Thursday, November 26, 2009


There is a lot of realism that goes on with the lives of people around us. I think this is what I particularly enjoy about my profession, the very realism of people's lives and their stories. This realism makes me want to do more about these things that revolve the lives of the folks I work with.

Unfortunately, however, apathy is the way of life of people in the region I live in, particularly the higher up you go. Apathy kills cities, kills nations. Apathy creates leaders that we do not want, and leads to the creation of situations whereupon our populace suffers more than it needs to. I live in a region of people that not only not want to pay their taxes, but want to pay as little as they can get away with, and then they blame the victims of failing infrastructure that are not being supported to the extent they should be, for their very needs.

It has always been a subject of debate as to how much infrastructure and "people" based services we need, or can do without. A disturbing feature of many people I work around is that they believe that if we had no infrastructure or support, our vulnerable people will magically re-emerge on their own and somehow "pull up their bootstraps", as the saying goes. We know this is not fact. We know what happened to many people after welfare rates were chopped by 22% not a minute too soon after Mike Harris took office in Ontario in 1995. Mike Harris is long gone, a party of a different stripe got elected, and more than seven years have past since his government left Queen's Park, yet as a society we are still dealing with the indifference, apathy and cruelty of the apparently sheltered part of our population. I see the results of this everyday in my work.

I work in a profession that is relatively recession-proof, and many people around me think I am lucky. However, they see none of the stress, none of the desperation, and none of the tragedy that I am called upon to do something about. When I genuinely can't do anything about it, I feel powerless and sad. The law is a tool that can only perform certain tasks, and apart from these tasks, the law is useless in addressing many of the issues that abound. The law is technical, procedurally-driven and objective to the point that it does not address emotion, sentimentality or sadness. It only picks winners and losers, and many times - the wrong side wins while the other loses.

The world of politics and law intersect, sometimes to a detrimental extent, as the rule of law cannot be based on demagoguery and majoritarianism. Important moral decisions cannot be decided by taking a vote around the table, and drawing from the majority of voters present. The majority of Canadians want to see capital punishment reinstated, yet nothing stops this population from feeling the same way when wrongly accused people are put to death. The majority of Canadians seem to feel there is a need to put more religion in our laws, but see nothing wrong with marginalizing the religions of a minority, or of those without a religion.

At one time, people felt slavery of blacks was an acceptable choice for society. As time evolved, we stopped making them slaves, but did not let them share our drinking fountains. Later on, we felt okay about blacks sharing our communities, we just didn't hire them. There is no shortage of writers that would blame the unemployment and poverty of blacks on the blacks themselves. They were said to have lower intelligence scores, had more children than whites, were more prone to criminal activities, and so on. Cutting welfare to blacks was thought to be a great idea, then they will become more like whites. We all know that didn't work. Society had to evolve to develop a respect for and inclusion of this part of our population, in order to enable this part of our community to grow and develop with us.

At one point the majority felt that it should be illegal for whites to marry blacks. If the majority ruled then, there would be a law barring the same. In fact, some societies had such a law. Was this law effective? What benefits did society derive from having such a law? I can't even find among the most prejudiced people that I know somebody that can identify a rational benefit that society derived from having these types of mores and laws, yet their prejudice prevails.

As a society, we had no choice but to pass human rights laws that prohibited this type of segregation. Many restaurants were known to exclude persons of colour, or even persons of certain creeds and religions. This had to stop. People can feel whatever they wanted to, but they had to act in a way that was lawful and tolerant. The rule of law is higher than society's majority and popular vote. The effect of these laws not only made people aware, but in many created a kind of cultural dissonance that resulted in a more tolerant society where persons from minority situations felt more comfortable to belong.

As society evolved, new prejudices are uncovered and people affected come to the light. I recall one time in my university days watching a film about the suffragette movement in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain. It began among women of propertied classes, and gradually moved to include all women, in solidarity for various goals. It was once accepted that women should not have the right to vote or run for public office. Women were not allowed to practice law, dentistry or medicine. However, over time, it was not the men in society that welcomed women in these roles, but women who asserted themselves into these roles, many times through marches and at times, violent demonstrations. In one of the films, it showed some of the women leaders getting arrested. They would go to jail to enforce their rights.

Today, too many women take these rights for granted and still do not understand the origins of the rule of law and how women became equal partners. I remember in one of my classes, there was a woman who often sat beside me that would ask a lot of questions of a female lecturer from a women's shelter that presented on the issue of family violence against women. She would keep asking about men's shelters. I know males are roughly equal in terms of their victimization, as the statistics are becoming more clear in this field; however, the point of this lecture was to inform the largely female student body how far we've come. If it were not for many of these women in the late 1800's and early 1900's putting up a major fight, getting arrested, jailed and sometimes even killed for their beliefs, none of us would be sitting in those chairs that day listening to this lecture.

Soon, the gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered community emerged from the closets of existence. People of Toronto remember the bath house raids of 1981, certain laws on the books prohibiting certain sexual behaviours, albeit between consenting adults. These individuals needed to form loosely knit organizations that would force the issue in many ways ... Society had one of two reactions to the "gay" community. One was to ignore them, and think if we did this long enough, homosexuality will go away. The second reaction was to show contempt and hatred for those claiming to belong to the "gay" community. If you listened to members of the LGBT community, as they call themselves today, many will speak of ostracism, being disowned by their families, fired from their jobs, to downright violence.

Eventually society had to learn that every member of the LGBT community was no different than the rest of us, apart from who they choose for their life partners. Unfortunately, there are still many people that feel members of this group are somehow less deserving, or are less moral, or less Christian, than the "rest of us". People that don't like human rights laws tend to point to a tribunal decision made sometime back involving a printer that refused to publish brochures for an organization representing the LGBT community, solely on the basis of his own "Christian beliefs", which likely included an opinion that members of this group were less Christian or moral than he was. Nevertheless, he was sued successfully and was made to compensate this organization for its embarrassment and infringement of their rights.

One of these people kept asking me why a business person has to be obligated to serve everybody. Why can't a business person do business with whomever he or she chooses? This argument may seem to be rational and simple. Of course, as a business, you have that freedom to work with who you want; however, this man's refusal to serve the LBGT organization was no different than the restaurants of the 1950's that refused to serve blacks. The person complaining to me about this thought all of these things should go to court. The decision against the printer was appealed by him, and the Divisional Court, as well as I believe, an appellate court, if I remember correctly, also upheld this decision. Human rights are integrated into the rule of law. You don't have to agree with the positions of the LGBT community on any of their issues, as that is also your right, but you don't have the right to treat them differently or deny them access to services normally afforded to the public.

There is also the question of persons with disabilities. Disability law, as well as human rights and constitutional law, have always been my tools to help me understand the world and how to integrate within it. These issues take up a large part of my practice. Persons with disabilities have unfortunately been slow to take up their rights, as many are too ill to fight. One's disability itself can be very disempowering, particularly if one tires easily or cannot communicate or express oneself the same way others do. Persons with disabilities are also disempowered by the charitable model of "receiving help", as opposed to learning to work the world around them and exercise their rights to equal treatment and access to goods and services. There is currently a multi-billion dollar business model out there that is designed to "help" people with disabilities, some of which is set up to search for a "cure" for some types of disabilities.

This is not an affront to the many men and women that work in organizations like Canadian Mental Health Association, Brain Injury Community Re-Entry, Multiple Sclerosis Society, etc. All of these organizations do have their benefits; however, the very structure that led to their creation is abysmal and anti-everything I stand for, especially when I attempt to fit persons with disabilities in my life within what I view as the rule of law, and how our Charter works. Some of these organizations themselves have begun to realize how much their "help" can actually hurt those they are attempting to support, so they strive to develop models of service delivery that are more responsive to the choice of those they work with.

For example, service providers within this structure must confront their own ideas about who the clients are that they work with. Do they understand the concept of consumer choice, the right to take risks and the right to fail? Do they believe any of their clients are capable of doing their jobs, or even the job of their bosses? The latter question tends to be difficult, as most people in helping professions have a hard time equalizing the people that come to them. Many are surprised when they learn a client has an advanced degree, and worked in positions much more senior to their own in the past. It is natural to feel threatened when this information is given. In my own experience, I learned that service providers confronted with this issue tend to not know what to do, how to address that person's needs or where to begin. This is not created by something bad, but there are always working biases people have when they attempt to learn about someone and the community they come from. My answer to this is to interact with the person, as though they were a neighbour or a friend and try to find out what THEY want.

In my work in the legal profession, I confront people of varying abilities, capacities for the English language, as well as political viewpoints, and so on. To me, what is important in serving anybody that comes to my door are: (a) the actual facts of the person's situation (what their legal problem actually is comprised of); (b) what that person wants to see happen with their legal issues; and (c) how we can best work together. For example, if somebody doesn't have strong English language comprehension, I try to arrange it so they have interpreters that they can trust. For legal proceedings, we find a professional certified to work with the courts. If somebody is using a wheelchair or scooter, I have ensured that my office can accommodate them. However it IS difficult with limited real estate options in my area to find 100% accessible space. If a person has a severe mental health issue, I still speak to them and have them make decisions with as much information as possible, as opposed to letting somebody else speak for them.

People have the right to instruct their OWN legal counsel, as far as I am concerned. They can also choose who they want with them, and who they don't want to work with ... I let them make this choice. My relationship with one client can be very different than it is with another client, specifically for these reasons, yet they are all getting service that recognizes their right to choose, their right to take risks, and their right to fail. I also treat them at my level, not at a level beneath me. I discuss things other than their legal case, show an interest in who they are, and listen. This does take about twice as much time for many of the people that come through my door, but this makes their experience a positive one, even if we are not successful.

This gets me to my final point, as I started to imply earlier about a pending backlash against human rights issues. Even some of my colleagues are reluctant to deal with human rights issues. Human rights issues are seen by many to be representative of a form of "political correctness", or in some extreme cases, some see it as an infringement of their freedom of speech and association. These people don't want to take these laws as part of life; many want to dismantle them. They forget the violence, the riots, the lawsuits and other conflicts that got us to this point. Many want us to return to an age when we could once again discriminate against whoever we want, hire whoever we want, rent to whomever we want, etc. without a fear of getting sued.

Their leaders want to dismantle the human rights system as we know it in Ontario. While they say they simply want to ensure it fulfills its "original purposes", we know they are saying they do not want to be told what to do. Unfortunately, "those days" that many of these folks are dreaming about are days when our society was more homogeneous than it is now, when interest articulation and balancing of competing perspectives are an issue. Majority rules might have worked at one time, but as history dictated, it only lasted awhile each time, until somebody outside of the majority made those in power uncomfortable.

PC Leader Tim Hudak has mused about dismantling the Tribunal altogether, not recognizing that a specialized Tribunal such as the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, probably can cut the wheat from the chaff much better than the civil courts, and as such, it IS more accessible to persons concerned about "access to justice" issues. In a regular court, you are confronted with even a bigger maze of rules and regulations, labyrinths of disclosure, deadlines, forms, etc. that mean nothing to you, and are hard to find online. If you can't do it in a court by yourself, you have to hire a lawyer, which is costly. In a Tribunal, the hearings are set not only to be evidence-based, but they do have the benefit of informal structures that are flexible enough to address self-represented litigants. Further, licensed paralegals can represent individuals at this Tribunal that cannot afford a lawyer, but do need representation. In my time with this Tribunal, respondents have been able to represent themselves, or use paralegals, and have been able to deal with the facts of an issue readily without going into unnecessary constitutional arguments, which if done by a lawyer, can run into tens of thousands of dollars.

Hudak and many others want to throw this all away. The Tribunal certainly has a lot of problems, but these are not problems that would be resolved by tossing the Tribunal itself out of the window. To me, this can only work in favour of those that do the discriminating. That is, it would be a boon for employers, landlords, businesses, and others, that do not want people that look different, think differently, or act or move or communicate differently in their lives. To me, this is a battle against people with disabilities, as well as members from other protected categories.

My office receives twenty to thirty phone calls a day. It can be exhausting taking these calls, and trying to sort through who has a case, and who does not. The stories people tell are horrific - so horrific, I cannot repeat them here. As a professional that works with people, I have to protect myself, as their stories can become my nightmares, my veil of depression, and my sorrow. By protecting myself, I am able to take what is the law from each of these cases, and place the circumstances into the right venue, and if I can't do it, I know somebody that can. At some point, I might write about what a typical day looks like for me, so people can become aware of why human rights and the rule of law still matter today, just as it did when the suffragettes and inspired leaders like Rosa Parks were around to make us understand that all of us are equal under the rule of law.


1 comment:

David Johnston said...

Human rights in Canada has been developed by people who have no need of protection under the law.
Human rights must begin with all individuals being treated equally unde the law regardless. When a Supreme court justice decides that hitting children is good, we have all lost. The child learns to forcibly control others who are defenceless and so on and so on. We need to be able to remove those in authority who allow the abuse of anyone. I have suffered abuse from all areas and don't for a minute categorize any particular group. Until there is true equality the people in power will continue to beat and starve the weak into submission. A day of civil disobedience as a major national event would bring the worlds focus on Canadas' true reality and if the United Nations had any real say they would suspend Canadas' membership until corrective measures were in place and in practise.