Don’t Underestimate Human Rights Internships in Canada

caylee_hongBy Caylee Hong

Human rights issues are often relegated to the Otherness of the so-called Developing/Third World, accompanied by the perception that human rights work means going to distant places. The association between ‘going far’ and success rings true for internship statuses: human rights internships’ authenticity, credibility and prestige are often aligned with the ‘exoticness’ of their destination (cities like New York or Brussels beings exceptions given they are institutional epicentres of non-governmental and international big-wigs). Having interned in Nairobi for eight months with the UN and volunteered in China and South East Asia, I admit to the draw of experience in the field, the undeniable excitement of foreign travel and the esteem of going far away to work on human rights.

My past four weeks at Amnesty International Canada and the Canadian Centre for International Justice (CCIJ) in the not-so-far-away-land of Ottawa challenge the assumptions that ‘serious’ human rights violations are a distant problem and that ‘the real’ human rights work is abroad. In today’s political climate, staying in the nation’s capital means gaining practical human rights experience on the ground. While a summer in Ottawa lacks the allure of three months in a faraway location, by interning at Amnesty I feel inspired and prepared to work in human rights sectors, both in Canada and abroad. Gaining experience at home and away – while avoiding the conceptual division between ‘local’ and ‘foreign’ human rights issues – is key.

In particular, I have benefited from direct interaction with different justice institutions while gaining diverse legal experience which is exciting given that I am only entering my second year at McGill. Since my second day and continuing through June, I have attended the Military Police Complaints Commission hearings on the Afghan detainee issue where I rapporteured, wrote Amnesty’s updates and undertook legal research. It introduced me to an entirely different type of proceeding, exposed me to new areas of law such as military justice and operational law and allowed me to witness the cross-examination of Canada’s leading military officials and political advisors.

I have also been involved in the hearings at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal over the underfunding of First Nations children on reserves. The submissions by Professor Joanne St. Lewis and David Nahwegahbow, representing the Assembly of First Nations, truly encouraged me that human rights talk is not about some distant injustice and that knowing the law, being trained in the law, is empowering.

Last week I attended the launch of the homelessness challenge whereby former and current homeless individuals and housing advocates are asking the Superior Court of Ontario for a declaration that Canada and Ontario violated their Charter rights by creating and maintaining conditions that lead to homelessness and inadequate housing. Researching Charter issues surrounding homelessness and its intersections with health, disability and poverty echoed similar issues I had worked on while interning with the UN’s Human Settlement Programme. Urgent action needed to address (in)security of tenure, (in)adequate housing and exclusion link Canada to many other places in the world.

These three direct interactions with justice institutions have impressed upon me the massive scope of human rights work and the intersections between human rights in Canada and those elsewhere in the world. It challenges the not-so-innocent perception that ‘real’ victims/perpetrators of human rights are in distant lands. It forces one to consider the relationship of the Canadian government, the Canadian public and Canadian companies to human rights violations abroad. Bill C-300, which seeks corporate accountability for mining, oil and gas activities in developing countries, and the reform of Canada’s State Immunity Act demonstrate how domestic legislation affects human rights abroad directly.

Don’t underestimate internships in Canada. Closer to home is closer to the action than we would care to believe.

One response to “Don’t Underestimate Human Rights Internships in Canada”

  1. kellymcmillan says:

    Another advantage to Canadian internships is that it is easier to make an impact in a short-term internship in Canada than overseas. As has already been apparent from some of the postings, so much time and energy in overseas internships is spent simply learning to function on a day-to-day basis. It is very hard to be effective in a professional setting when you don’t speak the local language, are not yet in tune to social cues, stand out visibly as an affluent foreigner, etc. It is definitely a humbling experience to feel so professionally incompetent so much of the time!

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