By Gabrielle Torrealba

For many of us who’ve grown up in a province in so-called Canada, we tend to be uninformed about the experience of our territorial counterparts. Aside from articles about the ridiculously heightened cost of groceries, and stories of the daunting Arctic winters, we tend to be largely unaware of what everyday life looks like up North. Whether that’s a product of wilful ignorance to experiences and circumstances not “directly” impacting us, or a geographical consequence of living in such a physically expansive country, we in the provinces have a lot to learn about the Northern experience. Having the opportunity to spend my internship in Whitehorse, Yukon, I can say with further certainty now, what a shame that truly is. We know nothing of the incredible sense of community and kinship here, of the spectacular natural landscapes, and the way of life in the North, when we limit ourselves only to knowledge of our own backyards.

In my first two months working at the Yukon Human Rights Commission, I have had the opportunity to learn from and work with some truly exceptional people, all of whom are unquestionably dedicated to the furtherance of human rights. Being a smaller jurisdiction with less direct jurisprudence to rely on, working in law in the Yukon offers boundless opportunity. Interpretative principles surrounding Yukon’s Human Rights Act (“Act“) often require conducting a pan-Canadian analysis of relevant jurisprudence in neighbouring jurisdictions, in addition to a territorial-specific analysis. Notably, the Act also includes provisions unique from other jurisdictions, like the prohibited ground of discrimination on the basis of criminal charges or criminal record in section 7(i) of the Act. In equivalent human rights legislation in other Canadian jurisdictions, most notably the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, only a conviction which has been subject to a pardon or record suspension constitutes a protected ground of discrimination. In most provincial jurisdictions, no such protection exists. During my time at the Commission, I have been fortunate enough to gain more practical legal knowledge and experience than I could have hoped for. I have seen human rights law in practice, gained insights into the function of commissions, boards, and tribunals, and learned the intricacies of administrative law. Educationally, it has been an incredibly positive and rewarding experience. I have learned more on the ground here than I could ever learn in a classroom.

Outside of my work at the Commission, I’ve spent my free time exploring the beauty of the Yukon. A common reply that I’ve received from locals after sharing that I’ve only recently arrived in this beautiful place, is effectively that now that I’ve arrived here, I’ll never leave. When I first got to Whitehorse, after driving 5500km across the country with my Dad, I didn’t take much stock in the phrase. I knew I’d only be here for three short months, so staying permanently was simply out of the question. After spending the last two months here, however, I understand why visitors arrive and never leave.

The view from the edge of Kathleen Lake in Kluane National Park and Reserve.

In a short hour’s drive from Whitehorse, I can visit the sandy remnants of the ice age, whose melting glaciers have dried up to form the world’s smallest desert on the lands of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. On the way there, I can admire the beauty of Emerald Lake, whose bright green colour derives from the reflection of light off of deposits of marl, a by-product of glacial erosion from nearby mountains deposited there 14,000 years ago. Add another hour or so to the drive, and I’ve crossed the border into Skagway, Alaska. Two hours in another direction, and I’ve arrived at Kluane National Park and Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I have had the immense privilege to experience some of the most beautiful, vast, and untouched landscapes, protected thanks to the work of grassroots community organizers, First Nations, and Yukoners, whose respect for the sanctity of their lands helps to keep them pristine. There is kinship here, quite evidently, with people and the environment, that strengthens our interconnection with each other and with all living things. It is incredibly powerful to experience this kind of reciprocity and unity shared amongst people and places, bounded in love and community. It has provided me with countless opportunities for growth and self-reflection, and serves as an essential reminder of the broader perspective that we are often disconnected from in bigger-city-living. Kinship, reciprocity, love, and interconnection are at the heart of everything that we do, especially in the realm of human rights law. It’s a sentiment that I have been yearning to be immersed in again, since leaving my small community in Nova Scotia, and I am so grateful to have found it here. In one of the most beautiful places in the world, with some of the most kind and genuine people, that I had been so inadvertently unaware of before arriving here, but never will be again.