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On living through an infodemic

Hanna RiosecoBy Hanna Rioseco

This summer, the World Health Organization (WHO) hosted the first Infodemiology Conference, focused on understanding, measuring, and controlling infodemics.

The term “infodemic” was coined by the WHO to describe the rapid spread and overabundance of information – some accurate, and some not. In a situation report published in early February, the WHO warned that infodemics make it difficult to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance. During COVID-19, the consequences of misinformation can be a matter of life and death: a study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene estimates that between January and March 800 people around the globe may have died because of coronavirus-related misinformation.

Mitigating the risk of COVID-19 includes tackling the spread of misinformation that often accompanies outbreaks. Like a virus, misinformation spreads from person to person, but through information and communications technology systems.

I don’t have to consult the WHO, however, to recognize the information crisis for what it is: I’m living, scrolling, and sorting through it myself. Since February, my newsfeeds have been crowded with COVID-19 related news, stories, and memes. But the content that comes across my screen is not all accurate, or even useful. I’ve seen acquaintances criticize government directives about social distancing and question the effectiveness of mask-wearing; conspiracy theories regarding the origins and nature of the virus, some fueled with harmful sentiments; and medical misinformation such as untested at-home remedies. In Canada, a Carleton University study found that 46 percent of Canadian respondents believed at least one of four unfounded COVID-19 theories. 

To curb the spread of misinformation, the WHO has been active in the digital space by partnering with influencers to spread factual information. They have also been working closely with search engines and social media platforms to ensure that science-based health messages from official sources appear first in search results or newsfeeds. These efforts are being made to combat dangerous rumors, for example, that COVID-19 cannot survive in hot weather, or that chloroquine medication can prevent the virus. Additionally, the WHO is using artificial intelligence to engage in social listening and gain insights about the types of concerns people have about the virus. In theory, this will help officials to better tailor health messaging to meet the needs of the public. As I researched and reported on pandemic-related changes to access to information laws for the Centre for Law and Democracy’s COVID-19 Tracker, I also learned about how some States have used the infodemic surrounding COVID-19 as justification for harsh disinformation laws. Though aimed at protecting public health by curbing the spread of misinformation surrounding COVID-19, these laws have in many cases resulted in the detention of journalists and the criminalization of free speech. These responses raise a multitude of concerns, not only regarding human rights but also concerning how communications and information policy and legal frameworks can support access to reliable information moving forward.

During my internship at the Centre for Law and Democracy, I learned about how governments can mitigate the harmful effects of misinformation surrounding COVID-19 by fulfilling their right to information obligations. In a time where things feel more uncertain than ever, States can rebuild public trust and confidence by providing access to timely, reliable information. As I think about what I’ve learned about freedom of information and expression, and reflect on how our information systems and policies have failed to keep people informed and protected during this crisis, I am left with more questions than answers. What can this moment teach us about regulating the information environment? The problems posed by misinformation will, in all likelihood, outlast the virus, and require a multi-stakeholder solution. How can our digital communications infrastructure better safeguard against the harms of misinformation? What role should the private digital companies play? Should platforms censor or label content they identify as being false or misleading, or would that set a dangerous precedent for the moderation of free speech? And of course, where do human rights fit in?

Reflecting on COVID-19 and Human Rights

Alice JeonBy Alice Jeon

A silver lining of this quarantine-filled summer was that it left me with a lot of time to sit down and reflect. One thing that I have been thinking about is how this COVID-19 pandemic might alter the course of human rights work. Which human rights issues will become prioritized? Which advocacy strategies are still possible and preferred? Does the pandemic call for any changes in how we should think about ethical issues related to human rights? These are questions that I have continued to think about as I wrap up my internship at the HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

For one, my experience during the internship has showed me that the pandemic inevitably places certain human rights issues at the forefront of our attention. For us at the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, it has been the skyrocketing rates of drug overdose since the start of quarantine.

Statistics from Toronto Public Health reported that there were 287 suspected opioid overdose calls and 25 deaths in May 2020, the highest number of fatalities since September 2017.  The ongoing opioid crisis was compounded with the unique social circumstances caused by quarantine to create one of the worst periods of drug overdose in the past few years.

In this way, the pandemic has inevitably moved certain issues (e.g. child abuse, access to health care) to the forefront of the human rights agenda. At the same time, it is important to clarify that many of these issues are by no means “new.” COVID-19 may have exacerbated them but these social issues stem from deeply rooted, previously existing inequities that have merely become more exposed at this moment.

Furthermore, I have also been thinking about how COVID-19 may change what human rights advocacy looks like. Our organization is lucky in the sense that our work was only impacted on a minor level; our hearings were delayed and of course, we had to do work remotely, but that did not stop us from doing most of our legal research-based work. However, the reality is that a lot of human rights work consists of field work, working with people on the ground to figure out what is happening first-hand. This becomes very difficult with closed borders and two-week quarantines in place. Even without these hurdles, human rights work will definitely be harder in the sense that workers will be at higher risk of falling sick. This said, some would argue that infectious viruses have existed before COVID-19, something that has never stopped them from doing their work.

Here is another question that I have thought about: if we are in a situation where human rights issues must be put “on hold” in order to help contain the pandemic, to what extent should we do so? Or should we have to at all? For instance, how should we balance our right to privacy with the need to track the movement of the virus? Another question related to my internship work: to what extent is it acceptable that supervised injection sites are temporarily closed as a result of minimizing social interaction; and at what point does the closure become unacceptable? This seems like an important question, for I hypothesize that these closures may be related to the staggering number of overdose deaths.

At the moment, it seems like there are more questions than answers. However, even if a vaccine is eventually found, COVID-19 and its consequences are most likely here to stay. I would not be surprised if it permanently altered the field of human rights work, whether it is the issues that are prioritized, the type of advocacy that becomes preferred, or the way we think about ethical questions in relation to human rights. Uncertainty abounds but at least we can start making sense of which questions must be asked.

 

 

Recognizing Colonialism in Education: the Federal Indian Day Schools Settlement

Maya GunnarssonBy Maya Gunnarsson

While interning for the Akwesasne Justice Department this summer, one of my tasks has been to help provide information to community members on the claims process for the Federal Indian Day Schools (IDS) Settlement.

When talking to family members and friends about the work I am doing, I have found that the most common question I hear is “What are the Indian Day Schools?”.  While the majority of Canadians are now aware of the history of Indian Residential Schools (IRS) in Canada, many have never heard of the IDS, which ran from the 1860s until 2000. The goal of the IDS was the same as that of the IRS—to strip Indigenous children of their cultural identity and assimilate them into the dominant culture.  Similar to IRS, children at the IDS were prohibited from speaking their language, and many experienced verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.  The principal difference between the IDS and IRS, is that children at the IDS returned home every day, rather than living at the schools.

In 2006, a settlement agreement was made between survivors of IRS, the churches that operated them, and the federal government. In addition to financially compensating former students for the harms they suffered at IRS, the settlement agreement mandated the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).  The TRC gathered statements from survivors and issuing a final report that documented the experiences of IRS survivors.  Released in 2015, the TRC’s Final Report included 94 Calls to Action, aimed at governments, educational institutions, churches, and the corporate sector, intended to redress the legacy of residential schools and to advance the reconciliation process.

Over the past 5 years, many of the TRC’s Calls to Action have begun to be implemented, and while there may be fair criticisms levelled at the government for their commitment to implementing all the recommendations (for example, this Yellowhead Institute’s assessment found that only 9 Calls to Action had been completed by the end of 2019), it is undeniable that Canadians’ knowledge of the history of IRS has significantly increased as a result of the TRC’s final report.  However, while many non-Indigenous Canadians are now aware of legacy of IRS, the same cannot be said about the Federal Indian Day Schools that ran concurrently with the residential schools.

Gary McLean (1951-2019) was the lead plaintiff in the Indian Day Schools lawsuit against the Federal Government. Source: APTN News.

 In 2009, Gary McLean, a survivor of the IDS, launched a class action seeking compensation for the harms suffered by students at IDS. In 2019, a settlement agreement was reached, and in January 2020 the claims process for survivors was opened.  The settlement process differs significantly from that of the IRS.  In 2018, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (the successor to the TRC) released a report detailing how the IRS settlement process retraumatized many survivors.  One of the biggest ways in which former IRS students felt traumatized by the settlement process was the sheer number of times they had to recount the traumatic experiences they had in the residential schools. Survivors were only compensated for the harm they experienced if they provided “sufficient evidence,” and the whole process felt very adversarial for many.  Further, speaking about the abuse they endured in IRS triggered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for many survivors, which stopped them from providing statements. The full disclosure required of survivors prevented many from testifying at all and accessing the settlements they were entitled to.

In response to this process and negative experience of IRS survivors, former IDS students are not required to provide any testimony to receive the level 1 claim amount—they must simply identify the school they attended and the years they attended it.  For those survivors who are eligible for claim levels 2-5 (those who experienced any form of sexual abuse, or physical abuse causing serious harm), they must provide a written narrative that details the events that led to the harm they suffered.  They must also provide some form of proof that they attended the school (e.g. report cards, class photos, yearbooks, etc.) and for claim levels 4 and 5, their narratives must be accompanied by some other form of corroborating records (such as medical, dental, or therapy records).  However, for those unable to attain such records, survivors can submit a sworn declaration in lieu.  Survivors will not be cross-examined or asked to verbally repeat their testimony.  Further, there is a limit on the number of cases that Canada can challenge the eligibility for.  In these cases, the government may provide supplemental factual information regarding eligibility to the Claims Administrator; however, they do not engage directly with the survivor.  The claims process will remain open until July 2022, and it remains to be seen whether survivors will have a more positive experience with this claims process than with the IRS settlement claims process.

In addition to the compensation for former students, the IDS settlement also outlines the establishment of a Legacy Fund, to which Canada has agreed to provide $200 million. The purpose of this fund will be to fund projects that commemorate, provide wellness and healing, or promote the restoration of Indigenous languages and culture. The Legacy Fund was initially estimated to be up and running by fall 2020; however, due to uncertainties caused by COVID-19, this will likely be delayed.  Whenever the Fund is ready to provide grants to Legacy Projects, I hope we will begin to see an increase in the average Canadian’s awareness of IDS and their legacy.  This summer I have informed many of my friends and family members about the history of IDS in Canada—hopefully in a few summers time, Canadians will be just as aware of Indian Day Schools and their impacts as they are now of Indian Residential Schools.

 

Sur le plaisir de se sentir utile

Jasmine RazaviPar Jasmine Razavi

Comme toutes les bonnes choses doivent un jour prendre fin, cette semaine est la dernière semaine de mon stage à la Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse. Je me sens extrêmement chanceuse d’avoir pu compléter ce stage, alors qu’il était incertain que cela puisse être le cas il y a quelques mois à peine.

L’expérience que l’on acquiert en commençant un nouvel emploi ou un nouveau stage est toujours unique. Bien que j’aie fait de nombreuses recherches jurisprudentielles pour appuyer les avocates de la Commission dans leurs arguments juridiques, ce qui se prête bien au télétravail, je n’aurais pas pu apprendre ce que j’ai appris dans les dernières semaines en faisant simplement des recherches seules, durant mon temps libre.

L’apport des avocates supervisant mon travail, me posant des questions pour approfondir mes recherches ou pour que j’envisage de nouvelles pistes, corrigeant au passage les accros et les erreurs de compréhension, m’a permis d’acquérir un niveau de connaissance plus poussé sur le statut des droits de la personne au Québec. Le plus enrichissant reste d’apprendre les secrets du métier – de l’insider information, comme on dit souvent en anglais. Bien que je n’aie pas eu l’expérience habituelle du travail collaboratif aux bureaux de la Commission, la communication constante avec les avocates me supervisant m’a permis d’apprendre de précieuses informations qui ne viennent qu’avec le temps et l’expérience.

J’ai notamment travaillé sur des questions portant sur l’abus de procédure dans les tribunaux administratifs, l’engagement de la responsabilité personnelle des administrateurs et des employeurs lors d’une faute d’un employé, le profilage politique et le désaveu d’experts, les accommodements raisonnables pour les personnes souffrant de limitations fonctionnelles permanentes, et la montée en popularité et la légalité des questionnaires médicaux imposés par les employeurs.

Ces recherches avaient toutes un point commun : elles sont toutes absolument concrètes et basées sur la réalité, contrairement à un travail de recherche académique, qui explore des avenues hypothétiques souvent assez floues. Derrière chaque argument avant-gardiste de la Commission, pour lequel je devais parfois tenter de répondre à des questions jamais posées auparavant, se trouve le dossier d’une personne de Montréal, de Québec ou de la Beauce, attendant anxieusement le résultat d’une action juridique pouvant impacter sa vie de manière majeure.

Le sentiment de faire quelque chose d’utile, ayant des conséquences tangibles parfois même à court terme, ne me quittait pas. Même les recherches plus étoffées que je faisais, qui étaient d’intérêt plus général, serviraient de références futures pour les avocates des services juridiques.

Mes superviseuses de stage parlaient de dossiers qu’elles connaissaient sur le bout de leurs doigts et des cas plaidés à la cour avec passion. Je sentais, à travers elles, que le coup de main que j’apportais avait de l’importance. Aucun argument juridique potentiel ne me semblait tiré par les cheveux, au contraire; les arguments inusités démontraient un véritable désir de sortir des sentiers battus afin de faire progresser les droits de la personne.

Les discussions accompagnant les cas plus pointus m’ont permis de comprendre pourquoi certains arguments ne seraient pas utilisés, d’observer le raisonnement des avocates dans les étapes de remue-méninges et de repérer les erreurs à éviter – des situations que je n’aurais pas vécues et dont je n’aurais pas pu apprendre de manière autonome.

Je suis donc extrêmement reconnaissante d’avoir pu compléter mon stage à la Commission dans les circonstances inédites de l’été 2020. Je tiens à remercier tous ceux et celles qui ont pris le temps de m’écouter et de répondre à mes questions, et j’espère sincèrement que nos chemins se recroiseront bientôt.

August 2020 – Learning While Working Remotely

By Nevada McEniry-Hatajlo

The subject material of my project is engaging, but difficult in the sense that I’m writing about something that is still ongoing. This means that I have been challenged with having to write broadly, but succinctly and precisely at the same time. I’ve chosen to focus on many countries, and while that assures my project will be comprehensive, it’s also a lot of work to take on. I’ve definitely had moments of panic, and I constantly need to refocus myself instead of allowing myself to get overwhelmed.

I recognize now that this project would have been perfect to take on in person. The difficulties of working remotely have impeded my ability to truly engage in the material, which is disappointing, but expected for a time like this.

What’s been really fun, however, is that I’ve been introduced to two legal advisors at BCNL, Aylin Yumerova and Zahari Yankov, who have given me ample information about the political climate in Bulgaria right now. I have really loved learning about this, and it just reinforces the fact that I need to visit Bulgaria once the pandemic has subsided. Everyone has been so helpful and personable; it makes me miss a place I’ve never even visited before.

What I’ve been reading about lately is the rhetoric surrounding rioting and violence that overlaps with public demonstrations. While I don’t condone violence, I ultimately value human life over property damage. And considering that I am white, because of this I will never truly understand the Black, Indigenous and POC experience. Instead, I strive to be the best ally I can be, and to not be critical of what I think is the right or wrong way to protest.

The discussion around violence and free assembly in Bulgaria is nonexistent, and there is a strict emphasis on the need for peaceful protest, and only peaceful protest. This is fascinating to me. In discussing this with Aylin and Zahari, they expressed the fact that Bulgarian protests right now are primarily focused on disrupting main traffic arteries in the capital. Another reason I wish I was in Sofia right now, because it would be fantastic to witness this in person. They told me that people are camping in the streets, and while yes there have been instances of government corruption and police misconduct, these protests have continued steadily and calmly.

Taken from: “София осъмна блокирана от протестиращи”. Vesti.bg (in Bulgarian).

Taken from: “София осъмна блокирана от протестиращи”. Vesti.bg (in Bulgarian).

Canada and Bulgaria have different histories and relationships with colonialism, discrimination and political turmoil. I can assume that this results in these countries having different perspectives on violence. It’s one of the interesting intricacies I have observed throughout my internship and uncovering this has motivated me to explore more.

June & July 2020 – Adjusting and Coping

By Nevada McEniry-Hatajlo

I was supposed to do a major European trip this summer. Every time I travel, I research for a while, and eventually create a massive map with points of interest and activities to do. I’m a ‘see-all-no-time-to-stop’ kind of traveler. From June to August 2020, I was going to be living in Sofia, Bulgaria. I’ve never lived away from home for that long, nor traveled that long by myself. The idea of being away from friends and family for that time was difficult to deal with. I was also nervous about living in a foreign city, in which I didn’t speak the local language, or could even read the alphabet. It took a lot of time to adjust to this opportunity, but ultimately, I was over the moon.

And then as we all know, the world was put on pause when COVID-19 hit. I’m in my last semester of law school, and this would have been my only opportunity to do anything abroad before I graduated. It’s been a whirlwind of emotion, from grief, to sadness, to relief and happiness that I would be with family during this unexpected and stressful time. And ever since lockdown, time feels as if it has stood still. Strangely, however, it feels as if it has gone by too quickly as well. As I’m writing this, I feel as if my internship is almost over, when I don’t even feel as if it has started in the first place.

I was fortunate enough to be able to pursue a remote internship with the Bulgarian Center for Not-for-Profit Law (BCNL), and I am incredibly thankful that the organizers, Nadia Shabani and Anna Adamova, were able to accommodate me. We’ve met several times over Zoom to discuss my topic and progress, and they’ve provided me with great resources and contacts to help me with my research. They are…so nice. They are caring and engaging individuals, and I feel as if I know, even though I’ve never met them in person.

What I’ve struggled with the most, as I know everyone else has, is transitioning from in person to remote work. Motivation and concentration have been equally difficult to harness. I find that I need to create lists to push myself to do the work. I get easily distracted by the comforts of my own home, by the cat, and by the current events. We are witnessing such a tumultuous time, fraught with protests, violence, corruption, greed, and discrimination. I tend to be an empathetic learner, and because of that, it’s hard not to feel despair during this time. This is probably the biggest obstacle for me during this remote internship.

For this reason, I asked my supervisors if I could direct my work towards what’s currently happening in the world. I’ve directed my research to explore what it means to exercise your right to assembly during a global pandemic. When Montreal hosted their first Black Lives Matter demonstration, the COVID numbers in Montreal were still way too high. I was very uncomfortable leaving the house, let alone participating in a demonstration involving thousands of individuals. It was upsetting that I was debating staying home, when I felt this urgency to support and be the best ally I can be. I’m glad I went, but it still terrified me. I thankfully haven’t experienced any loss due to COVID, but I have very close friends who have, and I’ve seen how serious this virus is.

This internship has been helpful in coping. By virtue of the subject matter I chose for my report, I’m learning about an ever-unfolding chain of events as its happening, and this has provided me with stability and comfort. I just need to keep at it and be kind to myself when I get emotionally exhausted.

 

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’re all doing well!

 

Nevada

Experiencing Cree Culture at a Distance

Gemma DingwallBy Gemma Dingwall

Like all interns participating in McGill’s Human Rights Internship program in 2020, what I was expecting my internship to look like this summer is certainly quite different from the reality.

This summer I am working remotely for the Department of Justice and Correctional Services of the Cree Nation. Prior to the restrictions imposed on people entering the region due to COVID-19, the plan was for me to complete my internship in one of the communities in the region. Although my work and assignments were adapted to remote work, there is one major component missing from my internship: the ability to learn and experience the Cree culture as well as the northern lifestyle. So I decided I had to do the next best thing: find ways to experience Cree culture here in Montreal.

The following is a proposed weekend itinerary of how one can learn about the way of life in the Cree Nation. I hope you join me in using some of these resources to learn more about the region.

Photo of Cree film maker Neil Diamond

Neil Diamond, originally from Waskaganish, has directed many documentary films including, Reel Injun, The Last Explorer, One More River, Heavy Metal: A Mining Disaster in Northern Quebec, Cree Spoken Here, and Inuit Cree Reconciliation.

Friday night: after a long week at work, it is time to settle in for a movie night. For this, I propose Reel Injun. This documentary focuses on the portrayal of Indigenous people in Hollywood films. It addresses stereotypes and inaccuracies in both historical and contemporary films. It is available from sundancenow.com. The film is directed by Neil Diamond, who is an award-winning filmmaker from Waskaganish, a community within the region.

Saturday morning: Time to get out of the house and enjoy the sunshine. Grab your blanket because it is time to go your nearest park and settle in with the book The Sweet Bloods of Eeyou Istchee: Stories of Diabetes and the James Bay Cree.

This is a collection of true stories about people from the region and their journeys with diabetes. These stories capture the many ways in which colonialism and changes in lifestyle have contributed to the high rates of diabetes in the Cree Nation. They trace the effects of starvation in residential school, racism within the health system, forced community relocation and the ways in which the loss of culture all contribute to diabetes. I highly recommend this book, which can be ordered from sweetbloods.org. Some of the stories are also available in audiobook for free from sweetbloods.org.

Saturday Afternoon: Whatever your favourite mode of exercise is on the weekend, why not play some tunes from Cree artists while you get your sweat on? Angel Baribeau is a musician from the region. Check out one of my favourites of their songs: SAVAGE.

Saturday Night: Time for another Neil Diamond film! The documentary, Inuit Cree Reconciliation films the Inuit and Cree coming together to celebrate 200 years of peace. The film tells stories of the violent clashes between the two groups throughout the 18th century. The film also showcases the beautiful northern landscape.

Photo of Cree artist Angel Baribeau

Angel Baribeau, originally from Mistissini, is a singer, songwriter. Their debut solo album For Those I Love(d), is set for release in 2020.

Sunday Morning: Today, we will head to a museum. The Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute is located in Oujé-Bougoumou. This is the newest of the communities in the region, with a population of 900 people. The museum offers virtual exhibits, showcasing artifacts like a bible printed in Cree Syllabics, different furs, arrowheads, etc. There are also several short informational video clips.

Sunday Lunch: Many people in the Cree region continue to enjoy country food. In the early spring, many spend weeks in the bush hunting for goose and in the autumn, they return to the bush for moose. Fishing is a popular pastime throughout the year, including ice fishing in the winter.

Although these foods cannot be experienced in the same fresh way here, there are ways to try Indigenous food in Montreal. For example, the Roundhouse Cafe, which employs Indigenous people who have been out of work or experienced homelessness serves much of its food on bannock. Bannock is certainly popular in the Cree Nation as well. Or if you’re baker, why not try to make your own bannock – there are many recipes online. To remind yourself that in another time, you could be eating fresh fish instead for lunch, watch this video about fishing trips in the region.

Sunday Evening: Labrador tea is a plant that grows in the region but is also available for purchase in Montreal.  So why not brew a cup while you settle in to watch my final film recommendation for the weekend. Cree of James Bay documents the Hydroelectric development in James Bay and the impact on the Cree culture. I particularly enjoyed this film because of its ability to capture Cree humour.

Certainly, these virtual options are not a perfect replacement. They will not allow you to experience being surrounded by the Cree language. They will not replace the beauty of the northern landscape. They do not allow you to become accustomed to living two minutes away from everything in your community, but hours away from everything outside of the community. Nevertheless, these resources are a wonderful way to learn more about the region and the Cree way of life.

I hope you joined me in checking out some of them!

Wise Words of Advice

Alice JeonBy Alice Jeon

When I was told to “keep an open mind” and “be flexible” during the internship orientation sessions, I did not think that I would have to be prepared for a pandemic. I also did not expect to start in one internship for the first few weeks of the summer, only for the arrangement to fall through, and to be switched to a new organization midway. I suppose everyone’s narrative of the spring and summer of 2020 follows a similar trajectory, experiencing the unprecedented and confronting the once unimaginable. But oh boy, was I unprepared.

Amidst all the chaos, I am so lucky and grateful to have had the opportunity to intern with the HIV/AIDS Legal Network in Toronto. I had a late start and only just finished a month at the organization, but I have already learned an incredible amount.

One of the projects I have been working on is advocacy to stop Toronto police from attending overdose scenes, unless they are specifically called for security reasons. Research from the HIV/AIDS Legal Network shows that their presence and surveillance causes a chilling effect, making people reluctant to call in dangerous overdose situations. In theory, the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act is supposed to provide immunity from prosecution for offenses related to simple drug possession to anyone who calls 911 to report an overdose or to anyone on the scene when emergency services arrive. But of course, if police show up on their doorsteps anyways, take down bystanders’ names and dig for information, these good Samaritans inevitably become reluctant to call. In Vancouver, the police force has explicitly recognized this chilling effect and have published guidelines that say that police should not interfere, to the extent possible in overdose situations. It seems time that the Toronto police follow suit.

Furthermore, another project I have been working on is research for an ongoing court case that aims to repeal the antiquated sodomy laws in Jamaica. Jamaica’s constitution has a saving’s law clause, which essentially “saves” Jamaica’s colonial-era anti-sodomy laws. However, there was recently a ground-breaking case in Guyana, McEwan and others v Attorney General of Guyana, that rendered a judgement on four different ways in which the savings law clause could be construed liberally. I have been looking at ways in which this McEwan case could potentially be applied in the Jamaican context, and ultimately help in repealing this antiquated law.

This summer has been out of the ordinary. I have spent more time cooped up in my room than ever, quite different from where I thought I would be pre-pandemic (spending three months in Windhoek, Namibia). It has also been frustrating not to be able to meet any of my amazing co-workers in person, from a personal and professional perspective—it would definitely be so much easier to slip in a quick question to my supervisors they were in the vicinity. But I am continuing to practice gratitude for everything that I have, and continue to remind myself that when it comes to situations that I cannot control, how I engage with it is a matter of my own mindset. “Keep an open mind,” “be flexible”; these words of advice became important in more ways than one.

On Pandemics, and Changing Course

Kayla Maria RollandBy Kayla Maria Rolland

“How would you respond to unforeseen challenges during your internship?”

On my application I submitted to the IHRIP program in November 2019, I wrote about the possibility of culture shock, compassion fatigue, issues posed by my lack of travel experience, and other challenges I imagined I could face through the program. As with everyone else, the idea that a pandemic would ground global travel just four short months later was beyond comprehension.

While undoubtedly disappointed that I would no longer be able to visit the beautiful state of Colorado to spend the summer with the One Earth Future Foundation, I had a really wonderful opportunity to spend the summer with the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, working on the Disability and Climate Action Research Programme (DICARP).

The opportunity meant shifting direction from a summer in another country, to a summer working remotely in my childhood home, and from human rights topics related to peace-building to disability rights and climate justice.

Pink stone on sidewalk, painted to read "in it together."

A note from a neighbour, found on one of my daily walks.

On a professional level, the shift has meant exploring topics and human rights issues that were relatively new to me. I am enjoying learning about the intersection between climate justice and disability rights, how global climate negotiations occur, and how relevant stakeholders make their voices heard. As part of my role, I am really happy to have gained greater knowledge of how to make web content and events more universally accessible, and it is a skill I will take with me moving forward.

On a personal level, this shift has meant riding out this crazy time with the people that I care about most. It is not the summer I imagined, but I now couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

Not all challenges are foreseeable four months in advance, but I am still very happy with the course I have taken.

Finding a New Normal and Focus

Nilani AnanthamoorthyBy Nilani Ananthamoorthy

Finding a New Normal and Focus

When I first learned that I was going to intern with the Yukon Human Rights Commission, I was thrilled. While applying for the internship program, I had done research on the Commission and was interested in the opportunity to do legal work in the North. I sensed that the Commission’s work was an invaluable resource for its community, helping to protect the rights of its people. I received the offer letter in December 2019, at the end of the first semester of my second year at McGill law.

When I returned to school the following term, the internship was never far from my mind. I took a course entitled “Discrimination and the Law” in preparation and began familiarizing myself with the role of human rights commissions. I also took the time to consider what it would mean to work in the North and how I could respectfully engage with the particular issues faced by that community. Needless to say, I was excited to finish the semester and fly to the Yukon.

Of course, as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, it became clear that I wouldn’t be travelling north. We needed to change course, quickly. Ultimately, we settled on a remote internship. I moved back to my parents’ home in Mississauga, Ontario, and prepared for a different kind of internship than the one I had originally envisioned.

To be truthful, adjusting to this new normal with the world around me in flux was difficult. As I struggled to find a way to stay motivated and to work effectively, I also felt a sense of guilt watching how those around me were being impacted by the pandemic — losing loved ones and jobs. My frustration began to grow: Why couldn’t I find my footing when I was with my family, within the comfort of my home? And then, a few days into the start of the internship, my grandfather fell ill. His health had been deteriorating for some time, but within the context of the pandemic, caregiving had become a much more complex task and required the entire family. I learned quickly that I couldn’t stick to the strict schedule that I had aspired to follow.

Now, however surprisingly, despite not going to the Yukon, I have still been able to develop a friendship with my fellow intern and receive valuable insights from my supervisors at the Commission. My first task, for instance, was to provide summaries of the Yukon Human Rights Board of Adjudication decisions that could be easily consumed by the public. Sifting through the decisions has helped me better understand the processing of human right complaints and the particular issues that are brought forth to the Commission. But at the same time, translating the decisions into plain language has really made me reflect on the accessibility of the law. Human rights law is designed to protect the rights of individuals — who are often marginalized — and to provide them an avenue through which they can seek proper remedies. Yet, the legal language at times feels abstract and removed from the situations faced by real people.

The application of the Yukon Human Rights Act requires a knowledge of the proper legal tests and the legal definition of key terms. For example, when establishing discrimination, the Board is looking for prima facie discrimination. If the discrimination occurred in the workplace, the employer has a responsibility to accommodate, to the point of undue hardship. To understand the reasoning of a board’s decision, one needs to know the definition of prima facie discrimination and the threshold for undue hardship. At the appellate level, decisions become even more abstract. At times, the cases I was assigned to summarize hinged on the legal interpretation of key words and relied on the interpretations provided by other court decisions. Even with two years of legal education, I found myself reading these decisions once or twice to find the thrusts of the case. So, while detailed accounts of the court’s reasoning are necessary to ensure confidence in the court, it is clear that as is, fraught with legal jargon, they can’t be considered accessible.

Additionally, while preparing the summaries, I often thought of the “open court principle”, which is an important aspect of procedural law. The open court principle requires that courts are open and accessible to the public. In Canada, this includes the right to access to documents associated with proceedings.[1] In Endean v British Columbia, the court recognized that there is an educational aspect of the open court principle — it provides the community an opportunity to learn how the law being applied in courts could affect them.[2] My work with the Commission has taught me that this is only possible if decisions are provided in plainer language.

Through all this, the internship has been thought-provoking, both on a personal front and a legal one. The pandemic presented new challenges — and this required me to adapt as best I could, to restructure my work plan and most importantly, to be kinder to myself. As well, this experience has truly highlighted the importance of focusing on those whom human rights law is meant to serve.

[1] Jane Bailey & Jacquelyn Burkell, “Revisiting the Open Court Principle in an Era of Online Publication: Questioning Presumptive Public Access to Parties’ and Witnesses’ Personal Information” (2017) FIMS Publications 143 at 167—168.

[2] Endean v British Columbia, 2016 SCC 42 at paras 66 & 85.

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