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On Electra & Venezuela

By Natalia Koper

Electra was an angry daughter. No wonder, her mother Clytemnestra, in a vengeful act, had killed her father Agamemnon after he had sacrificed his eldest daughter, the innocent Iphigenia on the altar of war. Being a daughter of a murdered father and a mother-murderer has marked Electra’s identity throughout literary history.

The story of Electra has been recounted many times partly because it exposes the complexity of human suffering; partly because the ease of reproducing violence resonates with our experiences and histories. Electra individualizes and humanizes the different facets of pain: her tragedy in the midst of the Trojan War is not discarded as one of many. At the same time, Electra’s struggle touches on some (perhaps) universally pertinent dilemmas. How to break with the cycle of violence? Where is the line between vengeance and justice? How does an ‘after’ for a survivor of violence even look like?

This year, I experienced this famous product of Greek mythology from a completely unexpected angle. In Lima’s Teatro la Plaza, a group of Venezuelan actors relived Electra’s story, adding to it that of their nation.

Poster, source: Larcomar <larcomar.com/electra-de-sofocles-a-clavier-de-grecia-a-venezuela/electra>

The actors signalled their message early on: the play began by the actors approaching the edge of the stage, introducing themselves, and explaining how long they have lived in Peru. Peru has observed a consistent increase of people arriving from Venezuela since the living conditions there began to deteriorate drastically in 2017. Currently, the country is the second-largest recipient of Venezuelans fleeing the violence of the Nicolás Maduro’s regime. Out of more than 800,000 Venezuelans residing in Peru, about 80 percent – including the actors in front of me – sought refuge in Lima.

The play, however, took us to the modern-day Caracas. It revolved around a family gathering, celebrating the birthday of Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. It was a glimpse into a fallen kingdom of prosperity. “Soon there will be nothing left to sell from this beautiful villa,” noticed one of the party invitees. (Actually, the comment served also as a meta-joke on the minimalist scenography). The purchase of birthday balloons, forming into Aegisthus’s name, met with Electra’s disapproval too.

The scenography

In this reality, Electra’s resentment towards the impunity of her father’s death gets mixed up with quarrels over a chicken missing from the fridge. Not so surprisingly, these two dimensions of the quarrel belong together here. In Venezuela, the aggravation of the institutional order, the restraints on civil rights, and extrajudicial killings go in pair with the economic crisis, extreme hyperinflation, and the consequent lack of access to basic social services. The economic fiasco of Maduro’s politics fuels the public discontent, which, in a strong democracy, would force him out of power. To hold on to his seat, Maduro resorts to the militarization of the public “safety” and the criminalization of the opposition. Extreme poverty also affects crime rates. All these factors combined push people to leaving the country, which further contributes to limiting access to social services and shortages of food and medical supplies. For example, by 2017, more than 40 percent of doctors who have graduated in the last decade decided to emigrate. Of those who remained in Venezuela, 75 percent still intend to leave. In short, Electra’s family perpetual cycle of violence coincides with what Venezuelans experience in real life.

In the play, the Caracas of 2019 finds itself contrasted with other moments from the 20th-century history. In particular, this Greek royal family holds on to the memory of better days, manifested in the abundance of everyday resources and the right to manage them in a carefree, wasteful manner. It’s not exactly clear whether that refers to the 1980s when Venezuela’s elite thrived on U.S-backed oil deals or to the more recent social welfare project of Hugo Chávez. Both of these “happy times” remind us, however, about the unstable foundation of the Venezuelan economy. By relying almost entirely on oil exports, the country is susceptible to economic collapse every time the oil market prices drop significantly. Economists call this phenomenon a natural resource curse, which again brings back the ancient Greek notions of fate and doom.

Electra didn’t manage to escape her family’s cycle of pain. Instead of joining her brother Orestes in Peru and leaving her fate behind in Venezuela, she completes the cycle the moment we hear behind-the-scene shots. Vengeance for her father’s death is executed, turning Electra into yet another murderer. What will be of Venezuela now?

 

Zoning and Human Rights in Toronto

By Reeve Kako

2017 City of Toronto map demarcating licensed Body Rub Parlours in Green, Holistic Centres allegedly offering offering erotic massage in purple, and Holistic Centres not offering erotic massage in blue.

While it is often the goal of human rights advocates to focus on high-level policy reform on a national or provincial scale, the discrimination that human rights advocacy attempts to combat often finds itself manifested in often less visible small scale and local decision-making. This reality was brought to my attention when my internship at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network brought me to Toronto City Hall in preparation for a submission regarding the city’s review of its bylaws for its licensing of Body Rub Parlours and Holistic Centres.

Quickly immersing myself in the issue, I came to learn that the city’s licensing of erotic massage proves to be a complex and dysfunctional regime that is the result of a stalemate between efforts to provide a regulatory scheme for the erotic massage industry and those who do not want sex work permitted in the city. As it stands, the city allows the operation of 25 licensed Body Rub Parlours, who are all sanctioned to provide erotic massage to customers. However, there are also approximately 200 additional establishments allegedly offering unsanctioned erotic massage who operate under the different business license as Holistic Centres.

The 25 Body Rub Parlours are required to abide by strict regulations, including limited opening hours, mandatory medical exams of employees, and extremely restrictive zoning regulations. In comparison, the Holistic Centres, which are not sanctioned to be offering erotic massage but are often doing so anyhow, are permitted to operate under much laxer regulations that are similar to any other commercial business.

For my part in my organization’s advocacy efforts, I was tasked with researching the disparate impact that the zoning regulations have had on the licensed Body Rub Parlours. The zoning restrictions on the 25 Body Rub Parlours only permits their operation in Employment Industrial Zones, as well as mandates that they also must be several hundred metres away from schools, residential lots, places of worship, and other adult entertainment establishments. These restrictions prove to be the most extreme zoning restrictions of any zoning requirement found in the city’s bylaws and effectively zone the sanctioned Body Rub Parlours into unlit, underpopulated, and ultimately unsafe areas of the city.

It was hard to see the logic for such strict zoning restrictions on the sanctioned Body Rub Parlours when erotic massage is happening throughout the city in the hundreds of Holistic Centres offering unsanctioned erotic massage. This demonstrated to me that the city crafted the zoning regulations with a moral objective as opposed to one based in best practice. While the operation of Holistic Centres offering erotic massage in virtually all commercial zoning demonstrates that allowing erotic massage throughout the city does not pose a significant nuisance, the city chose to place extreme restrictions on the licensed Body Rub Parlours out a morally based desire to not directly sanction such activity. My research indeed confirmed this, after an Access to Information Request from the city provided records that confirmed a lack of significant nuisance reported against Body Rub Parlours that would justify the restrictive zoning that they currently face. To provide some perspective, the only other lot type whose zoning restrictions compare to that of Body Rub Parlours is a Propane Storage, Holding, and Transfer facility.

These findings proved frustrating to me, demonstrating the city’s failure to accept best practice and evidence in favour of morally based narratives that demonize sex work and sex workers. Providing sex workers the ability to work in safe and well-lit neighbourhoods was forgotten in favour of often nebulous and unjustified concerns that having these establishments in neighbourhoods would contribute to some kind of moral decay.

Ultimately, my submission indeed highlighted these concerns and will be reviewed before year’s end when the city will decide on how proceed with bylaw reform efforts. It is my hope that the city the will be persuaded by best practice and evidence as opposed to moral imperatives surrounding sex work that often prove arbitrary. Coming to understand the extreme hurdles that employees at Body Rub Parlours must endure in order to stay employed demonstrated to me the insidious impact that local decision-making can have upon vulnerable communities. In applying this to human rights advocacy as a general practice, it is essential that human rights advocacy follow-through on national policy objectives by not stopping short of ensuring that an individual’s rights are protected at the often-overlooked local level.

Live-in Workers

By Tessa Martin

I would like to dedicate my last blog to discussing worker’s rights. More specifically, I wish to briefly discuss workers who live where they work. That is to say, workers who are housed on their employer’s property. My question is the following: Can it ever be ethical?

I will focus on two types of workers: live-in domestic workers and plantation workers living on estates. The majority of my time interning at the International Center for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Sri Lanka was spent researching the laws and policies surrounding Sri Lankan plantation workers living on large-scale tea and rubber estates. Meanwhile, I came across various situations with live-in domestic workers, seen as common place in this part of the world. Something about both of these forms of work felt inherently wrong to me, but it took me some time to figure out why, or what, felt so off-putting.

Much like live-in domestic workers, plantation workers in Sri Lanka’s tea and rubber estates face a lack of separation between their work and their private life. Their time and the spaces they inhabit are highly regulated, allowing employers to exert full control over their lives. This thereby creates the perfect conditions for a system resembling what one may call ‘modern slavery’. The International Labour Organization’s notes on the concept of vulnerability state that “forced labour is also more likely in cases of multiple dependency on the employer, such as when the worker depends on the employer not only for his or her job but also for housing, food, etc.”

Plantation workers live on the estates, far away from everything, secluded, left out of sight and out of mind. They are trapped in the space of their employers 24/7. Outsiders are denied entry to the estates since it is considered the private property of Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs). This made it nearly impossible for me to meet with plantation workers themselves throughout my research, relying instead on the experience of professors and NGOs. In fact, as a result, plantation workers are largely denied the opportunity to become their own agents of change and I question their ability to express their own narratives. This was a huge issue brought up to me by an activist who was highly engaged in the “1000 Rupee movement” (meant to increase plantation worker’s minimum wage), who spoke to me about the issues of creating a movement which largely excludes and is far removed from the people it is meant to impact.

The distinction between public versus private property is also used to exclude plantation workers from local governance. For example, the Pradeshiya Sabha Act excludes the estates from receiving public services provided for by Pradeshiya Sabhas (Divisional Councils). These public services include, but are not limited to, public health services, road maintenance and construction, drinking water, sanitation, electricity, garbage disposal, maternity care, pre-school and child welfare services. Moreover, as expressed in the preamble of the PS Act, the PSs are meant to “provide greater opportunities for people to participate effectively in decision making process relating to administrative and development activities at a local level.” The Pradeshiya Sabha Act has therefore served to ensure that plantation workers in Sri Lanka continue to be governed by companies rather than the state, thereby effectively excluding them from participating in democratic forms of governance.

This level of control is especially problematic given the gendered aspect of plantation and domestic work. The majority of plantation and domestic workers are women, therefore allowing for the continuity of control over women’s lives. If one is to abide by Amartya Sen’s understanding of human rights as freedom, and one is to see control and freedom as inherently opposed, then this form of work fits the very definition of the denial of human rights.

So, can a system wherein workers live where they work ever be ethical?  

Well, in some rare cases yes, but it depends entirely on the individual employers. This is to say the workers are placed at the mercy of their employers so called “benevolence.”

Of course, whether this means that these forms of work should not exist is an entirely different question. The reality of the situation is that this allows many people, especially women, to survive, and at times even to break out of the cycle of poverty. It would be far too naïve to call for the abolition of all forms of ‘live-in’ work. However, it is still worth reflecting on the inherent problems of such a system, and to start thinking of ways to further monitor the circumstances and to limit the power exerted by employers over workers.

 

Summer School in Advocacy

By Jessica Michelin

At the UN for the first time! Notice the giant smile on my face.

A highlight of my summer internship with Human Rights Watch was being invited to attend conferences and meetings held at the UN Headquarters. Sure, anyone can sign up for a tour of the UN and visit the building. But there is something about showing up in a suit, ID card in hand, that feels different than visiting as tourist wearing shorts and a fanny-pack (okay, I’m playing up the stereotype here). Beyond the initial awe of walking through the building and sitting in on meetings, going to the UN was a stand-out experience for me because it was there that I received my first big lesson in advocacy this summer.

On July 17th, the World Day for International Justice, I attended a conference about why #JusticeMatters.

It was at the UN that my supervisor showed me the importance of putting yourself in the right place at the right time. After the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court briefed the Security Council on the situation in Darfur, my supervisor instructed me and a fellow intern to follow her down the stairs to where journalists sometimes wait to interview the Prosecutor. We hovered in a corner. Now, a little known fact about me is that I hate breaking rules. I get so nervous about breaking rules that I don’t even like doing something that could potentially be breaking a rule. This means that I am not usually a hoverer or a loiterer, because I’m always too nervous that some security guard will nicely tell me to please move along. Despite my natural instincts not to hover, I followed my supervisor’s lead, and she eventually caught the attention of a journalist. They made small talk for a bit, and then the journalist asked my supervisor if she had anything she’d like to say about the briefing. Leaning confidently into the tape recorder, my supervisor delivered a concise and clear comment on the briefing. As we walked away, she shrugged “maybe the journalist will use that quote.” Sure enough, the next day my supervisor’s statement was included in the news article. By placing herself in the journalist’s path, my supervisor was able to make her voice heard.

The hallowed halls of the UN Security Council

All second-year students at McGill are required to take a course called “Advocacy”. We learn about many different ways to advocate for a client: demand letters, mediation, and oral advocacy at a mock trial. These lessons were interesting and helpful, and I will carry those skills with me into my career. The advocacy lessons I learned at Human Rights Watch were a bit different, but equally as important. At Human Rights Watch, I learned about the power of using other people to get your message heard. A newspaper picking up a story with a well-placed quote may reach a broader audience than an organization could reach on its own. An idea being pushed forward by one person may go further than if that idea is pushed by another person. My advocacy course taught me how to be a better advocate when I’m the one at the table. But my impromptu advocacy lessons this summer taught me how to be a better advocate behind the scenes. I learned that sometimes being an advocate means getting the ball rolling and letting someone else run with it. Or in some cases, rolling the ball directly into someone else’s path so that they have no choice but to run with it.

I was lucky to work with two fantastic fellow interns this summer. We all agreed that it was pretty awesome to go to the UN.

Trauma and the Practice of Human Rights Law

By Brittni Tee

In the early weeks of my internship at the Yukon Human Rights Commission, I attended a seminar focused on strategies to prevent vicarious trauma, burnout, and compassion fatigue in the workplace. With the exception of myself and my colleagues, the majority of people in attendance were social workers, addictions counsellors, and paramedics. As I listened to other attendees share stories about difficult situations that they had experienced at work, I remember feeling distinctly out of place. Prior to this workshop, the intersection between the practice of law and trauma had not been particularly apparent to me.  Yet, as my internship progressed, I quickly became grateful for the crash-course in trauma that this seminar had provided.

Most of my work with the Commission centers around responding to inquiries from members of the public.  Although the Commission will assist anyone who has a question about the Yukon Human Rights Act, the majority of inquiries I receive are from individuals who believe that their human rights have been violated. Unsurprisingly, conversations about these experiences are often emotionally fraught, both for myself and for the people that I am trying to help. After challenging days at the office, I sometimes find myself feeling drained, thinking about stories I heard at work while trying to relax at yoga or enjoy a drink with friends. Although I have only spent a few months at the Commission, it’s easy to imagine how the cumulative, long-term effect of this type of work could have negative mental health consequences.

The legal profession is somewhat notorious for embracing a competitive, “survival of the fittest” ethos which discourages acknowledging any sign of weakness. Unfortunately (and perhaps unsurprisingly), this culture has led to alarmingly high rates of addiction, depression and other mental health issues within the profession. Although these issues are beginning to be addressed from the perspective of improving work/life balance, the effects of trauma are less commonly discussed. In practice areas such as human rights law where trauma is regularly encountered in the workplace, this has negative repercussions for both practitioners and the people they are trying to help.

In simple terms, trauma is the psychological and emotional response to an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. It is often explained as our body’s response to an event perceived by our nervous system as significant threat, either to ourselves or others (often loved ones). In the field of human rights law, practitioners are also likely to encounter systemic or intergenerational trauma in communities that have been historically oppressed.  In many cases, the negative consequences of these experiences can persist across multiple generations.

While most people recognize that a traumatic event can create long-lasting emotional effects, many people underestimate the severe neurological impacts that trauma can have upon the brain. Research has shown that trauma can create long-term damage to the neurological pathways used for decision-making, resulting in overstimulated “fight, flight or freeze” responses. In addition to changing how a person interacts socially, this can also affect the ability to process thoughts and make good judgments. Taken together, the effects of trauma can significantly impact the way that individuals engage with the justice system and other elements of society.

In recent years, the concept of “trauma-informed practice” has become increasingly mainstream. Fundamentally, this approach focuses on acquiring a basic understanding of the psychological, neurological, biological, social and spiritual impact that trauma and violence can have on individuals seeking support. In particular, trauma-informed practice is centered on creating compassionate relationships built on respect, trust and safety. For practitioners, this means putting the choices of the people you are trying to help at the forefront of your practice, rather than trying to control or micromanage decisions. This is particularly important in human rights law, since individuals experiencing systemic discrimination can often develop a mistrust of authority figures and institutions. In these cases, providing hierarchical services which amplify existing power-dynamics may risk re-traumatizing those seeking assistance. In light of these considerations, trauma-informed practice emphasizes reducing power imbalances and approaching relationships from a position of equality.

In addition to understanding the impact that trauma can have upon individuals seeking assistance, it is also necessary to consider how repeated exposure to trauma can affect legal practitioners. Vicarious trauma, burnout and compassion fatigue are all incredibly common in the legal profession, particularly in practice areas such as human rights law. It is important for people working in these roles to keep an eye-out for signs which may indicate that their mental health may be suffering as a result of their work. Common recognizable signals of vicarious trauma and burnout include feelings such as sadness, anxiety, isolation, irritability, disturbed sleep, fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Many practitioners also experience something called “compassion fatigue” which results in a lack of empathy and loss of faith in humanity.

Increasing trauma-awareness is an important first-step to preventing and treating vicarious trauma and burnout in the legal profession. Workplaces should also strive to build healthy work environments, which include scheduled breaks and opportunities for employees to “step-away” from work when they feel overwhelmed. On a personal level, there are a number of strategies which individuals can use to reduce the negative mental health repercussions of repeated exposure to trauma. These include exercising regularly, eating healthy, maintaining personal support systems, and generally maintaining a balanced lifestyle.

Yet, while these techniques may be helpful, systemic and institutional changes are also necessary to truly reduce the prevalence of these issues. As trauma scholar Vikki Reynolds has noted, “individualizing” solutions to vicarious trauma obscures the context of social injustice in which this work occurs.[1]  The cause of the harm experienced by people working in helping professions is not clients, but the endless struggle and frustration of working within the confines of an unjust systems.  Although self-care is an important element of preventing burnout and vicarious trauma, ultimately the solution to these problems requires a collective commitment to justice and social change.

My internship at the Human Rights Commission has been incredibly rewarding, both personally and professionally. While this summer has reinforced my longstanding aspiration to work in this field, I have also realized that human rights work presents unique challenges. For those interested in building a career working in the public interest, understanding trauma and its effects is crucial to building a successful and sustainable practice. Moving forward, the legal profession must work harder to educate students and practitioners about the intersections between trauma and the practice of law. Ultimately, this will improve both the mental wellness of practitioners and the quality of service that they are able to provide to the public.

[1]https://vikkireynoldsdotca.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/reynolds2011resistingburnoutwithjustice-doingdulwich.pdf

The Privilege of “Uncomplicated” Culture Shock

By Kirstie Russell

In preparation for international internships like this one, students are often warned about a phenomenon known as “culture shock.” According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, culture shock is defined as “a feeling of confusion felt by someone visiting a country or place that they do not know.”(1)  Interns are told, or we read, that upon arrival in a new place, especially somewhere as far away as “Africa” that we will be exposed to new sights, new smells, new social cues and new foods that will likely cause us to miss or even mourn home – what the literature on culture shock calls our “abandoned culture” (2).  I won’t lie, I did feel a certain element of shock upon arriving in Uganda. The most intense period probably lasted about two or three weeks, but to be honest, the lingering discomforts and confusion remained until my last days in the country.

For me, the shock of being in a new place did not present itself in the “typical” ways, or at least not in the ways that I was expecting. What I mean by that is that it was not the food or the lack of sidewalks or the religious prayers before each work meeting that were the most difficult aspects for me to adjust to. Yes, I faced challenges with some foods, especially as a vegetarian, and yes, I certainly found it claustrophobic not being able to walk around my neighbourhood alone (particularly at night). For me, the biggest challenge I felt in terms of “culture shock” was my inability to even remotely understand the lived experiences of the many people I met, and most especially the people with whom I worked – both clients and colleagues.

The Gender and Sexuality program at Refugee Law Project (RLP) assists refugees who have experienced sexual violence and sexual torture and helps connect them to medical and other support services. As an intern, I interviewed clients about their history and what in particular was bringing them in that day. The stories I heard are, I would imagine, for most people born and raised in Canada probably unimaginable. It was utterly disturbing to hear about what instability, war and conflict allows human beings to do to one another. What was equally disturbing, however, was the lack of awareness about some of what is currently going on in areas of conflict – for example, the perpetration of sexual violence and sexual torture against men,  a current focus of RLP’s. During these sessions, I could nod my head and listen actively to the best of my ability, but I knew that at the end of the day, there was nothing I could personally do to help the client’s situation. I couldn’t heal their wounds, give them money for their children’s school fees, or as some people requested, bring them to Canada for a better life. I could only take down notes and hopefully give them a referral to a doctor, but even that depended on what funding was available and whether it applied to that individual and their particular circumstances. At the end of the day, I would pack up my Macbook Air, fill up my S’well water bottle, pull out my cellphone and call an Uber to my secure compound after stopping by the grocery store, all the while knowing that the client I saw that day was starving themselves to save up enough money to send their child to private school so that they can get a decent education (several people have told me that in Uganda, if you send your child to public school, the children are so unsupervised that most come back unable to read and write and many girls in particular end up ditching school entirely in order to make money engaging in prostitution) . This, for me, was the most intense form of shock or confusion I experienced in Uganda. I felt shocked and confused by the deck of cards I have been dealt compared to others; shocked and confused by my privilege and all that my peers and I consider “basic needs;” shocked and confused by the things I have taken for granted. I don’t think there’s much that can prepare you for those complicated feelings of horror, shame, guilt and sadness. I was nothing short of smacked in the face by the fact that my quality of life is so much better than someone else’s for no reason at all, except that I were born in a different place – a place free of conflict and instability – under entirely different circumstances. When that reality is staring you in the face, it really is nothing less than shocking and, for better or for worse, it is the type of shock that doesn’t really go away.

However, as I write this blog post, I can’t help but feel guilty (or at least some complex version of guilt) for spending 1000 words talking about my experiences with “culture shock” during my McGill University human rights internship in Uganda. After working at RLP with individuals who have been forced to flee their home for unimaginable reasons, I realize that the idea of feeling culture shocked is a privilege in and of itself. Indeed, most of the individuals I have been working with at RLP have experienced such horrific things that they do not have the time or the wherewithal to feel culture shocked, despite the fact that they are in a new country, generally living in slums with people they have never met, often separated from family and friends for an indefinite amount of time. This is in contrast to me, a law student who is in Uganda by choice for a limited amount of time, fully aware that I will be returning to my peaceful and stable home where I will be greeted by my family. Unlike me, the migrants I have met at RLP do not have time to feel culture shocked. No; they are far too busy focusing on how to seek treatment for their wounds from torture, how to pay for their children’s school fees and in some cases, how to locate family members, even children, from whom they have been separated for many months, if not years. My “culture shock,” which the literature aptly calls uncomplicated culture shock is, I have come to realize, one of the most significant forms of privilege I have encountered during my time in Uganda (3).

A busy city market in downtown Kampala on a Sunday.

 

The “taxi” park in downtown Kampala. In Uganda, a “taxi” refers to a matatu, which is one of the main forms of public transport in Uganda. They only cost about a dollar, but do not have reliable schedules so you must be patient because the taxi will not leave until it is full.

 .  

The view from the office I shared with my manager at RLP. I was lucky to work next to the English For Adults Center at RLP, where RLP staff would teach new refugees English, Uganda’s official language, so that they would be able to integrate more easily into Ugandan society. I heard from many refugees that this program was absolutely vital to their quality of life in Uganda because knowing the language made it so much easier to get a job and to interact with administrative bodies like UNHCR.

_________

(1) The Cambridge English Dictionary, “Culture Shock”, accessed on August 29, 2019 from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/culture-shock

(2) Garza-Guerrero AC, Culture shock: Its mourning and the vicissitudes of identity, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1974 Apr;22 (2):408-29.

(3) According to A. Cesar Garza-Guerrero, “uncomplicated culture shock” is “culture shock resulting from a more or less voluntary decision by a newcomer to leave [their] country for diverse reasons…[T]his is in contradiction to ‘complicated culture shock’ – that is one in which the newcomer left his country for the very reason that his ‘average acceptable environment’ was no longer that ‘average’ for their particular ego identity. One example of ‘complicated culture shock’ would be that suffered by refugees from sociopolitical upheaval in the abandoned culture.” [pg. 417]

 

A bantaba in three tempo

By Linda Muhugusa

As the number of days I had left in the Gambia rapidly started to dwindle and had now entered the single digits, I found myself reflecting more and more about my stay and the work I had accomplished over these past few months.

One of the highlights of my stay is undoubtedly the 11 AM break at the bantaba (traditional Gambian gazebo), located in the tropical garden behind our office. This little structure, which harbours a large wooden table and a few chairs, is definitely a source of many found memories for me.

 

 – MAY –

In May, the bantaba was my quiet place. When I arrived in Banjul, I was immediately transposed into the hectic sounds of traffic. The first few days, I was on high alert as I was learning how to navigate the way of life here: figuring out how to cross the street without getting run over by an inattentive cab driver, avoiding getting scammed by merchants offering me high prices, learning the fastest routes around the city to avoid the hefty 5PM traffic…

I was also constantly finding myself in conversations with friendly strangers as I walked back to work, amongst the constant honks of refurbished old Mercedes, the noise of motorcycle engines and the various sounds of the many farms animals walking in the streets (donkey, cows, chicken, goats… you name it!).

– My neighbor’s sheep (which I first thought was a goat), who often sat down right in front of my front door. I suspect she did this specifically to upset me since she could sense I did not like her.

The month of May also brought along with it perfect weather. Banjul did not get a single day of rain, and every morning, I woke up to clear skies. The air was warm but still welcoming, something that was soon going to be replaced by heat and humidity.

The bantaba was then the perfect place for me to relax and escape the noise of the city. There, I found  peace and quiet. As the month of May coincided with the month of Ramadan, many of my colleagues were fasting and few of them were present during the break. I was often eating by myself, listening to music while gazing at the various reptiles and insects that hid a few feet apart from me in the garden.

On many afternoons, I found myself drawn to bring my laptop outside and to continue working on assignments over there. My boss could see how much I loved this bantaba, and used to say, jokingly, that I should simply move my entire office there.

 

– JUNE –

June felt like home. I now had an established group of friends in The Gambia. I felt like I really knew my neigborhood, and I felt confident going anywhere by myself around the city. It was the time of solo escapades to neighbouring areas during the weekends and meetings with friends for coffee and small talk on weeknights.

During that time, I also got the opportunity to get to know my colleagues a bit more. As the end of a month of fasting came to an end for many, our dining table under the little bantaba suddenly felt full during this mid-day break. This time off work was the perfect opportunity to have fruitful discussions with colleagues, all while sipping on sweet coffee or tea and indulging in the various delicious meals prepared by Fatou, the beloved office cook.

We talked about everything from recent cases that the IHRDA had taken on, to African politics, passing by the hurdles of writing the bar in Nigeria and The Gambia. Undoubtedly however, the most heated topic of discussion concerned football, and previsions on which team would beat who in the African cup.

The 11AM break at the Bantaba, behind the office of the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa

 

– JULY –

July soon felt like the beginning of the end. Every few days or so, I had to say goodbye to a colleague who was leaving on vacation or on a work trip, and who wouldn’t be back at the office until after I had left. I had to say goodbye to a few friends. I also had to finalize work projects that I had spent weeks working on, all while trying to cross off my bucket list everything I had been wanting to visit in The Gambia.

During my last week, I sat down with my supervising legal officer to discuss how I had found my internship. I couldn’t help but smile. I still cannot fully grasp how transformative this experience has been. I learned and developed an array of legal skills, as the inter-African nature of my internship enabled me to work on challenging cases in many countries, and to perform legal research in different languages and for various jurisdictions. It is now clearer to me as ever that working in an international environment is something that I deeply value.

At that point, nostalgia started creeping in. Coincidentally, my colleagues and I were also often made to have our 11AM break inside the office, as rain, mosquitos, construction and humidity kept us away from the bantaba. It was as if nature itself was trying to keep me away from this comforting place…

But on July 26th, the skies were as clear as they had been in the month of May. We gathered around the bantaba’s table to celebrate my last day of work. That afternoon, right before I left the office for good, I stepped back outside in the office’s garden. I took a quick snapshot of our Bantaba, as if to say goodbye.

My last quick snapshot of the bantaba

A Summer of Luck

By Curtis Mesher

While it has been difficult for me to sit down and write out blog posts during this summer, this should not be taken as a lack of experiences to be shared, in fact it is the opposite. This summer has been transformative, both professionally and personally.

The difficulty in writing blog posts over summer came primarily from the overwhelming amount of experiences worthy of their own entries (coupled with a lack of wifi and computer access throughout the summer!). Part of the difficulty is properly presenting my experiences, as much of what I ended up writing was more akin to journaling or poetry writing, than anything professional or in-depth and explanatory.

I experienced so much in such a short period of time that I did not know where to begin. I learned a lot about the field of criminal law, I learned a lot about Nunavut, and I learned a lot about my own family. I saw the famous print studios of Cape Dorset and Pangnirtung, places I had long wished to visit as an amateur artist.

Throughout the summer, I have been grateful of this experience. Everything I have seen has inspired me in various ways. I made many new friends, and deepened my own family connections. It was a summer of change and understanding. I began my summer anxious about what the experience would entail, and I quickly felt at home here in Nunavut.

While I arrived knowing few people, awestruck by my new surroundings (and getting chastised by airport workers for stopping to look around on the tarmac!), I left awestruck by how familiar everything felt (with some of the same airport workers, now my close friends, yelling out goodbyes on the tarmac!). Over the summer I volunteered at Parks Day, Nunavut Day (the territory’s 20th anniversary!), and the Iqaluit Food Centre, and I got to meet what feels like everyone in town.

I got to spend time living with family I had not seen in years, and left after deepening connections with them, as well as forging new bonds with their young children. I got to make friends of my coworkers, and found out that some of them at Maliganik (as well as court house interpreters!) are my relatives as well.

Pleasant personal experiences like these are often what people find in the north, where you never know what to expect. I did not expect to feel so connected to people, or to the land around us. While it is difficult to leave Nunavut and Maliganik, I am lucky to have spent time here.

I am lucky to have seen the energy of Iqaluit and its people, and a summer of siku (sea ice).

I am lucky to have experienced the cozy hospitality of Apex and its residents.

I am lucky to have seen the beauty of Kinngait and the beautiful work of their world-renowned artists.

I am lucky to have shared fresh country food such as raw beluga and caribou brains with wonderful people.

I am lucky to have seen the majestic mountains of Pangirtung.

I am lucky to have seen the arrival of northern lights as the north transitions from summer, after a summer of daylight during the night.

I will miss Nunavut and all I have met during my time here. I am glad to have spent time in Nunavut this summer. I got to see what it takes to work in smaller communities, I got to experience the collegiality of law in the north, and I got to imagine what my future work in law will be, as I attempt to work in criminal defence in Nunavik. While I had always pictured myself working in Northern Quebec, I now easily see myself returning to work in Nunavut in the near future.

 

A Summer of Change

By Curtis Mesher

As my flight to Iqaluit took off at the start of summer, change was on my mind. I tried to picture what my summer would be like, as I had never been to Nunavut before.  I wondered what my summer would be like at Maliganik Tukisiniarvik, (Nunavut Legal Aid), and what living in Iqaluit would be like. Summer began like every summer had since I began studying law: returning to Kuujjuaq to see my family.

While in Kuujjuaq I decided to go to the court house as it looked to be in session (Kuujjuaq, like nearly all of Inuit Nunagat, has an itinerant court system and court is only held during certain weeks). My visit to the court began like every one of my visits to the Kuujjuaq courts: with the white staff assuming I was there for my own matter as an accused. I approached the right worker and used all the right legal terms when asking to see the docket. Despite this display of understanding, I was assumed to be charged with my own criminal offences. Even if it was court within Inuit Nunagat, I had approached non-Inuit in their world, the world of (Euro-Canadian) law. And in their world, Inuit can only ever attend court when forced to attend for a matter we are personally implicated in.

This wasn’t the first time I was assumed to be an accused in Kuujjuaq’s courthouse. The change this time around was that it was stated plainly and out loud whereas in the past it was implied through the scornful eyes of the white sheriffs who watched me closely, like how one would be on-guard in the presence of a wild animal. This experience set the stage for an interesting summer working in law, and it underscored being the first Inuk student sent North from McGill to Nunavut Legal Aid for this placement.

From Nunavik to Nunavut

Part of the summer of change was flying north from Kuujjuaq, rather than returning south to Montreal, or flying out to one of the other communities in Nunavik. Flying north across the bay to Iqaluit was a wonderful change as the ice had just broken up for the summer, making the ocean more icey-white than deep blue. Kuujjuaq has the largest and most modern airport in Nunavik, but it could not prepare me for the recently-built airport of Iqaluit, where massive murals of acclaimed Inuit artists such as Kenojuak adorned the entirety of walls.

I had never seen such a massive display of Inuit culture in one place before, and this truly demonstrated how Iqaluit is the capital of Inuit Nunagat in Canada. I drove through Iqaluit, marveling at the difference of the landscape compared to Kuujjuaq. All around me were rolling hills, even across the water all I could see were hills. The size of Iqaluit stunned me, despite coming from the largest town of Northern Quebec.

This summer I lived in Apex, a community where in the recent past only Inuit lived when Americans and other white people were the only people allowed to live in Frobisher Bay(now Iqaluit). Apex alone reminded me of entire communities I had seen in Nunavik. Once I had dropped my suitcase off in Apex, I returned to town, where my 1st stop was the court house.

In court, predominantly Inuit sheriffs staffed the doors, and their first thoughts were not to treat me like a criminal. This was a drastic change from all of my experiences of court in Nunavik, and it comforted me to receive this sort of reception. The courthouse itself also set me at ease: instead of the standard (and rather drab) layout of Kuujjuaq’s tiny basement courthouse, all courtrooms in Iqaluit featured architectural elements taken from traditional Inuit items such as iglus and qamutiit. There were Inuit clerks with traditional face tattoos, Inuit interpreters, and even Inuit counted among the justices of the peace and members of the prosecution.

This truly was a change from my experiences of Nunavik.

I quickly acclimated to this new locale, just as I quickly acclimated to my coworkers at Maliganik. It was such a drastic change to see how the office functioned in comparison to Legal Aid Quebec’s branches in Kuujjuaq: the staff was larger, and many Inuit were integral to the function of the office.

Within a short time, I felt at home. It felt great to be living and working up north (even when woken up early by noisy ravens and the bright light outdoors during ‘nighttime’!), and to be respected for my contributions over the summer. I was given important tasks and even spoke in court several times for matters such as contested bail hearings and modifying bail conditions on consent with the Crown.

It was fulfilling to begin gathering experience of what it is like to work up north, as I hope to eventually practice in Nunavik one day. I learned how to help Inuit clients navigate the criminal justice system, as many people have English as a second language.

From the Capital to the Circuit

Beyond these localized experiences, it was truly rewarding to be valued by the staff at Maliganik, as the lawyers were welcoming and open to furthering my knowledge of criminal law. This rewarding and welcoming behavior was exemplified by their willingness to send me on circuit to the community of Pangirtung, where I was integral to the work of the lawyers on circuit. I met with clients and prepared material essential to their files. While I did not get to speak on circuit (because of typical circuit court delays, which meant court was in session from 9:30 am until 9:00 pm!), what I prepared was presented verbatim by the lawyers, and it was pleasure to contribute to our clients’ cases in meaningful ways.

This experience on circuit was yet another change from my experience in Iqaluit: the glamourous courthouse was replaced by the community centre recreation room, my modern office at Maliganik was replaced by the community centre boiler room, where I had jammed in folding chairs amongst their old boxes to take their information and discuss their files. This change taught me invaluable experiences on how to manage criminal files in circumstances unlike the typical setting for professions such as law down south. The resourcefulness required while on circuit will surely guide my future studies in law, and I am grateful to have experienced it.

Furthermore, I am grateful to have seen the beauty that is the land around Pangirtung. Where I once marveled at the hills of Iqaluit in comparison to Kuujjuaq, I am now truly awestruck by the mountains of Pangnirtung. Between the massive mountains, a deep fjord snakes its way past the bay, through the sheer cliff faces and beyond into Auyuittuq National Park. Landing in Pangirtung was magical, and the entire time I was there I was amazed by the land. The first day of the circuit, I had arrived promptly at 9 am, only to find out the first day of circuit starts at 11 am. While normally I would be upset to miss a few more hours of sleep (and a bigger breakfast, of course!), I was lucky enough to see two bowhead whales swim from the bay and up the fjord. There were many whales in the area during the course of the circuit (mostly bowhead and narwhals pushed into the area by the presence of killer whales), and while those were the only I got to see with my own eyes, the excitement of the town was palpable.

I returned from Pangnirtung to find that landing in Iqaluit was now a familiar and comfortable experience, rather than a new and exciting one like it was at the start of the summer.

La Loi sur la laïcité de l’État – un préjudice hypothétique?

Par Caroline Rouleau

Le travail de l’ACLC, qui consiste à protéger nos libertés civiles, aboutit forcément devant les tribunaux. J’ai accès, cet été, à l’arrière scène du litige. Révision de factums, communication avec les avocates plaidantes, gestion des relations médiatiques, le litige est une pratique stimulante au rythme parfois effréné. Généralement comme intervenante et parfois comme partie demanderesse, l’ACLC tâche de saisir chaque opportunité pour faire valoir nos libertés fondamentales, notre droit à l’égalité et à la privée, encastrés dans la Chartre des droits et libertés. Les litiges entrepris cet été soulèvent des enjeux de taille. C’est notablement le cas de la demande de suspension de l’application de la Loi sur la laïcité de l’État.

L’ACLC, le Conseil National des Musulmans Canadiens (CNMC) et Ichrak Nourel Hak, une étudiante universitaire en enseignement du français, contestent la constitutionalité de la Loi sur la laïcité de l’État. Adoptée le 16 juin dernier, elle interdit le port de signes religieux dans plusieurs postes de la fonction publique, dont les procureurs, les membres de la police, les gardes de prison et les enseignants du système scolaire public. Elle oblige également les membres du personnel d’un organisme, tel que les députés à l’Assemblée nationale, à exercer leurs fonctions à visage découvert. Contrairement aux précédentes itérations de ce type de projet de loi, la Loi sur la laïcité de l’État stipule qu’elle s’appliquera nonobstant certaines dispositions de la Charte; ses rédacteurs la font donc déroger, sciemment, aux protections qu’elle offre, notamment la liberté de religion, la liberté de conscience et le droit à l’égalité. Ces clauses dérogatoires ne suspendent toutefois que quelques articles de la Charte; le reste du texte constitutionnel n’est pas écarté. Ainsi, les arguments avancés par les avocates de l’ACLC et du CNMC sont tous fondés sur la Loi constitutionnelle de 1867.

Les litiges constitutionnels n’ayant rien d’expéditif, cette contestation durera des années. D’ici à ce qu’une décision soit rendue, des personnes portant un signe religieux se verront nier d’importantes opportunités de travail au sein de la fonction publique.

Ainsi, la journée du 9 juillet était un moment charnière pour l’ACLC, mais surtout pour les individus appartenant à certaines minorités religieuses au Québec. La Cour Supérieure du Québec entendait la demande de suspension de l’application de la Loi sur la laïcité de l’État. Avec quelques efforts sur le plan logistique, nous sommes quelques-unes à s’être retrouvées à Montréal pour être témoin de cette étape cruciale. La salle était pleine à craquer; elle contenait visiblement des personnes pour qui la loi n’a rien d’hypothétique, contrairement aux prétentions du juge qui a rejeté la demande.

Dans sa décision, le juge adopte une interprétation fort restrictive de ce qu’est un « préjudice irréparable ». Selon lui, l’application de la loi ne cause pas de préjudice à la requérante, Mme Hak, puisque celle-ci n’a pas encore obtenu son diplôme en enseignement et n’est pas encore en mesure de postuler au sein d’un institut d’enseignement du secteur public. La loi ne crée pas, non plus, de préjudice irréparable en rendant impossible tout avancement professionnel pour l’une des déposantes, une enseignante portant le hijab. Ces conclusions reposent entre autres sur le fait que le préjudice allégué, une atteinte à la liberté de religion, est un droit auquel l’Assemblée nationale a explicitement choisit de déroger. Or, la question est nouvelle : le recours aux clauses dérogatoires écarte-t-il la possibilité d’invoquer ces droits à un stade préliminaire, soit une demande d’injonction interlocutoire? Nulle autorité ne soutient l’affirmative. C’est la question dont sera saisie la Cour d’appel du Québec sous peu.

Les lourds impacts de la Loi sur la laïcité de l’État sont à la fois symboliques et pratiques. L’emploi revêt, dans notre société, une dimension identitaire si importante que de nier de telles opportunités d’emploi est de nier la réalisation des individus, d’en faire des citoyen.es de seconde classe. Si cette loi est motivée par un élan féministe, c’est lui qui devrait la freiner. Avant toute chose, l’emploi constitue la base de l’indépendance financière des femmes qu’on se doit de protéger jalousement.

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