Access to Justice in Action at the Yukon Human Rights Commission

By Garima Karia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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