to also agree to the 18 year sentence. The prosecutor sought to justify this harsh penalty by delineating certain “aggravating factors” – factors that bear a painful resemblance to Helen’s own experience over 27 years of  abuse. First, he argued, “…this offence involved an intimate partner and position of trust. Second, it involved the use of a firearm. The reasonable foreseeability of harm with a firearm involved is obviously greater. Number three, this occurred in the victim’s own home, a place where he’s entitled to feel safe.” The irony – and injustice – of these arguments was apparently lost on the prosecution.

The prosecutor did also set out other “aggravating factors” with respect to how Helen had disposed of Miles’ body, and her efforts to deceive police about what she had done, however none of these justified the lengthy sentence imposed.

BWS is a legally recognized doctrine that should be available to women who, after years of abuse, are highly attuned to escalating violence and threats, and may in a critical moment act to preserve their own life, even if outside a heated exchange. Statistics about the number of women killed by their intimate partners crystallize the very real threat faced by women like Helen.

 The prosecutor had the authority all along to lower the charges against Helen to manslaughter, or to strike a different, more humane bargain that recognized the dangers she had faced.

And the sentencing judge had the power, in extraordinary circumstances like these, to override the plea bargain’s terms and reduce the sentence. Instead, he offered her a word of sympathy stating: “Although I have empathy for … you, this requires a stern sentence…Deterrence is the main principle of sentencing that has to be looked at, deterrence and denunciation …”. Then he sentenced her to 18 years in prison.

Battered women’s syndrome allows us to question the goals of the criminal justice system when faced with the violence women are subjected to in society. Ultimately, courts and government should be spending more time on deterring this violence; on building a society in which women are deemed equal and can exist without threats to their security.

 Helen’s case is one damning example of the dangers of mandatory minimum sentences.

Perhaps what needs to be denounced is not solely Helen’s act, but the systems of policing, social security, and gender norms that allowed her subjugation to violence for 27 years going unquestioned.

Perhaps what needs to be denounced is a justice system that could allow for a plea bargain that imprisons a survivor of abuse to 18 years.

Perhaps what needs to be denounced is a justice system that appears inadequate to represent the complex lived experiences of people before the law.

Listening and Learning at the Indigenous Law Centre

Bryce Lansdell

This summer I have been working remotely as an intern at the Indigenous Law Centre (ILC), based out of the University of Saskatchewan. My principal roles have been to work as a teaching assistant for the ILC’s summer program and to help with curriculum development for a certificate in Indigenous and Aboriginal law, the latter of which will be the subject of another blog post. The ILC summer program is offered to Indigenous law students who will be entering their first year of studies at a Canadian law school in September and allows these students to develop relationships with other future Indigenous legal professionals, gather valuable experience in developing the skills and habits necessary for law school, and lower the number of mandatory courses they will need to take in their first year. Students take two accredited courses: a class in Property law and a class called Kwayeskastasowin—a Cree phrase which roughly translates to “setting things right”—which serves as an introduction to Indigenous laws, worldviews, and how these laws are being revitalized in a colonial context.

Given that I have only completed one year of my law degree and that my studies have only been online, I was initially nervous that my lack of experience would make it difficult to work as a teaching assistant. Instead, I found that being able to clearly remember my first assignments, exams, and what it was like to develop studying techniques in law allowed me to give detailed feedback to students. I also found that having done my entire first year online, in which we learned to network and develop friendships exclusively virtually, gave me a helpful perspective in seeking to create contexts where students could connect both with the teaching assistants and with each other.

While I have enjoyed regularly meeting with students to help them prepare for assignments, midterms, and exams, one of the most meaningful experiences for me this summer started in the last week in May. I was in a morning call on Zoom with a student who was visibly distressed, and when I asked what was going on, she shared that many students in the program were upset about the “news in Kamloops.” This was the first I had heard about what turned into multiple findings of missing and unmarked graves across Canada this summer. I was uncertain of what to say to the student when presented with the news that 215 unmarked graves had been found at a residential school. Not being overly good at reacting well to the unexpected on the spot, I tried to express how horrible the situation was without much success before we continued our discussion of course material. However, I left the meeting with my heart feeling quite heavy. Although I was aware of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action regarding missing and unmarked graves at residential schools, hearing this news directly from an Indigenous student made the pain and suffering from residential schools feel far more real to me than it had been previously.[1]

In the coming week for both courses, we were sure to check in with how students were doing and made space for students to share with the class how they were processing the news. Though what was shared is confidential, I found it heartbreaking to hear about how personal and close to home the harm of residential schools is for so many of the students, their families, and their communities. Later, in a meeting with ILC Director Marilyn Poitras, Marilyn shared frustration and dismay that Indigenous people’s testimonies about residential schools were only being reckoned with now that bodies have been identified, despite there having long been various accounts of unmarked graves and higher than reported death rates at residential schools in Indigenous communities, despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report on Missing Children and Unmarked Burials,[2] and despite reports even in the early 20th Century by Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce about the appalling conditions and high death rate in residential schools which were ignored by the government.[3]

Although hearing of the grief and frustration of the students was heartbreaking, I also felt very honoured and privileged to be in the classroom with them. While I am only in the early stages of learning what role I can play in reconciliation, I believe one thing I can personally do is to spend more time listening to and learning from the stories and experiences of Indigenous people. In turn, I am very grateful for the opportunity that my internship with the ILC has afforded me to do so this summer.

The first day of the ILC summer program held virtually.

[1] See Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action (Winnipeg: TRC, 2015) at Calls to Action 71-76 <http://trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf>.

[2] See Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Missing Children and Unmarked Burials in Canada’s Residential Schools: The Final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, vol 4 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015) <http://www.trc.ca/assets/pdf/Volume_4_Missing_Children_English_Web.pdf>.

[3] See P.H. Bryce, The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada (Ottawa: James Hope & Sons, 1922).

Human Rights to Water and Sanitation: Finding Common Ground on the Scope of Obligations

Ellen Spannagel

By: Ellen Spannagel

In my work as an intern with Forum for Human Rights, an organization that focuses on international human rights litigation and advocacy and Central Europe, I have been helping with a submission centered on the human rights to water and sanitation. The rights to safe drinking water and sanitation are derived from the right to an adequate standard of living, a right that is enshrined in several human rights instruments that are ratified by Canada, including the ICESCR, CEDAW, CRPD, and the CRC.

In my research, I found that violations of the rights to safe drinking water and sanitation are typically related to violations of other rights, including the right to health (highest attainable standard of health), housing (also part of the right to an adequate standard of living), and the principle of non-discrimination, among others. This bolsters the notion that human rights are interdependent and interrelated: these are rights that can only be upheld so long as the others are upheld.

This theme of interdependence is prominent within United Nations (UN) treaty bodies and throughout the comments of UN Special Rapporteurs. For example, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, Leilani Farha, has specified that housing that does not provide adequate water and sanitation can give rise to a situation of homelessness, a fundamental breach of the right to housing. The interrelatedness of these rights is also prominent among regional courts. For example, in Öneryildiz v. Turkey, a community was devasted by the explosion of a landfill, and the European Court of Human Rights held that waste disposal, and its impacts on health, were intricately related to the right to life and that there is “positive obligation on States to take appropriate steps to safeguard the lives of those within their jurisdiction.”

While this makes it easy to link rights such as the human rights to water and sanitation to the violations of other rights, it sometimes makes it difficult to identify the specific obligations states have in fulfilling these rights at a normative level. For example, in the recent judgement Hudorovic and Others v. Slovenia, which considered whether Slovenia violated obligations to provide the Roma applicants with adequate access to drinking water and sanitation, the European Court of Human Rights acknowledged that it is “necessary to take into account the vulnerable and disadvantaged position of the Roma population”  in the context of several rights, such as the right to life. However, the court ultimately ruled that that the State had fulfilled their positive obligations to provide access to utilities to the applicants, despite evidence of existing lack of access to adequate water and sanitation. This contradicts the comments made by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing and raises questions about the scope of obligations where a multiplicity of interrelated rights are at play. Questions about the level of access (whether water must be provided directly into the home) and affordability (how much it should cost to remain connected to a public water supply) remain unanswered and highlight whether human rights as they currently exist are best positioned to tackle these issues.

In Europe, water-related issues (access to safe drinking water, access to sewage) and waste issues (uncontrolled dumpsites and landfills) are common situations of environmental racism that particularly affect Roma communities.  When I reflect on the state of affairs where I live, I am immediately reminded of the long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities, and its relationship to other issues such as adequate housing and food security.

The human rights to water and sanitation are especially important in the context of the climate crisis. While it is important that international and regional bodies recognize the interdependence of these rights to other rights such as the right to housing, without stricter judicial review, and a more specific framework establishing how these rights should play out on the ground, States will be absolved of responsibilities in ensuring these rights for communities that are structurally disadvantaged. Finding a common ground on the scope of obligations for these various interrelated rights, particularly in situations of persistent structural inequality, will be integral moving forward.

Working Remotely for the Yukon Human Rights Commission: the Saga Continues

Unfortunately, my time with the Yukon Human Rights Commission (YHRC) is coming to an end.  My placement ends after July 29, 2021, leaving me just enough time to take care of my strategic appointments (doctor, dentist, banker, replacement OHIP card) and relocating to Montreal before classes start.  All of this notwithstanding my second blog post.

I need to thank the staff at the YHRC. My immediate supervisor and Acting Counsel was generous with his time, and patience, and always willing to engage with me about my problems or concerns.  Everyone was friendly and engaging. I appreciated the invitation to the team’s weekly Coffee Time get together, a time to chat, relax, and recharge. Even when one of the coffee towers tipped over spilling much of that black gold on the floor, people in the room (or at least through Zoom) had good spirits.

Coffee Time was insightful.  I spent some time in the Northwest Territories and knew a few things about bears, but it was nice to renew my understanding and appreciation of the different types of bear sprays.  I was envious to learn about all the opportunities for outdoor activities in the territory.  I was envious to learn of how my colleagues used all of their free time, especially when I had to rationalize how “free time” was a luxury that I really could not afford as a full time student.

My research continued and I wrote legal opinions relating to my findings.  Things were going well until I researched the issue of vicarious liability.  Some statutes contain provision(s) that allow a respondent, usually an employer in the employment context, to “escape” liability if they can demonstrate that they did not condone the inappropriate behaviour or reasonable steps to address it.  Why is that? If the purpose of human rights legislation is remedial, should it not be that the employer and the perpetrator be subject to remedial (not punitive) action?

Between flash backs to my first year Torts and second year Employment Law classes, I tried to find the answer, especially why this type of language was limited to a few statutes across jurisdictions and not universal?

I don’t want to sound cocky, but I think I’m pretty good at legal research.  I did a lot of legal research working in labour relations, with Quicklaw, Westlaw, or CanLii.  I’ve had more practice and refined my skills since coming to McGill.  I’m competitive and don’t like to lose or admit defeat.  But this was a tricky topic. Eventually, I abandoned looking at case law and tried to access the Hansard.  Unlike Westlaw or Quicklaw which provides a universal interface, each Hansard interface is different (ie, the Government of Canada Hansard is different from the Province of Manitoba’s Hansard).

Unfortunately, I could not find what I was looking for (some of my research was very historical) but happened to come across my former high school classmate, now counsel for a trade union in Vaughan. Congratulations Steve. He appeared before a Province of Ontario Legislative Committee and made a presentation on behalf of his employer. Ultimately, I wrote my opinion based on what I was able to find, in the time that I had to do it.  If anyone from Quicklaw or Westlaw is reading this, you should look at downloading Hansard and making it more user friendly to search.  Expand your business and take pity on me.

My last two assignments concern the scope of individual and organizational liability, and the enforcement of settlements.  One takeaway from all the research I’ve done during this placement is to be wary of going down the rabbit hole.  Granted, it is easy if your research topic is narrow or limited, but in instances where you find a lot of jurisprudence, you need to be able focus on what is sufficient to answer or address your question. There were times when I found my digging for more and more supporting cases, rather than evaluating the applicability of the ones I had already found (and cited).  One sage piece of advice from my Supervisor, echoed by Professor Adamski in my Integrations and Advocacy classes was time.  In the future, I will likely have more restrictive deadlines and must do the best with the time I have.

Apart from research, I have learned, and appreciated, that the Commission plays an important  gatekeeper role in the Yukon’s human rights system and its complaint process.  There are many steps and considerations that are required to be exhausted before a complaint is adjudicated.  As a party, usually a respondent, to human rights complaints from my labour relations days, I did not appreciate the nuances of the system, mainly the strengths or weaknesses of the complaint against my client.  Many complainants are not represented by legal counsel.  While a complainant many feel discriminated against and inherently feel they deserve a remedy to correct the injustice they suffered, they are ignorant of the process, legal tests, standards of evidence, and the principle that he who alleges must prove.  All things being equal, a respondent is not necessarily required to disprove the allegations against them.   

As I reflect on my placement, I strikes me that I actually had the opportunity to do work that impacts a real complaint. I cannot divulge details, but my research may influence whether their complaint proceeds to a hearing on its merits or is dismissed.   I wonder: would the complainant accept a reasonable settlement?  This would almost certainly be without an admission of guilt or liability. But is this something the complainant would accept? The settlement offer could reflect the weaknesses of the respondent’s case and be a quick fix –  an avenue to avoid a negative decision and perhaps larger financial liability. Then again, the respondent might have a very strong case and their settlement offer is strategy to avoid the expense of a hearing.  What about the complainant? If their case is weak, would they accept what the respondent offers, even though it would likely be less than what they were seeking?  Are they so steadfast or dogmatic in their belief that they were wronged that they will accept nothing less than their day in court with a public decision that memorializes their righteousness? I have been on both sides of fence in the past; I worked with management to settle where we were weak or to avoid the nuisance of a hearing.  I have also reluctantly gone through a hearing (including travel, the logistics of witness prep, motions and objections, and the scrutiny of document production) when I knew we were in a strong position but the complainant was adamant that they were in the right and would accept nothing less than a public decision echoing their divinity and demonizing my client.

Here is my confession. With this actual complaint, I would like to see a decision.  I think both sides have a credible argument. My attitude is not gospel and how much weight, or doubt, you want to give my assessment is up to you. Unfortunately, the world of litigation is not an academic exercise. It is expensive, time consuming, and an emotional investment since someone wins and someone loses. My research had mixed results and I do not know what the outcome would be.

So here we are, back at the beginning of my first entry. I do not know the answer.

The saga continues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Procedure Underpinning Human Rights at the Commission

Jeremy Wiener This summer, I am working at the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (CDPDJ). Every Canadian province has a human rights commission or tribunal, and the CDPDJ is Quebec’s. The CDPDJ’s principal task is promoting the principles enshrined in Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (which has quasi-constitutional status). To promote the Charter, the CDPDJ makes recommondations to the Quebec government regarding statutory law’s conformity  with the Charter, promotes scholarly research and publications on issues related to the Charter, carries out investigations of discrimination, and even represents complainants before the Tribunal des droits de la personne by drafting factums and pleading before judges.

My work has entailed researching questions of law to help the CDPDJ represent those who allege that they have been discriminated against. I do so, however, not only by researching anti-discrimination law. I have also analyzed procedural law, and the law relating to business association and civil evidence – law taught in McGill law courses that I have not taken yet! This has reminded me that protecting people’s constitutional rights requires much more legal knowledge than what only relates to constitutional law.

Like many of my friends and colleagues, I am working remotely this summer due to Covid-19. This has, naturally, and not surprisingly, proved challenging. But it has also presented unique opportunities. For example, if I was working at the Commission’s office, I would not be able to take a two-minute break from working to play with my dog as I do now! All jokes aside, my colleagues at the Commission have gone to great lengths to make working remotely feel like we are working inter-connectedly, and I very much appreciate it! My internship thus far has proved incredibly insightful and formative, and I thank all those at McGill, IHRIP, and at the Commission who have made this opportunity possible.

Human Rights in Cyberspace: An online internship about human rights online

Niamh LeonardThis summer, I am working as a Legal Extern at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. The Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. The lab focuses on research, development, and high-level strategic policy and legal engagement at the intersection of information and communication technologies, human rights, and global security. I am working under the supervision of McGill Law graduate Siena Anstis, Senior Legal Advisor at the Lab (and an ultramarathoner!).

My primary focus is a research project on how regulation of surveillance technology exports can prevent human rights abuses. In particular, I am considering the role of corporate and state transparency practices. Surveillance technologies can have severe impacts on human rights: they can restrict freedom of expression, freedom of association or the right to privacy, but they can also enable unwarranted arrests and detentions, and in some cases torture or extrajudicial killings. Despite these human rights risks, they are often sold to governments with long track records of human rights violations, like Mexico.

I am researching the current legislative frameworks that exporting countries have in place to approve these exports, as well as the human rights obligations of exporting states under international and domestic law. My experience so far has been eye-opening: I have been delving into questions of international human rights law, trade law, national security and technology. I have also been expanding my vocabulary. For example, dual-use technologies are technologies that can have both military and civilian purposes. IMSI catchers (short for International Mobile Subscriber Identity catchers) are essentially fake cell phone towers that let operators intercept mobile phone data and location data. Zero-day exploits are types of cyberattacks that exploit a vulnerability in existing software before it is patched by the company’s developers. Although most of us have never heard about these technologies and approaches, they are becoming increasingly commonplace on the global stage and have direct repercussions on our rights.

A highlight of my internship thus far has been the opportunity to work with an interdisciplinary team that advocates for a more just cyberspace through rigorous, thoughtful research. If you are looking for summer entertainment, I recommend Black Code or The Dissident, two documentaries that illustrate the importance of justice in cyberspace and feature Citizen Lab researchers.

Building a home in government for the Federal Housing Advocate

This summer, I’m one of many interns working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that’s not the only thing making my experience at the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) unique. This is the first year the Centre of Human Rights and Legal Pluralism has partnered with the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate (OFHA), for a simple reason: this is the first full year the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate has existed.

The National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA), enacted in 2019, created the OFHA. The OFHA is so new that a Federal Housing Advocate has not even been appointed yet. The NHSA enshrines housing as a human right and charges the Federal Housing Advocate to monitor the progressive realization of the right to housing and research systemic housing issues. My team’s work is focused on preparing the office for the Advocate so they can hit the ground running. For example, I have been writing a lot of briefs on different housing issues for the Advocate to read once they’re appointed.

I wrote one on Canadian jurisprudence around economic, social, and cultural rights. Economic, social, and cultural rights include rights like the right to housing and the right to healthcare – they impose positive obligations on governments. While there is international consensus that the “positive” and “negative” rights dichotomy is false and not useful, Canadian courts still look at positive obligations as “non-justiciable.” But a right to housing isn’t meaningful unless it can be enforced. This allowed me to apply what I learned taking Public International Law at McGill and sparked an interest in how to make positive rights enforceable in domestic Canadian law and jurisprudence.

It has been a summer of non-stop learning. This is my first time working for a large organization and for government, so even the work flows were a learning curve. I had some experience working from home, so I thought it would be a fairly independent process, but one of the things that surprised me the most was how many meetings we are constantly attending. My teammates generously extended me invites to any meetings I was interested in attending, whether or not it had to do with my work, and sitting on these meetings with all of these knowledgeable and accomplished people has allowed me to learn about so many facets of different housing issues. It definitely made up for missing out on in-person connections. It has been great experience for someone like me interested in a career in government.

Multiple actors will always be involved in fulfilling the right to housing because housing is cross-jurisdictional, not falling squarely within either provincial or federal jurisdiction. Building a new office in government clearly requires connections between federal government departments, and our office is also required to consult with civil society organizations, members of vulnerable groups, and people with lived experience of housing need and homelessness. Having a mandate grounded in international human rights law means that we also need to talk to experts in those areas. These relationships are crucial for the inherently collaborative implementation of the right to adequate housing.

Hopefully, the Advocate will be appointed soon – some team members had even speculated they could be appointed before my internship started. But this way, I was able to see everything that goes into building an office from scratch – an experience that not many people working for the federal government have. If everything goes according to plan, next year’s intern will enter a fully-staffed OFHA and jump into all the projects we teed up this summer. Legislatively, there are many things we can’t even do without the appointment of the Advocate and we have been working within those limitations. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the housing crisis in Canada and many people are looking to the OFHA for action. Housing touches everyone, and helping set the groundwork for the OFHA this summer is a tangible contribution that I’ll be able to look back on.

The Need to Abolish Guardianship – Bulgaria and Beyond!

Kendra Landry

By: Kendra Landry

This summer, in working with the Bulgarian Center for Non-for-Profit Law, I have been helping to promote their Born Ready advocacy campaign. In line with the principles outlined in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we have been collecting signatures to advocate for supported decision-making to replace the existing guardianship regime in Bulgaria.

Currently, in Bulgaria, PWDs have little agency in their legal decisions, and are deprived of many basic human rights (to marry, to vote, to institute complaints with courts, etc.). Today, guardianship is indefinite, all-encompassing of individuals’ legal activity, and difficult to revoke. It is not subjected to periodic review, and ostensibly transforms PWDs into objects fully subordinated to their guardians. Individuals under guardianship are deprived of all access to the justice system. Guardianship affects all spheres of their public lives; as such, we have been advocating for the dismantling of this damaging regime.

The Born Ready campaign advocates for the enactment of legal tools to ensure equal treatment for PWDs. Supported decision-making has been proposed as an alternative to guardianship in Bulgaria and would allow for PWDs to express their wishes and exercise their legal rights. This regime saw great success in a 2012 pilot initiative and allowed over 150 PWDs previously under guardianship to be self-determining – albeit with a trusted supporting person to assist in making decisions about their private lives, health, finances, and property. Here, individuals control their decision-making, and are protected from undue influence, violence, and abuse in their trusted relationships with supporting persons.

Here is the link to BCNL’s change.org petition, if you’re interested in signing: https://www.change.org/p/let-s-put-an-end-to-the-guardianship-in-bulgaria-now?signed=true. Petitions are an important form of advocacy in Bulgaria, as they garner community support, and will help the campaign gain traction with the National Assembly.

It has been interesting to work on this project with the BCNL, especially as guardianship/conservatorship abuse has been at the forefront of popular media. This summer, news of Britney Spears’ abusive conservatorship has prompted global outrage and engendered the #FreeBritney movement; Spears’ fight to end her conservatorship showcases that PWDs under these regimes are rarely listened to, their disabilities and mental health issues weaponized as justifications to restrict their agency, free will, and self-determination.

Spears’ recent testimony has gone viral in the past few weeks; she pointed out that – despite her ability to work, tour, and generate money for her conservators – she has been subjected to striking restrictions, unable to make decisions about her own body/healthcare, and even barred from riding around in her boyfriend’s car. As she fights to charge her family with conservatorship abuse, she continues to shine a spotlight on injustices that affect PWDs from across the globe. Her case is a high-profile example of the dangers that quietly affect thousands of people in North America, Bulgaria, and beyond; it exemplifies why guardianship/conservatorships must be abolished and replaced with less restrictive regimes that account for the wishes and needs of PWDs.

The Importance of Inclusion: Lessons Learned While Working Remotely Across an Ocean

This summer I am working for the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, however, due to the pandemic, I am working remotely from Canada. While the project I am working on does not require being in an office, and is relatively self-directed, the distance has made my work more challenging. For example, I miss being able to easily speak with others who might have valuable feedback about what I am working on. Instead, I am dependent on emails for answers to my questions, and the nearly 12-hour time difference means I usually do not get responses until the next day. Consequently, I have had to be fairly independent in my work and carefully plan my emails to make sure each one is clear, and I can get answers to any questions as quickly as possible.

Working remotely has also made it more difficult to accomplish the goals of my project. I am currently attempting to schedule interviews with women activists in Sri Lanka about their experiences, and the distance between Canada and Sri Lanka has complicated this process. I am reliant on email to contact them instead of being able to call or visit organizations where they work, and for those who respond and agree to an interview, I must find a time that not only fits their schedule, but also works with the time difference. Working in Sri Lanka and not having to deal with the pandemic would therefore have made this aspect of my project much easier. Nevertheless, I hope I will be able to interview many of the women activists I have contacted, as I would appreciate the opportunity to speak with them and learn from their experiences.

Yet even without having currently completed any interviews, this internship has highlighted the diversity of issues activists aim to address. When I first learned I would be interviewing women activists in Sri Lanka this summer, I thought these activists would focus primarily on women’s rights issues. However, the women I have found work in many different areas, including the environment, garment work, tea plantations, health, the legal system, peacebuilding, and the rights of children, youth, minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community in addition to women’s rights issues. The diversity of topics reinforces the importance of understanding women as more than just their gender and recognizing they should be included in attempts to solve many different issues as they will make valuable and unique contributions. I am thankful this internship has made me more aware of the diversity present in activism and given me the opportunity to learn about so many different areas of important work from women who are directly involved.

Researching Sri Lanka has also caused me to reflect on the importance of reconciliation. Divisions between the majority Sinhala population and the minority Tamil population, who are the majority in Sri Lanka’s North and East, led to a brutal civil war between 1983 and 2009, as many of the Tamils fought to secede.[1] However, years after the war’s end, and despite a reconciliation commission, it appears the underlying grievances which led to the conflict have not been resolved.[2] Consequently, I have become aware of how difficult it can be to build a lasting peace in a country with deep divisions, and how easy it can be to ignore what are often legitimate issues that have led to conflict, especially when one side has greater power. Although the situation between settler Canadians and Indigenous peoples is very different, the increased discussion about reconciliation in Canada this summer has led me to think about what is needed for change to occur in both countries. I hope members of the majority communities and governments in both countries will learn to listen to minority communities and work to address their concerns, as otherwise reconciliation and peace may remain elusive.

Overall, I have learned many important things about Sri Lanka, activism, and human rights work from working at ICES this summer, and I am grateful for the opportunity. I look forward to learning even more as I continue my internship and interview women activists about their experiences.

[1] Nithyani Anandakugan, “The Sri Lankan Civil War and Its History, Revisited in 2020” (31 August 2020), online: Harvard International Review <hir.harvard.edu/sri-lankan-civil-war/>.

[2] Anandakugan, supra note 1; Kate Cronin-Furman, “UN Human Rights Council Outlines Sri Lanka Abuses, But Demurs on Action” (26 March 2021), online: Just Security <www.justsecurity.org/75510/un-human-rights-council-outlines-sri-lanka-abuses-but-demurs-on-action/>.

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