What does it mean to effect real change?

Nilani AnanthamoorthyBy Nilani Ananthamoorthy

As I am finishing the internship with Yukon Human Rights Commission (“the Commission”), I have had the opportunity to reflect on a summer that was so different from the one I envisioned when I learned that I was given the position. In the December 2019, I was looking forward to a summer in the North, working directly with the community in Whitehorse and hopefully effecting positive change. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic worsened and I moved back home for a summer that was inevitably unlike any other.

Initially, I – unlike many others – was relatively unaffected by the pandemic and was able to start the internship within the comfort of my parents’ home. I shifted my focus towards adjusting to this new normal and finding motivation in doing online, remote work. But my “bubble” at home was not impervious to the events that were happening outside of it. As the COVID-19 numbers fluctuated in different areas, I read about how minority groups are especially vulnerable to the financial impacts of the pandemic-related work interruptions.[1] Existing health disparities have widened, and minority communities are also especially vulnerable to the health impacts of COVD-19.[2] At the same time, my family and I watched the news every day as protests broke out all over the world in response to anti-black racism. This sparked many conversations about what it means to be systematically oppressed and what it means to be an ally. The events that have occurred this summer have pushed me to reflect on how we can effect change, and what sort of steps need to be taken to protect and empower vulnerable groups.

This internship has shown me the value of an organization like the Commission in pursuing this cause. The Commission provides legal help for all but as I’ve seen in Board of Adjudication decisions, it is especially important in ensuring access to justice for vulnerable groups. If you go on the Commission’s website, it is a one-stop shop for information on the Yukon Human Rights Act and the human rights complaint process. It provides clear and accessible information on harassment and discrimination and provides relevant resources for those pursuing a complaint. As I discussed in my previous blog post, this is important for ensuring that all have access to justice – not just those with legal knowledge.

I have also reflected on the use of the Yukon Human Rights Act as a tool for effecting positive change in individual lives. Section 1 of the Act outlines its objectives, which includes “to discourage and eliminate discrimination”.[3] Section 24 outlines the possible remedies, which includes ordering the party who discriminated to “stop the discrimination” or “rectify the condition that caused the discrimination”.[4] The Board of Adjudication can also order an individual to pay damages for any financial losses suffered or for “injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect”.[5] It can also order individuals to pay exemplary damages if the discrimination occurred in a malicious way.[6] The Yukon Human Rights Act is not unlike other human rights legislation in Canada, which allow tribunals and boards to order individual monetary remedies as well as tangible behavioural and organizational changes. I saw this frequently in employment discrimination cases, where employers were often told to pay damages, but to also implement anti-discrimination policies and training within their workplaces. When I think about systemic oppression and how existing social structures can oppress certain groups, I see the value in ordering remedies that not only compensate the individual affected, but also seeks to ensure that others will not be affected in the same way.

This has truly been a summer of reflection for me. As I watched the news and saw a world that was rapidly changing, I also experienced changes in my personal life. At the end of the summer, my grandpa passed away after experiencing several months of serious health complications. I remember how proud my grandpa was when I was first accepted into law school – and I remember him telling me that those who work with the law have the power to effect real change. As I prepare for the upcoming semester, I am grateful for my experience with the Commission and for my supervisors. Through this work, I’ve been able to reflect on how the law can effect real change for those who are vulnerable in our society.

[1] Brooklyn Neustaeter, “Visible minority groups more vulnerable to financial impacts of COVID-19: StatCan”, CTV (6 July 2020), online: <www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/visible-minority-groups-more-vulnerable-to-financial-impacts-of-covid-19-statcan-1.5012682>.

[2] Reggie Cecchini, “COVID -19 crisis could increase food insecurity among minority communities: studies”, Global News (19 July 2020), online: <globalnews.ca/news/7190831/coronavirus-food-insecurity-minority-groups/>.

[3] Yukon Human Rights Act, RSY 2002, c 116, art 1.

[4] Ibid, art 24.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

Finding a New Normal and Focus

Nilani AnanthamoorthyBy Nilani Ananthamoorthy

Finding a New Normal and Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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