Understanding Workplace Sexual Harassment

Sara WrightBy Sara Wright

During my December interview for the internship, then-Acting Director, Vida Nelson, told me about the $2.6 million of federal funding the Commission received to improve education and awareness on workplace sexual harassment.[1] It was an exciting announcement for the Commission and one that would have a meaningful impact for creating safer workplace environments for Yukoners. Thus, it was a no-brainer for me when I was asked if I wanted to focus on more general employment-related human rights matters or workplace sexual harassment. I chose the latter. My choice was not only because of what Vida told me about the federal funding; it was influenced by the experiences I, and so many of my friends, have had, and by the novelty of addressing the field from a legal perspective. Sexual harassment is an issue that has only recently been gaining widespread attention. When I started my undergraduate schooling, it was barely addressed in orientation. Now, it is a common part of the onboarding of students to their universities. Workplaces are finding themselves to be in great need of creating or updating their policies. This was an opportunity to be involved in assisting the facilitation of these improvements.

While, unfortunately, I was unable to actually go to the Yukon to assist in educational presentations and the development of materials in their offices, I was still able to assist by doing legal research on related matters. It gave me some insight into how new the matter is to human rights commissions. Most of the high-paying awards were given in the last 5 years, and there were almost no high awards given over a decade ago. Decisions made in provinces such as British Columbia refer back to decisions made in Ontario because there simply is so little Canadian precedent.

Reviewing policies was also part of my legal research. This was something I was particularly interested in because of my own personal experiences. I remember when I was casually speaking to someone at the Sexual Violence Response office of my undergraduate institution a month before graduating and only then learned that sexual harassment was defined by the recipient of the harassment. It matters how the recipient of the harassment feels, not the intentions of the harasser. As someone who sat through multiple trainings a year regarding sexual harassment, I was stunned that I did not know this. I was also surprised by how that aspect of the definition is sometimes left out of policies.

Though my internship has concluded, I am looking forward to seeing how the Commission moves forward with their five-year project to address workplace sexual harassment awareness in the Yukon.[2] It is sure to be a challenging time, considering how little data there has been for the Yukon specifically in this matter. However, the development of tools and training by the Commission is certain to improve employers’ understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment and hopefully keep perpetuating this positive trend of expanding the understanding behind what constitutes sexual harassment and how to better prevent it from occurring.

[1] Department of Justice Canada, News Release, “Government of Canada supports a territory-wide initiative to address workplace sexual harassment in the Yukon” (10 December 2010), online: Department of Justice Canada <www.canada.ca/en/department-justice/news/2019/12/government-of-canada-supports-a-territory-wide-initiative-to-address-workplace-sexual-harassment-in-the-yukon.html>.

[2] Yukon Human Rights Commission, News Release, “Towards a Yukon Without Workplace Sexual Harassment (12 August 2020), online: Yukon Human Rights Commission <yukonhumanrights.ca/news.shtml>.

Empathy in the Covid-19 Era

Sara WrightBy Sara Wright

When I received my offer letter from the Yukon Human Rights Commission (YHRC), I was ecstatic. It was mid-December and I was looking forward to the summer when I would swap my theoretical classroom discussions for practical hands-on work. Of course, COVID-19 had other things in mind. I was suddenly ordered to quarantine and McGill started shutting down in-person activities. I watched anxiously as international internships were cancelled in March, holding out hope that I would still be able to fly out to Whitehorse. In early April, McGill banned inter-provincial travel connected to the university and I fought back bitter disappointment and frustration as I tried to come up with an alternate plan.

Through it all, I felt remarkably selfish for these moments as many people lost family members and faced financial fears. Empathy is often demanded in times of hardship and, yet, with the distance and solitude many of us face, it is more difficult than ever to infuse empathy into our lives as statistics on deaths become normal visuals and days pass without seeing a familiar face in person rather than through a screen. It also was an emotion I packed away to help rationally try to piece my summer back together and manage the undeniable effects the solitude had on my mental health.

Since starting my internship, I have found myself in a precarious balance with empathy. I volunteered to work on the sexual harassment side of the human rights work of the YRHC and that has reignited the sense of empathy I had previously deadened. I have tried to protect the empathetic flame my work has sparked, gradually feeding it to start engaging with emotions I had selfishly cut off.

Working on a topic I am passionate about has given me newfound energy that had been lacking in the monotony of self-isolation. However, as with COVID-19 related statistics, it is sometimes all too easy to shut off emotions that arise in the work. Such a shutdown is partially needed to be able to get through the challenges presented by working from home. Reviewing a decision from a human rights tribunal may evoke a moment of disgust. I may feel the bile rise as I read what an applicant suffered at the hands of their harasser and of the failure of corporate respondents to protect their workers, but the moment passes as I note down colder facts such as the price tag attached to the applicant’s suffering. I may feel my frustration at the judicial system rise as I describe my work to friends and family, but there is always a distance present.

Empathy is hard to connect to consistently when working in law. Too much empathy and it can be difficult to work on cases that involve something as demeaning as sexual harassment. Too little empathy and we risk being unable to connect to the pain of the people who we are helping. I have found the balance to be particularly precarious with the distance COVID-19 has introduced in our work lives, with so few human faces being attached to names. However, overall, I have found that working for the YHRC has allowed me to reengage with empathy in a meaningful way and renew my passion for the legal side of human rights. In a time when so many of us feel a loss of connection, my work has been a reminder of why I chose to go to law school, and I am very grateful for that.

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