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Circuit Court in Kinngait, Nunavut

Sarah NixonBy Sarah Nixon

The views expressed in this blog are my own.

Kinngait is a community of about 1400 people just off the coast of Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada. The region has been inhabited by Inuit for thousands of years. Its Inuktitut name means “where the mountains are” (or the hills, depending who you ask). Today, it’s known by many for the beautiful serpentine and soapstone carvings that artists have been making there for many generations.

A souvenir – Dancing Bear carving by Davidee Shaa

During my internship with Nunavut Legal Aid, I was lucky to be given the opportunity to travel on circuit court to Kinngait. Circuit court is a process used to administer law in Nunavut to communities that do not have their own courthouses, resident lawyers, judges, and other courtworkers. To facilitate the application of Canadian law, then, a ‘court party’ comprised of defence lawyers, Crown prosecutors, courtworkers, a judge, a translator, a transcriptionist and a sheriff travel together to these communities periodically throughout the year to hold court. The frequency of ‘circuits’ depends on the particular community’s size and rate of criminalization. In the case of Kinngait, court is held for one week about five times per year.

However, due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the circuit I attended in August 2021 was the first in-person circuit held in Kinngait in nearly five months. This is the first reason why this particular circuit was one of the busiest that had ever been held. The second reason is that Kinngait has been, for some time now, the most heavily criminalized community in Nunavut based on the proportion of its residents subject to criminal charges. The underlying causes for this reality are not clear to anyone, so far as I could tell during my time there. However, longstanding animosity between many of the local people and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police members stationed in the community may play a role in the rate of criminal charges being laid.

During circuit, the court party uses local buildings built for other purposes for client meetings and the court process itself. In Kinngait, we used the local Sewing Centre – a space for primarily women to gather and sew together – for client meetings on the weekend prior to the upcoming week of court. Using this space for our purposes meant that many client meetings were conducted in the furnace room to gain the necessary privacy required to discuss clients’ legal matters. Needless to say, sitting in on these meetings was somewhat of a surreal experience, with a noisy, hot furnace churning away between my supervising lawyer and her clients as they discussed their matters.

From Monday to Friday, we set up in the local community centre to hold court. The centre had recently been painted by a group of young people from the community with the help of an artist from the south. The setting was inherently less formal than courthouses I had visited in Montreal, Ottawa and Iqaluit. At the same time, the consequences of the court process were just as severe, with many witnesses, accused, and community members being retraumatized by the criminal process, and many individuals being sent into custody or receiving conditional sentence orders (the rough equivalent of house arrest).

Exterior of the Community Centre

 

The ceiling of the ‘courtroom’

Another notable difference about court in Kinngait was that two Elders from the community sat to the right of the judge throughout the week. The Elders, both women, were asked to speak to individuals at the sentencing stage of proceedings, after there had been a finding of guilt and before the judge decided on the appropriate sentence. Publicly before whomever was in the ‘courtroom’, the Elders took turns standing to speak in Inuktitut to the person who was about to be sentenced.

Both women spoke with a great deal of emotion and force, and their words often brought the person they were addressing to tears. With live translation, I was able to understand that the messages they conveyed were distinctly different from the sentencing regime the judge was bound to follow. In particular, I noticed that the Elders focused on the root causes of the wrongdoing the person had committed, often connecting the incident before the court to some sort of pain that person had experienced in the past that was causing them to behave wrongly.

The Elders repeatedly referred to the risks and drawbacks of drinking alcohol as well, and counselled the listener to try to replace this coping mechanism with time spent on the land. They repeatedly emphasized the calming and uplifting effects this could have on one’s mind and spirit. The Elders also, generally, stressed a forward-looking perspective on the listener’s life, counselling them to obey any conditions the court ordered, to focus on being a good example for their children or other family and community members, and to pursue their own self-betterment and healing.

In contrast, the judge sought to design proportionate punishments for the crime committed and the circumstances of the person before the court. The contrast and integration of these two methods of responding to wrongdoing was fascinating to say the least, and seemed to expand the boundaries of the malleable criminal process. It certainly left me wondering which method was more impactful upon those before the court, and about what further integration might look like – for instance, if Elders were consulted at the stage of findings of guilt or innocence, or if they were given full ownership over the crafting of sentences. This is one of many things that my week on circuit in Kinngait will have me wondering about for a long time to come.

International Law and Civil Liberties: Emerging Synergies

Kassandra NeranjanBy Kassandra Neranjan

While the International Human Rights Internship with the CCLA allowed me to conduct research into the areas explored below, the views expressed in this blog are my own.

Working at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), I found myself immersed in constitutional conundrums regarding criminal justice and equality rights. Although assessing these queries required frequent consultations with my constitutional law textbooks, my work was not limited to evaluating solely Canadian law.

Critical to equality rights litigation are the acts of demystifying and unearthing all relevant state obligations that support those rights, be it domestic or international. Fundamentally, international obligations are those commitments states make abroad in international fora, but are to be upheld domestically for the benefit of their peoples. Supreme Court judgments have exemplified this phenomenon by increasingly assessing Canada’s international legal obligations as intrinsic to interpreting its domestic legislation (with some caveats and limitations, nonetheless). In this vein, the nexus of constitutional law and international law is incredibly meaningful for furthering the rights and freedoms of those in Canada by developing a more rigid legal basis to draw from.

Socioeconomic rights are some of the most contentious in international law. Borne from an eastern bloc during the Cold War, its substance is often misconstrued with the inaccurate pretense of being diametrically opposed to civil and political negative rights. But the positive rights associated with socioeconomic rights, such as those to housing, sustenance, clean water, living wages etc. have been argued to allow for the flourishing of civil and political rights providing a more complementary relationship between the two. Canada is a signatory to the chief international text enshrining socioeconomic rights: The International Covenant of Economic Social and Cultural Rights. However, as a monist state, Canada’s international obligations do not become immediately embedded in its domestic law. It must separately enact such legislation in Parliament. Boldly, constitutional scholars have argued that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which possesses a preponderance of negative civil and political rights, was enacted as a red herring to prevent Canadians from demanding positive obligations from the federal government under the guise of a ‘comprehensive’ text of endowed liberties. How socioeconomic rights obligations internationally can domestically manifest becomes a critical question for civil liberties and constitutional law to find synergies for protecting Canadians’ freedoms.

Imaged above is the South African Constitutional Court which has interpreted socioeconomic rights and core obligations of the state in numerous cases

As a student with an interest in international law, I jumped at the opportunity provided by the CCLA to research the application of international socioeconomic rights domestically in other jurisdictions.

In litigating for civil liberties, legislation and policies are often found that may appear legally sound but their effects have the dire consequences of depriving individuals of access to essential resources, that could otherwise be protected under socioeconomic rights. Consequently, socioeconomic rights provide a novel avenue for civil liberties protection. How these socioeconomic rights can be ascertained and protected domestically when they exist as international obligations however, continues to be the topic of much debate in international and constitutional law dialogues. Indeed, South Africa and India lead these conversations with the creative endeavours their courts have taken to protect social and economic rights – but this has not been met without adversity. Moreover, often the most marginalized in a society are left to bear the brunt of whatever inaction may thereafter proceed.

The intersection of international law bolstering civil liberties is one that is growing in reputation, prominence, and need. Finding opportunities to hold states accountable that have not been exhausted in court, but are feasible in application requires a delicate balance and abundance of ingenuity. It was incredibly fulfilling to research and prepare recommendations and assessments to advance such conversations and hopefully support the protection of Canadians’ rights in the near future.

The little things are the big things

Camila FrancoBy Camila Franco

I spent my summer working for the Instituto de Democracia y Derechos Humanos de la Pontificia Universidad del Perú (IDEHPUCP), an academic institute created in 2004 in response to Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión de la verdad y Reconciliación, “CVR”) which sought to provide an official record of the human rights violations that occurred in Peru during the internal armed conflict between 1980 and 2000. IDEHPUCP seeks to strengthen democracy and the enforcement of Human Rights by conducting interdisciplinary trainings, engaging in applied research, public advocacy, and the promotion of public policies with civil society and the state. Over the last 17 years, the institute has developed seven fascinating lines of work: Memory, democracy, and post conflict; Business and human rights; Human mobility; Indigenous villages; the Inter-American Human Rights System; Fight against corruption; and Rights of persons with disabilities. I was fortunate enough to contribute to diverse projects in various lines of work. I primarily conducted comparative research on issues of business standards, technology implications on migrant populations, Indigenous resilience to climate change, and I wrote summary reports of discrimination cases heard at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

 

This virtual internship has come with the many familiar challenges and advantages of online work: periodic feelings of isolation and disconnectedness, time zone confusion, blurred work-life routine but likewise tremendous flexibility. I accepted this internship knowing that it would likely be remote, but I admittedly held on to the unrealistic hope that our global health crisis might be under control by the time May arrived. Once the placement was officially confirmed as remote, I grieved the idea of a summer in Lima.  I craved experiencing a new culture, being immersed in my native language, and physically connected to the Andes Mountain range, my native land. At the same time, I remained grateful to have the chance to ameliorate my professional Spanish skills, while contributing to the important mandate of a leading human rights institute in Latin America. There was also the added benefit of being able to work remotely from different locations here in Canada to accommodate for personal circumstances. I also understood that with all the hardships that this pandemic has brought, having to complete my summer internship remotely from the safety of my home was a privilege above all else. Yet as soon as I met the incredible people that breathe life into the IDEHPUCP, my longing for South America swung right back.

Virtual Birthday Celebration in June for all missed ‘Covid Birthdays’ at IDEHPUCP

My supervisor and colleagues constantly did many things to make me feel a part of their academic family. Every single morning at 9 am on the dot, our coordinator would send a “Buenos días” text on our WhatsApp Academia chat, to which we would all reply with greetings and exchange funny memes at the start of our day. On Friday afternoons we could always expect our coordinator to ask us about our coming weekend and wish us all well. In June, the institute held a big team “birthday party” to celebrate all our covid birthdays and exchange stories about our worst and best birthday memories. Although, in my opinion, this year has provided more than enough zoom birthdays with the audio disaster that is getting multiple people to attempt singing the birthday song at once (always inevitably unsynchronized despite the sincerest efforts) this night was one of my favourites. These gestures might seem trivial, but they all made a significant difference in how supported I felt by the team I worked alongside with for three months, and it allowed us to build more personal connections, despite the 6,400 km distance.

Of course, most of our conversations regarded the projects we were working on at any given time. We had bi-weekly meetings that provided the opportunity for every line of work to update the rest of the group on ongoing tasks, deadlines and make calls for feedback and assistance. These meetings, as well as the lively WhatsApp group chat, served as essential debrief spaces for the team this summer. Particularly as Peru went through a tumultuous presidential election that erupted civil unrest, and as the country tragically ascended to the highest per capita covid-fatality rate in the world. I felt an immense sense of sadness knowing that my own colleagues could not enjoy the access to vaccination and health care that I could by staying here in Canada. It also forced me to reflect on this desire to “experience” Peru, as a foreign Colombian-Canadian, and to what extent this wish is insensitive to the reality of what it means to live in a country under a fragile democracy, and a health care system overwhelmed by the pandemic. I knew that supporting the institute from Canada was the best thing I could do in this context, and I was grateful to learn about the various areas of work that my supervisors are experts in. The memes and zoom celebrations were just a bonus which reflected the warmth of those working tirelessly at IDEHPUCP.

 

Digital Transnational Repression: When states use the Internet to stifle dissent across borders

Niamh LeonardBy Niamh Leonard

Beyond studying surveillance technology exports, which I spoke about in my last blog post, the second area of focus for my summer internship has been contributing to the data collection process for an ongoing research project on digital transnational repression.

Digital transnational repression refers to when states seek to exert pressure – using digital tools – on citizens living abroad in order to constrain, limit, or eliminate political or social action that threatens regime stability or social and cultural norms within a country. While transnational repression itself is not a new phenomenon, the development of spyware has made repression much easier than it once was. Instead of having to send agents into foreign countries, governments can now threaten political dissidents across borders using cyberspace.

The Lab’s team has identified that one of the most pressing questions to tackle is how digital transnational repression can be addressed. Targets of digital transnational repression often turn to law enforcement for protection, attempt to use the legal system to seek justice and relief, or ask technology companies for support. However, a lack of coordinated response often makes it difficult for targets to get the support they need. The Lab has been studying possible legal and policy responses to this issue.

As a first step, in November 2020, the team published an annotated bibliography that includes media reports and analysis, technical reports, and academic literature about this emerging phenomenon. The annotated bibliography demonstrates that digital transnational repression is a pervasive problem, affecting individuals from many countries including Bahrain, China, Ethiopia and Iran.

The Guardian’s recent investigation into a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers believed to be targets of interest of clients of the Israeli spyware company NSO Group only confirms the scale of the problem. The investigation confirms what has been known for years: human rights activists, journalists and lawyers across the world have been targeted by authoritarian governments using NSO Group’s Pegasus hacking software. NSO Group is but one example of the many companies profiting from the sale of spyware to questionable actors.

To further study the impacts of digital transnational repression, the Lab has been conducting interviews with targets and other actors (e.g., journalists, policymakers and technologists) who have knowledge of instances of this phenomenon in Canada.

Throughout the summer, I participated in conducting and transcribing interviews with targets and other actors. I very much enjoyed this part of my work, as each interview was a deep dive into the political situation of various countries around the world. I learned a lot about how governments use digital tools to stifle political dissent and about the reality of many human rights defenders, journalists and refugees who live here in Canada.

Human rights defenders are often faced with impossible choices: in many cases having to choose between their own safety and that of their family on the one hand, and their ability to speak out about injustice on the other.

Hearing from individuals who have such moral courage only strengthened my own resolve to use the law as a tool to address injustice, promote human rights, and strengthen democracy. In the short-term, I will continue doing so at the Citizen Lab, where I will be staying on as a Legal Extern throughout the fall. I am grateful for this opportunity to continue learning from my amazing colleagues while contributing to the impactful research underway.

Akwesasne

Gabriela De MedeirosBy Gabriela De Medeiros

UNDRIP

Article 3: Indigenous Peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

Article 4: Indigenous Peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.

 

As an immigrant, I have spent a lot of time thinking about borders and the impact of crossing them. These lines we draw on the soil are the stitched seams that hold together a world of nations that had to first be torn apart. These seams run through the lands in ways that don’t always reflect the network of relationships that the people living there have built over generations. The repercussions of these geopolitical fissures are a near-constant concern for those living in Akwesasne.

map

Jurisdictional barriers have been at the forefront of my experience working for the Justice Department of Akwesasne from the start. The circumstance of the global pandemic made it so that I was stuck two borders away from the offices where I needed to be, and the sensitive nature of the work I was tasked with meant that I could not access most of the information outside of the closed network of the Justice Department. For the first two months, I was limited in what work I could complete, and I felt quite useless. I was entrusted with researching and drafting a boat registration policy, and I have to admit that it didn’t seem like very important work; as children’s bodies have been gradually exhumed over the course of the summer, and Canada and the United-States are increasingly forced to confront the violent legacy of residential schools, I hoped that as a law intern I could contribute meaningfully in some way. Boat registrations seemed mundane and unrelated to human rights work.

But as I delved deeper into my research, I began to understand the true scope of my task. Boat registrations for a river-based people are a significant jurisdictional battleground. The First Nation of Akwesasne is split between Ontario, Quebec and New York, and the Saint-Lawrence river that flows through the community is designated as international waters. The people of Akwesasne have always used the water in myriad ways, for transportation, sustenance and pleasure, a tradition that continues today as a large portion of the residents of the reserve own a water craft. But the same imposition of authority by the governments of nation-states over the affairs of Indigenous peoples that created the residential schools has transformed the way that the citizens of Akwesasne must manage their way of life. According to settler law, all boats must be registered in a federal database, and all vessels on the waters must produce their registration if ordered by an authority (usually the Coast Guard of either country).

I was tasked by the Justice Department to draft a boat registration policy and update the registration database to help the local tribal police force monitor their own community. This is a move toward establishing their own legal jurisdiction over the waters that surround their home. Apparently this has been a contentious resistance for generations, and Akwesasne has all but established its own jurisdictional authority through customary relationships with the states’ bodies. Denying the authority of a federal police over their affairs on the waters surrounding Akwesasne is nothing short of a stance in self-determination, an exercise of their right to autonomy and self-government.

water

At the end of my second month, the travel restrictions across provincial borders within Canada loosened up and I was called to go into the portion of Akwesasne on so-called Cornwall Island, known to the locals as Kawehno:ke. It’s an hour drive each way and there are no tolls anywhere on my path, until I get to the bridge connecting the Ontarian city of Cornwall to Kawehno:ke. Here my path is blocked by a toll booth and I must pay $3.75 to pass through the only entrance to Akwesasne from the Canadian side. This seemed immediately problematic to me, despite the assurance by my supervisor that my fees would be reimbursed. I inquired as to whether the residents of Akwesasne are permitted to cross for free, and was told that they are indeed granted passage if they show their Indian status card to the toll operator. However, this was a “privilege” that had to be fought for, as initially they had been expected to pay.

I can’t imagine that the decision to construct a toll bridge on that specific crossing was done with a benevolent or even neutral intention. In fact, I was informed that the legal justification for the toll bridge was a strip of land across the length of Kawehno:ke which had somehow been expropriated by the Canadian government — the bridge technically connects Cornwall to Crown-owned land, and not to an Indigenous reserve, and as such it does not infringe on Akwesasne’s right to control the lands within the reserve.

photo

In these few weeks that I have been involved with the Justice Department, I have learned that self-determination plays out not only on the scope of international law, but most importantly in the day-to-day interactions people have with their environment. The jurisdictional battles within the community of Akwesasne have created a patchwork of legal negotiations that the residents must navigate on a quotidian basis, because over the last century and a half they have been denied their own agency by the governments of Canada and the United-States.

I am certain that those who are uninformed see the victories that Indigenous peoples win over time, such as the right to cross the toll bridge without paying, without considering the significant costs which were imposed first. For instance, while Akwesasronen may cross freely onto Kawehno:ke, to cross back into Cornwall and the rest of Canada they must be interrogated by a customs officer at the line we call a national border. Because their community, which predates our settler geo-political borders, have been split up between three different jurisdictions, they are forced to adapt their daily lives to the demands of a government that was imposed on them. The burden of crossing the border has on many occasions impacted the decisions my coworkers have made about when they make the effort to go see family members or run errands within their very community.

As I continue my work with the Justice Department of Akwesasne, I can only imagine what a world without State borders would look like.

Human Rights Education at Equitas

Chrys Saget-RichardBy Chrys Saget-Richard

This summer I have had the opportunity to work with the education team at Equitas, a human rights education organization based out of Montreal, that works with human rights educators and defenders around the world. 

Sharing many of my classmates’ anxieties, I initially was quite concerned that I might not have all of the skills or knowledge that the organization might expect of me. To my relief however, I was immediately welcomed into a wonderfully warm, open and accommodating team. 

What I love about working at Equitas is how well they work together and consistently push themselves to learn and grow, particularly in how they figure out how to ground large systemic issues and concepts into their practice. So commonly, we find organizations who have lovely mission statements that use all the right progressive language but that upon closer analysis do not effectively reflect the organization itself.

Contrarily, I have been so delighted to witness an active effort on Equitas’ part to “walk the talk”. I have had the opportunity to participate in the office’s most recent Cultural Safety training, the kind of training that I know is crucial but that too few organizations seek out. In these training sessions I was able to engage with the staff about our reflections on power dynamics, colonial dynamics and the systemic barriers/challenges that we face in working to contribute  to transformative social change. It has been wonderful to share space with folks who are genuinely pushing themselves and each other everyday to do and be better so that their work can be better. 

Beyond my interactions with the direct Equitas staff, the work I am doing has allowed me to exchange with different partners who generously share their own success stories in working with the organization. Not only do I have the privilege of engaging folks doing all kinds of human rights education work around the world, I also get to learn so much about their own teachings, perspectives, insights and hopes. Many people have shared success stories with me following their training experiences with Equitas, and to me, these stories stand out as evidence to the effectiveness of the approaches and methods Equitas values and promotes. 

I have learned so much during my internship, from a legal perspective, i.e learning what universal human rights actually are, the international instruments that exist to promote and protect them, as well as their histories. In the early days of my internship, I was really challenged with this paradigm shift. I have a social work and activist background, and so I understand articulations of discrimination and systemic oppression quite well, but wrapping my head around more concretized universal human rights was an interesting and intellectually stimulating exercise.

In all honesty, I thought I understood human rights going into this internship, but very quickly I was invited to dive deeper into what and how important they are, in a way that pushed the boundaries of my understanding and lead me to spend days filling the newly found gaps in my knowledge base, an opportunity for which, I am eternally grateful.

As I near the end of my internship, I have been reflecting on how this organization really emphasizes the ‘human’ in human rights education work and by extension the importance of humility and humbleness required to nurture and maintain the relationships that necessarily make this work possible. I still have a little time with Equitas thankfully, and am so so grateful for the opportunity to learn from and alongside the extremely dedicated and passionate people I work with. 

The World is Dying, Long Live the World!

By Mohammed OdusanyaMohammed Odusanya

In the midst of a global pandemic, one in which suffering – especially for those who are poor and/or live in the global south –  has been needlessly prolonged by the greed of a capitalist class and Western governments unwilling to cede their interests in profit and domination, I have been doing the work of writing letters, drafting dossiers, compiling sources and drawing attention to human rights abuses occurring around the world.

Sculpture at Parc Jean-Drapeau. Site of the 1967 International and Universal Exposition (Expo 67). Image taken by author.

At the beginning of my internship, I was worried I would be consumed by pessimism. How else would I process the epidemiological (amongst other things) disaster of COVID 19 and the ongoing violence of human rights violations?

To my surprise, this has not been the case. Part of it, I suspect, is due to the optimism of my colleagues at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. Their dedication to the causes they champion made it difficult to not be a little bit hopeful, in spite of, well, everything.

I also think that I am more overwhelmed by the feeling that the world is ending. I don’t say this as hyperbole. Our pre-COVID world, for better or worse, is firmly in the past, and it is clear what will emerge after will be significantly different. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has further revealed the unsustainability of our current economic system and modes of governance, it has also shown its resilience. More than anything profit has dictated who survives this pandemic, and it is only those who survive who will be able to shape our world.

This summer was, according to the Canadian government, supposed to be the beginning of a return to normal. There were even hopes that my internship would occur in person. Yet, as the summer dragged on and I struggled to find appointments for my immediate family and me on overtaxed booking systems in two provinces, while also worrying for my extended family in Nigeria who had virtually zero access to any COVID-19 vaccine, I concluded that universalist principles of the Human had reached their end. Previous modes of dehumanization (war, genocide) have become so ubiquitous that (Western) governments feel no need to provide justification as to why a majority of the world’s peoples remain unvaccinated for no other reason than profit.

Rather than attempt to reconcile the widespread dehumanization of the world’s poor with the work I was doing, this summer has lead me to consider what it means to move beyond a framework of the human? If the idea of shared humanity (a notion that has always been violently contested) cannot prompt those in power to save lives then perhaps it is time to abandon it altogether.

On Democracy and the Right to Information

By Ayelet Ami

This summer, I interned remotely with the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), based in Halifax. A non-profit corporation, CLD works internationally to promote and protect those human rights foundational to democracy. To this end, it assists governments in upholding international and constitutional standards related to these rights and deepens NGO’s and civil society’s understandings of them.

As an intern, I researched law and policy in various states, drafting comparative analyses to feed into CLD’s larger projects. I was also tasked with producing detailed brochures on two international institutions’ access to information (ATI) policies and procedures, helping users to exercise their right to information.

One assignment I found particularly captivating was updating Indicator 1 of CLD’s RTI Rating. The RTI Rating “is the leading global tool for assessing the strength of national legal frameworks for accessing information held by public authorities (or the right to information, RTI)”. CLD’s website provides an interactive map displaying countries’ RTI ratings and rankings. The rating system is broken down into seven thematic areas, which are sub-divided into indicators. The first indicator evaluates the legal framework’s recognition of a right to information. To reassess scored countries and evaluate ones previously omitted, I undertook a conscientious review of constitutions around the globe. After identifying the constitutions’ RTI provisions, or noting their absence, I assessed their strength against a set standard and scored them accordingly. Where constitutions were imprecise or did not appear to guarantee a right to information, I looked for judicial findings of such a right. My fascination with constitutions only grew as I analyzed each provision’s language and context within the broader document. I was also grateful for the opportunity to contribute to such a widely used tool.

Like many of my colleagues, I faced the challenge of working remotely. Though I would have loved to have connected with my colleagues in person and explored Halifax, my time at CLD taught me that great distance can be overcome with a little creative thinking. Our supervisors did a fantastic job of fostering a familiar environment, despite our being in four different cities across North America. Beyond advancing our substantive work, our periodic meetings helped with team building. We also held social hours. Sometimes, having to invite others into our personal space over Zoom can be uncomfortable. During one social hour, we leaned into this discomfort, each presenting an item in our room of personal significance, or with an interesting backstory, to the rest of the team. This exercise provided us the unique opportunity to become better acquainted in our respective spaces. What do we surround ourselves with and why? I wondered.

Surrounded by the driven and passionate people at CLD, I could truly appreciate the work that goes into building and maintaining strong democracies that uphold people’s fundamental human rights. I thank all those who made this experience so rewarding.

Access to Justice in Action at the Yukon Human Rights Commission

By Garima Karia

This summer, I have had the immense fortune of moving to Whitehorse, Yukon to work alongside the fantastic humans at the Yukon Human Rights Commission (“the Commission”). As I read my peers’ reflections on their own human rights internship experiences, many of which include musings and lessons surrounding remote work, I feel both incredibly lucky and guilty – lucky that I was able to spend nine out of twelve weeks in the Yukon, and guilty that I happened upon this rare privilege in the midst of a pandemic. All that I can say is that I’m deeply grateful, and that I hope to do right by the opportunity.

At the Commission, my main duties are three-fold: I take “duty” shifts, during which I am the point-person in the office for inquiries from members of the public; I draft legal memos on questions of law and procedure that come up in human rights complaint investigations; and I support the human rights investigators by transcribing interviews, editing investigation reports, and talking through various aspects of human rights and administrative law as they apply to investigations. I have also been lucky enough to witness our Director facilitate settlement discussions and shadow him in his role as the “gatekeeper” at the threshold stage of the human rights complaint process.

Thus far, my favourite part of the job has been taking human rights inquiries from the public. This arm of the Commission operates similarly to a legal clinic (like the Legal Information Clinic at McGill, where I have been a caseworker in the past). We listen to an inquirer’s story or question (sometimes multiple questions!), and then provide relevant information about the Yukon Human Rights Act and the Commission’s human rights complaint process. Two key elements of an inquiry are explaining, in simple terms, the prima facie test for discrimination and the duty to accommodate. Both are core elements of the Act that work to guard against human rights violations and discrimination. The “ground-harm-nexus” model underlying the prima facie test can sometimes be justifiably difficult for inquirers to grasp. Many will state that they are a member of a vulnerable group that is protected under the Act, and that they experienced a harm in one of the protected areas (e.g. employment or accessing goods and services), but the nexus – the idea that the harm was driven by and sufficiently connected to discrimination based on a protected characteristic (such as gender expression, race, religion, or family status) – is the hardest to grasp.

Inquiries are challenging because they can often be very personal and emotional for the individual seeking assistance from the Commission. During my time here, I have dealt with inquiries pertaining to wrongful dismissal for disability or family status reasons to visitation rights of inmates and discrimination perpetuated by medical professionals. I have also encountered numerous COVID-related inquiries about vaccine status “discrimination” and mask mandates. Even though I am unable to provide legal advice as a Commission employee, I can comfort those who sought assistance from the Commission and assure them that I would do my best to guide them through the process. Engaging with Yukoners in this way – hearing and responding to their inquiries – feels like the most “human” part of my job. Although I love legal research and diving deeply into a niche question of law, I sometimes find that theoretical exercises leave me feeling distant from the actual practice of law and access to justice. Inquiries, on the other hand, illustrate how legal information can empower people to autonomously make informed decisions and choices that are attuned to their particular situation(s) or lived experience(s), which is what I think access to justice is all about. It’s rewarding to equip someone who felt powerless in their situation with resources and information that empower them to seek recourse and feel supported in doing so.

I am also learning a lot from the exercise of explaining human rights law without legal jargon. I am able to see, first-hand, how easily digestible the law can be without the opacity I often come across in law school settings. Many inquirers who come to the Commission cannot afford direct legal action and have exhausted many other avenues for resolution. They are often frustrated and losing hope – many have told me that they aren’t ready to give up on their cases but are tired of losing time and facing dead ends. Something as simple as understanding a legal test and filling out a complaint form, thereby commencing a dispute resolution process, gives some degree of reprieve to many people.

Human rights commissions and tribunals across the country provide free access to discrimination-related dispute resolution. In doing so, individuals who have experienced discrimination can seek justice in a very tangible and inexpensive way, unlike through the courts. However, like other useful bodies in the legal sphere, many human rights commissions are understaffed and underfunded, which can lead to significant delays. I plan to learn more about access to justice efforts in the administrative legal space in order to (hopefully) raise more awareness about and increase support for this avenue for dispute resolution in Canada.

The Ups and Downs of Remote Working

Emma SitlandBy Emma Sitland

This summer, I am interning with the International Justice Division at Human Rights Watch. Most of the work I am doing is research focused on situations before the International Criminal Court and instances of mass atrocities outside the jurisdiction of the ICC. Though I am lucky to be doing intellectually stimulating work with and incredible team, after passing the half-way mark of my internship, I am well-versed in the frustrations of working remotely that many of us are feeling right now. Social interactions coworkers are sparse (and often awkward), my work/life divide has become non-existent and, between pets and roommates, it can be difficult to focus on the very serious nature of the work I am supposed to be doing. While there is nothing I would rather more than to be in NYC with my coworkers, experiencing an incredible city and meeting the highly impressive people that I have thus far only met via Teams, I also want to take a moment to appreciate the opportunities that have resulted from doing this internship remotely.

The work of the International Justice Division at Human Rights Watch takes place all over the globe – I have been conducting research and drafting memos on situations from Afghanistan to Myanmar, to the Philippines. Working remotely means that I am given the opportunity to sit on meetings and conferences all over the world that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to.  For instance, I spent most of my first two weeks sitting in on meetings at the Hague, with key actors from international NGOs and the ICC discussing developments at the Court and civil society’s role with regards to themes from gender equality to victim’s rights – an incredible learning opportunity, and one that I would not have had had the transnational trip been replaced by Zoom.

Most recently, I have been working on a project on transitional justice in Liberia. After the Liberian civil wars, there were no formal mechanisms for accountability put into place. While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created by the Transitional Government to “promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation” recommended the establishment of a War Crimes Court to prosecute offenders, this never came into fruition. The only justice victims have seen thus far is through universal jurisdiction cases, such as the case against Alieu Kosiah that rendered a guilty verdict in Switzerland. Despite the fact that it has been over 20 years since the conflict, members of the Liberian government want to further delay justice. The project that I am working on, in collaboration with members of the IJ team and partners across Europe and Liberia, is trying to prevent this. Now that workplaces across the world have moved online, I am given opportunities to participate in discussions that otherwise would have taken place half a world away.

Obviously, I would rather be spending my summer in Manhattan, going to work at the Empire State Building every day – but I am also trying to find things to be grateful for because, despite global circumstances being less than ideal, my internship thus far has been an incredible learning opportunity and period of growth.

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