I have the chance of interning at the Commission des droits de la personne et de la jeunesse this summer. Having never worked in human rights before, it has been an immense learning opportunity to work within an organisation that both counsels government organisations and represents human rights complainants. A bit of background information: before litigants can access the Quebec Human rights tribunal, the specialized tribunal for human rights complaints, they must form a complaint with the Commission, which will decide whether to retain the complaint or not. However, complainants can decide, alternatively, to begin an action within the Cours du Québec. Because of the status of the Commission as a para governmental organisation, its decisions are also subject to judicial review. As such, I have been tasked with mandates that range within the full spectrum of the judicial system; from administrative law, family law, criminal law, to contract and corporate law.
I must admit that the possibilities for human rights litigation in Quebec took me a few weeks to understand, and I cannot fathom the additional burden it creates for lay people. It does not take a special expertise to declare that the judicial system is inherently complex and that seeking compensation and justice takes time, more time than some complainants have. What usefulness is the court system when plaintiffs lose jobs, relationships and suffer health consequences from the stress and trauma of seeing their dignity torn apart through human rights violations? Questions such as these perhaps highlight the implicit need for alternative justice mechanisms such as mediation, which the Commission does offer.
While the Commission does work on human rights complaints, it more specifically acts on the rights of children under the Loi de la Protection de la Jeunesse. Considering that children are some of the most vulnerable citizens, it makes so much sense that a human rights organization be tasked with concurrently seeing that the rights of children be respected. Surprisingly, it is through mandates regarding the rights of children that I have had the chance to apply most of what I learned in law school to the context of my internship. The subjects raised in Droit de la Famille by Prof. Michael Lessard such as coercive control and indigenous sovereignty of child protection services or questions regarding the application of the concept of parental alienation have been incredibly useful in fuelling conversations with the lawyers supervising those mandates. Indeed, in my opinion, a comprehensive definition of domestic abuse and a feminist approach to family law is vital to ensure that the rights of children are respected. I also brought up Leti Vlopp’s article “Feminism versus Multiculturalism” in a discussion about family violence that Prof. Vrinda Narain introduced to my constitutional law class in winter 2022. It certainly served as a reminder to listen more in class because you just never know what might be useful in the future.
These examples certainly break the traditional idea of what human rights consists of. But in my humble opinion, they highlight the very core of what human rights are: ensuring that humans can flourish in society. However, it still brings forth the limitation that litigation can only serve to redress past injustices and cannot have a preventive approach for the complainant in question.
Some questions that I have asked, overheard, or been asked: What impact can a governmental organisation have with regards to reconciliation with indigenous communities? Faced with systemic discrimination, what is the impact of human rights litigation towards individuals? How is the concept of “in a position of authority” defined in profiling based on a discriminatory motive? How can intersectionality be best used as a tool to untangle instances of discrimination? Who is responsible of ensuring that services are accessible to all? What stereotypes affect women? What evidence is admissible in human rights litigation? Most importantly: will I ever stop asking questions?
I feel like I have asked a lot of questions and answered very few. But perhaps that is how human rights should be approached; with a constant desire to interact with the lived experiences of others and an urge to always keep on asking questions.