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End Unjust HIV Criminalization in Canada: A Community Dialogue

By Heather Whiteside

Last Tuesday, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario (HALCO) hosted a community dialogue on the unjust criminalization of HIV in Canada. I attended, along with my colleagues, the Legal Network’s board members, and many community members.

Three panelists discussed what the movement to resist the over-criminalization of HIV has achieved thus far. They also outlined the work that still needs to be done, especially following Ontario’s provincial election (something I considered in my previous blog post). The unifying goal that brought everyone in the room together was putting an end to the misuse of the criminal law in addressing HIV non-disclosure issues.

Before I elaborate on what emerged from the discussion, it might be helpful to back up and provide some context on HIV criminalization in Canada.

Canada has one of the highest rates in the world of criminalizing people living with HIV. People living with HIV who do not disclose their status are often charged with aggravated sexual assault, the most serious sexual offence in the Criminal Code, even if they had no intent to cause harm and no transmission occurred. This is despite the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that sexual activity with a person living with HIV who is taking prescribed treatment poses a negligible risk of transmission.

There is scant evidence that the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure deters behaviour that can transmit HIV. Instead, it has negative consequences. For example, the fear of criminal prosecution may deter people from being tested and receiving adequate treatment. It also places the burden of preventing HIV transmission on those living with HIV and portrays them as potential criminals.

Thankfully, governments are beginning to recognize that HIV is, first and foremost, a medical and public health issue and that criminal prosecutions should only be used in cases of actual, intentional transmission of HIV.  After years of advocacy by community organizations, both the federal and Ontario governments have finally recognized the need to limit the over-criminalization of HIV in Canada. Both governments have decided to cease prosecutions against people with a suppressed viral load, since this is not consistent with the science of HIV transmission.

During the Community Dialogue, the panelists welcomed this shift as an important first step. It suggests that advocacy efforts and persistent discussions with the Ministry of the Attorney General have been effective. The next step is to ensure that the governments’ conclusions are reflected in clear prosecutorial guidelines at both federal and provincial levels, which would determine if and how a case arrives in court.

One of the themes that I found most striking during the discussion was the particular impacts of HIV non-disclosure laws on women. Criminalizing HIV non-disclosure is often perceived as a way to protect heterosexual women, since the vast majority of people charged under these laws are men who have sex with women and sexual assault laws are traditionally thought to protect women from gender-based violence. But if we dig a little deeper, evidence suggests that HIV criminalization actually puts women at risk.

Women are often the first in a family to be tested for HIV during pre-natal care, and the first person to test positive is often blamed for bringing the infection into the relationship. Women are more likely to be in coercive sexual relationships where they are prevented from making autonomous decisions about when and how sexual intercourse occurs, and many women often feel forced to choose between disclosure or risking abuse at the hands of their partners. Non-disclosure laws also mean that women are unlikely to report sexual assault or domestic violence if they are positive. Even more shocking is the fact that criminal charges are often brought against HIV positive women at the end of a romantic, consensual relationship by vindictive partners (as in the case of R. v. D.C., 2012 SCC 48). Ultimately, HIV criminalization does very little to actually protect women from violence and from transmission, and it does even less to empower positive women.

At the end of the Community Dialogue, three concrete suggestions were put forth for changing the law as it’s currently written and applied:

  1. Advocacy in the courtroom
  2. Advocating for prosecutorial guidelines about when the Crown will seek convictions
  3. Legislative reform of the provisions in the Criminal Code

Given the change occurring at the federal level, and the energy and dedication I felt from other community organizers in the room, I got the sense that these goals have a strong likelihood of being achieved.

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

By Heather Whiteside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distilling our Rights

By Pouya Dabiran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tale of two ideals

By Roxanne Caron

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

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

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

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

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

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

Les règles de l’hospitalité

Par Renaude Morin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attentes et découvertes

Par Elisabeth Beauchamp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections: A Summer Spent at the Yukon Human Rights Commission

By Rachelle Rose

I have now returned to Montreal, my hometown, after being a summer student with the Yukon Human Rights Commission (YHRC) for three months. As I sit on the floor of my home, I am reflecting on the astonishing and life-shaping experiences that I’ve had this summer. But mostly, I am thinking about what a privilege it was for so many people to trust me and openly speak to me about the human rights violations they experienced.

I recall my first days at the YHRC, I shadowed a few of my colleagues, who all made the complaint process appear so easy.

The process usually began with an individual calling or walking into the YHRC. The YHRC identifies this initial meeting as an inquiry, during which the individual describes the incident in which they felt maltreated. Some inquiries were more straightforward than others, still, the Director and Legal Counsel would review each inquiry, informing the Human Rights Officers (HRO) and interns as to whether the inquiry fell within the authority and jurisdiction of the Yukon Human Rights Act (Act), which the YHRC enforces.

Specific instances of harassment and discrimination are identified in the Act and if an inquiry fit the criteria for discrimination or harassment as per the Act, the inquirer was invited to submit a formal complaint. There were times when inquirers, although informed that their inquiry did not constitute discrimination or harassment under the Act, still decided to file a complaint. Legal Counsel would always remind us that anyone could file a complaint whether meritorious or not.

After a review of the complaint by the Director to decide whether the YHRC would proceed with investigating the complaint, a settlement between the Complainant (the person who filed a complaint of discrimination or harassment) and the Respondent (the person who was accused of the incident of discrimination or harassment), would be a possibility. If the complaint could not be settled, it would most often advance to the investigation stage, where an HRO would gather further information from both the Complainant and the Respondent. During the entire process, the YHRC acts as a neutral party. Given the information collected by the HRO, the file could be passed on to a Board of Adjudication (BOA) hearing (a public hearing). The BOA is independent of the YHRC. A decision is often made at this stage about whether there is enough evidence to make a finding of harassment or discrimination. If so, the BOA can order the Respondent to provide specific remedies.

About two weeks into my internship, I began interviewing inquirers. Many shared narratives that included instances of discrimination and harassment. These moments were filled with sadness, as the treatment was usually very harmful, but also satisfaction. It felt as though the individual would soon be receiving some kind of vindication.

Conversely, people would often visit the YHRC with a misconception of the mandate. On the website, it is stated that “The Yukon Human Rights Commission promotes equality and diversity through research, education, and enforcement of the Yukon Human Rights Act.”

I would often refer inquirers to the Act, informing them that the YHRC cannot act on matters beyond what is stated in the Act. I would explain that the Act largely addresses instances of discrimination and harassment. I could often feel people’s despair and/or anger, whether they were seated in front of me or on the other side of the phone when they realized that the event they experienced did not fall within the Act and thus we would likely not be able to help them. While some were happy with the referrals we made to other organizations and/or resources, others stated that they felt shuffled around and that the YHRC should have the authority to enforce their human rights.

I heard many stories over the summer, some were extremely tragic. In result, I often left inquiry meetings with a heavy heart. So many times, I felt helpless, knowing that I couldn’t help the individual sitting in front of me or speaking to me from the other end of the line in the manner that they needed.

A fraction of the calls that we received was from inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC). It was difficult to hear these stories while being constrained by the powers of the Act. In most of the cases, there was little that we could do for these individuals. Many inquired about their rights. Unfortunately, due to confidentiality reasons, I cannot disclose the subject matter of most inquiries. However, the overuse of solitary confinement recently became public news. At the YHRC, we received multiple calls from inmates describing instances of being held in solitary confinement for weeks or months at a time.

Fortunately, before leaving my internship with the YHRC, I was informed that due to four inmates filing complaints in 2014 regarding the lack of mental health services and programming as well as the overuse of solitary confinement among those with mental health challenges, the YHRC was able to consolidate them to then put forward a group complaint in 2017.

Consequently, the Yukon Government, the YHRC and the complainants signed an agreement this year in which the Yukon Government agreed to improve jail conditions for inmates struggling with mental health, through the creation of a forensic mental health unit under the care of a Ph.D. clinical psychologist and an increase in reporting and record keeping regarding the use of solitary confinement.

It was an encouraging end to my summer. I witnessed the YHRC use its authority, still within the Act, to make changes on a structural level rather than at the individual level, which I grew accustomed to seeing. However, this agreement would only address WCC’s lack of mental health services and programming as well as the overuse of solitary confinement among those with mental health challenges.

In a conversation with one of my colleagues, I asked her about what could be done for these inmates, she informed me about the John Howard Society, which advocates for changes in the criminal justice process, but as for the YHRC, we would not be able to address every issue raised by the aforementioned inquirers.

A few times during the summer I wondered, what if we went outside of the mandate to help these inquirers, what would the consequences be? What implications would arise from partnering with such an organization, seeing as the YHRC is a neutral party and should be seen as such? With my limited knowledge and few answers, I questioned how helpful I could be.

Rest assured, I haven’t acted outside of the mandate, but my experiences have led me to think more deeply about the human rights work that I aspire to do in the future as well as the possible limitations that may be placed on me and/or the organization I work for, given the type of work, clientele, funding and all other factors.

A Genocide Forgotten, No More

By: Eleanor Dennis

Walking around downtown Windhoek, it is common to see streets named after German philosophers or musicians and finishing with “Strasse” rather than street. In the popular vacation town of Swakopmund, German-language bookshops outnumber English or Afrikaans shops, the architecture could be mistaken for buildings in Bavaria and it is even common to walk several blocks before hearing any language other than German spoken. Indeed, for a country twenty-eight years free from South Africa and over one hundred years free from German control, so many German colonial markers still exist in Namibia that on the surface it may seem like the wounds inflicted upon the Namibian psyche from German colonization have been healed– they have not.

Lüderitz is the site of one of the five former Namibian concentration camps.

The first colonial claim on Namibian lands came in 1797 when Britain occupied Walvis Bay, and for the next two hundred years Namibian territory remained under the control of different colonial powers. In 1883, German trader Adolf Lüderitz bought the coastal area that now bears his name, and from that moment on German troops were deployed and gained control of Namibia, then known as German South West Africa. While some of these details are known and spoken about in public discourse, many of the atrocities that occurred at the German’s hands in Namibia were left largely unaddressed and unknown by the international community. Thanks to a very important court case that is currently being litigated in New York, this has begun to change.

Genocide and the Reparations Debate

From 1904 to 1908, Germany committed genocide against the Nama and Herero people of Namibia in what the UN Whitaker report [1] has now acknowledged as one of the biggest genocides of the 20th century alongside the Ottoman massacre of the Armenians, the Khmer Rouge and the Holocaust. The Herero people had commenced a rebellion against the German soldiers and settlers at the time and the German military ordered the extermination of their people as a result. Thousands of both Herero and Nama people were killed or driven out into the desert to die, and those who survived were interned in concentration camps around the country and systematically starved and worked to death. The result was the annihilation of 80% of the Herero people and 50% of the Nama people in an extermination so massive the ramifications are still felt in these communities to this day, although no reparations have been paid to date.

The affected communities of this genocide have been seeking reparations for these atrocities for many years, but their efforts have been fruitless. In 2001 the Herero people filed a $4 bn lawsuit against the German government and two German firms, however their claims was dismissed on the grounds that international protection of civilians did not exist at the time of the conflict [2]. It was only in 2004 that the German government formally recognized the colonial-era genocide and issued an apology [3] however they maintained that there would be no compensation for the affected communities. In 2015, the German government officially recognized the atrocities constituted genocide, but ruled out reparations again to the more than 100,000 victims [4]

Members of the Nama Traditional Authority in Hoachanas, Namibia

This begs the question of whether Germany now recognizes the genocide as a crime under international law. While German politicians have acknowledged the genocide in a series of public statements in recent years, the state continues to submit legal documentation to the court that denies that the event constitutes genocide.

Current Case

This brings us to today, when Herero and Nama chiefs have yet again brought a class action lawsuit [5] against Germany accusing the state of genocide, theft, and expropriation of property when Namibia was under German colonial rule. Their demand is simple: reckoning with colonial-era atrocities and reparations akin to what was paid to Holocaust survivors. What is interesting in this case is that it is being pled in New York in U.S federal court under the Alien Tort Statute established under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. This tort has been interpreted to allow foreign citizens to seek remedies in U.S courts for human-rights violations for conduct committed outside the United States in order to give a global remedy for breaches of international law (see Sosa v Alvarez-Machain case for more info).

The problem that their cause has encountered is one of jurisdiction, because the Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum precedent set in 2013 establishes that the Alien Tort Statute should not apply to crimes that do not touch and concern the U.S. In order for there to be a firm basis for jurisdiction in the US under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, the Herero and Nama need to demonstrate that wealth derived from the property taken during the German colonial period has a direct link to commercial property in the US.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs Ken McCallion has put forth the central argument that the Kiobel case leaves the door open for U.S courts to gain extraterritorial jurisdiction over cases of genocide. He maintains that a number of German properties in New York were purchased as a direct result of the wealth accrued from slave labour and expropriation of property during the genocide. Furthermore, he has argued that the sale of genocide victims’ human remains to the American Museum of Natural History demonstrates a valid commercial link between the genocide and American Commercial interests. Germany’s lawyer has countered that the presence of skulls at the museum was the result of a private donation from a German anthropologist and not a commercial exchange and argues as a result that the U.S does not have jurisdiction over the case.

As of August 1st, 2018 the case has been adjourned by Justice Swain who will deliver a decision in the coming weeks. As more information becomes available, I will update this post with the results of the case.

Acknowledgement and Awareness

Members of the LRDC fight for constitutional justice for all Namibians

From the current court case to my experience during my 3.5 months in Namibia, an important theme arises for me as both an intern at the LRDC and a law student in Canada that may tie this blog post together. Living in Windhoek as an outsider who had the immense privilege of working in Namibia and meeting and forming bonds with the people there, the question of how useful acknowledgement really is came up for me time and time again.

In Namibia there are many young German expats living and completing internships and the reality of the extreme social and economic inequality is that German Namibians continue to hold a large percentage of the land and wealth in the country. The German government has acknowledged the genocide and provides generous economic aid for Namibia (which currently amounts to $14m per year [6]however for Nama or Herero individuals who have been set back by the killings of their ancestors 100 years ago, these acknowledgements may fall on deaf ears. What does it mean to really acknowledge past wrongs? If victims demand reparations and are denied, does this deflate the acknowledgement?

There are many cases of reparations being won, and examples varying from the U.S paying reparations for Japanese-American internees to Canada agreeing to pay compensation to the residential schools victims [7] show that possible, though imperfect solutions do exist to begin to address past injustices. On the other hand, many reparations cases leave victims without any relief at all and reparations fall far from the only solution required to support victims and their communities.

Thus, more uniform and universal approaches are needed to address this issue and reduce the struggles experienced by the survivors and the families of victims in accessing reparations for mass atrocities. For the moment this will not help the Nama-Herero cause. What may truly help more than acknowledgement, however, is awareness.

Germany’s genocide in Namibia was forgotten for many decades by the international community, however this is beginning to change. In 2011 a popular book was published that has increased international awareness of the Namibian genocide called The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism. In addition, the current case as well as Germany’s acknowledgements post-2000 have helped to increase international awareness of this issue and there is real hope that Nama and Herero families will receive compensation. The more this issue becomes discussed in the international community the more pressure will increase upon the German government to not treat Namibian victims differently than victims of the Holocaust and receive the compensation that they deserve. A genocide and victims forgotten, no more.

[1] http://www.preventgenocide.org/prevent/UNdocs/whitaker/ 

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/aug/16/germany.andrewmeldrum

[3] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3565938.stm 

[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/ewelinaochab/2018/05/24/the-herero-nama-genocide-the-story-of-a-recognized-crime-apologies-issued-and-silence-ever-since/#768bd62a6d8c 

[5] https://www.forbes.com/sites/ewelinaochab/2018/05/24/the-herero-nama-genocide-the-story-of-a-recognized-crime-apologies-issued-and-silence-ever-since/#768bd62a6d8c 

[6] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3565938.stm

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/06/decades-after-government-seizure-of-children-indigenous-canadians-will-receive-compensation


Keeping Warm During the “Cold” Rainy Season

By Yulia Yugay

Contrary to popular belief, I did not roast under the Kenyan sun for three months. In fact, we caught the second half of the rainy season and stayed in Kenya during the coldest months of the year. In July, the temperature can go as low as 15 degrees; it is at this time that people take their warm leather or down jackets out, wear long thick scarves and hats. In other words, when Nicole and I went outside wearing a blazer or a light sweater, Kenyans thought we were the most warm-blooded people that have lived on this earth. Unsurprisingly, when they found out about average winter temperatures in Canada, they could not believe their ears.

In Meru Law courts with a public prosecutor and Nicole

These differences in perspectives were obviously not limited to climatic issues, which is why my experience in Kenya makes up a full spectrum of emotions. One of the most shocking, yet unsurprising, things we’ve witnessed is the treatment we received, as wazungu (white people) during official events, from government officials and people on the streets. When visiting police stations while trying to find out the status of a case, going to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to follow up on the progress of an appeal, or when asking for help from court staff, we were offered a seat in the waiting room, directed to the right person or given an answer. While this sounds totally ordinary, our Kenyan colleague said that he felt like he was in a different country. Later we were told that this was due to the fact that everyone thought we were “important” people who are coming to check on their work.

Another instance where we got preferential treatment because, once again, people thought we were “important” was at the celebration of the Day of the African Child. We were officially greeted, given water bottles, and seated right next to a highly ranked government official whose arrival (30 minutes late) required the interruption of the entire parade. This time, we received special treatment because it was very likely that we were some of the donors who sponsored the event. While this treatment can be understood, it also showcases a frustrating reality: an experienced university graduate working in a Kenyan NGO with issues as important as defilement cannot always do their work as efficiently or to the same extent as two foreign students who do not even speak decent Swahili.

Justice Clubs launch event at Ncuui Primary School

With that said, there was an overwhelming amount of wonderful people, customs and precious moments that kept us warm in fifteen degree weather and in spite of the different surprises on the way.

One of the highlights of my internship were the school visits we paid within the framework of the Justice Clubs initiative. The objective of the Justice Clubs is to educate a group of primary school students about human and children’s rights, the 160 Girls decision, and the issue of defilement more broadly. Selected students learn the curriculum through specifically designed workshops and activities and then pass the message on to the rest of the school and members of community during launch events and closing community shows. Having visited and selected the schools and trained the teachers (Justice Club patrons), it was extremely comforting to see the effort, dedication and enthusiasm that both the school administration and students had invested into organizing, preparing for and performing at the launch events. The level of student engagement and parent participation instills hope that the Justice Clubs initiative contributes to women’s and girls’ empowerment and brings us one step closer to the longterm, systemic change.

At the tea plantation with a group of strong and beautiful women

However, every moment spent with the girls at the Tumaini shelter was, without a doubt, the most memorable and heartwarming. Working with their individual cases, knowing their stories made my work very emotionally challenging. Nevertheless, all the time spent cooking, playing, reading, colouring books, and painting nails with the kids added the invaluable human component to the human rights work I did all summer. I cannot stress enough how loving, sincere and generous are these souls who, thankfully, haven’t forgotten how and what it means to be children

To conclude, I’d like to express my deepest gratitude for all the people I met over the course of my three months in Kenya who made up for the many cold and rainy days. I am grateful for the people who introduced me to and taught me to cook some of the best Kenyan dishes. I am grateful for the famous Kenyan tea with milk and sugar, religiously served every morning and afternoon, that I shared with my colleagues (this definitely helped me cope with the unbearably slow wifi or the lack thereof). I am grateful for the lady at the market who always greeted me with a warm smile and threw a couple more sweet potatoes or bananas in my bag. I am grateful for the women working at the tea plantation who welcomed me into their group and showed me how to pluck some of the best tea in Kenya. I am grateful for the friendships created not only with the people in the office, but also with their families. And finally, I am grateful for having been able to experience the sense of community that is so deeply rooted in Kenyan people.

Sunrise at the Maasai Mara National Reserve

Asante sana, my dear Kenya, and until next time.

Finding Familiarity in a Foreign Place

By Adriana Cefis

The first time I experienced home abroad was while eating McDonald’s soft serve at Colombo’s Racecourse as little kids played soccer in front of me. The experience brought back foundational childhood memories of summer: house league soccer followed by Wild Willy’s ice cream. If you’re from Montreal’s West Island you know exactly what I’m talking about. I was taken aback by the strong feeling of comfort: how weird it is to experience home a million miles away as a foreigner in a place you’ve never been before, a misplaced sense of déja vu.

On my first day, my supervisor at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo assigned me the task of writing a report on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). He explained that States party to the Convention must submit an initial report within two years of ratification. Sri Lanka ratified the Convention in February of 2016 but as of yet, no initial report has been submitted.

I was originally asked to research and write a shadow report. To give you an idea of the work involved in such a project, Canada’s initial report was drafted in consultation with  over 700 civil society organisations. In addition to the time constraint imposed by my three-month placement, the subject of disability rights is under-researched in Sri Lanka (or “poverty stricken” as one activist I spoke with put it), and the available data is paltry and outdated. The potentiality of producing a rich and nuanced report in just three months seemed implausible. My first challenge at ICES was therefore to narrow the scope of my project and devise a new proposal for my supervisor.


Having already completed a great deal of desk-based research, I arranged to meet and informally speak with a number of disability rights “veterans.” I ended up writing a report on barriers to both formal and informal mechanisms to the implementation of the CRPD. To do so, I conducted interviews with umbrella disability rights organisations that represent the country’s main geographic areas, individual Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs), International Non-Governmental Organisations, disability rights activists, and the the country’s Human Rights Commission’s sub-committee on disability.

I used Alexander Betts and Phil Orchard’s institutionalisation-implementation gap to organise the information gathered from these interviews in my paper. This theory provides a frameworks for why norms institutionalised at the international level (for example, through the ratification of conventions) are implemented differently domestically by categorising implementation gaps into ideational, material, and institutional barriers.

At times, this project was a source of personal conflict for me: I wanted to be a responsible researcher. I devised ethics forms and had them approved by my supervisor, I tried my best to acknowledge the limitations of this three-month research project and underscore that this was not a scientific study, but a report designed to offer a comprehensive foundation for further research and activism, and I spoke to my supervisor about sharing the information contained therein widely among the network of organisations I spoke with.

I also grappled with the inability to include all of my findings in the report. The conversations I had yielded some viewpoints that would make for interesting studies in their own right as well as some side-points that could not be included in my project. For example, some of the people I spoke with asserted that disability can be a a model for reconciliation among different groups of people, specifically emphasising how parents associations provide an arena where people from different ethnicities, religions, and paths of life rally together. Others suggested that ex-combatants make for better activists because they know how to mobilise effectively.

One of the comments that came up and struck closest to home was the idea that there’s a hierarchy among disability rights when it comes to research, advocacy, and representation among disability rights organisations (primarily with visual impairment being very well represented and intellectual disability the most underrepresented).

This point was especially relevant in the Sri Lankan context where formal mechanisms of implementation often treat “disability” as a homogenous group and are not especially conducive to the implementation of disability rights, meaning that service provision often falls to the informal sector. The strength of the “rights movement” in a “niche” area of disability rights is therefore related to how well that “niche” area is represented and serviced.

I have a family member with an intellectual disability and my family has always been involved in organisations that provide services for this group of people in Montreal. Speaking to parents of children with disabilities in Sri Lanka and hearing their frustration at the lack of services and stigma experienced by their children accordingly struck close to home, as did listening to stories of families that went door to door to raise awareness and funds for service provision. There it was again, that familiarity, that sense of déja vu.

Volunteers for the West Island Association for the Intellectually Handicapped over 50 years ago – my grandmother is in the middle at the back

Overall, I’m grateful for this amazing opportunity which allowed me to experience the challenges and beauty of field-work, including but not limited to addressing conflicting viewpoints, identifying and acknowledging internal biases, dealing with a variety of forms of transportation, the occasional battle with Sri Lankan fauna and flora, intriguing conversation, and the space and time to reflect on all of the above.

Public transit snack

Sri Lankan cooking class

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