Although I have rarely shied away from knowledge of wars, crimes against humanity, or corporate corruption scandals, I somehow thought that (mostly) avoiding Twitter discourse until the age of 25 was a means of preserving my peace of mind.
My suspicions weren’t misplaced. Of all the responsibilities I was tasked with at the CCLA, never did I imagine that sifting through Twitter conversations on Canadian affairs would be the activity to convince me of the importance of public interest advocacy framed in the language of ‘human rights’.
For context, my application for the International Human Rights Internship Program was marked by doubt about the contours and substance that form ‘human rights’ legal regimes. I submitted that:
“the history of ‘human rights’ is one rife with theoretical contradictions. Their origins are rooted in the natural law tradition; rights were described as sacred, inalienable, and endowed to all by a Creator … [yet] the rights to love whom one wants to love, or to be granted refuge when at risk of state persecution, were evidently not written in the hearts and minds of humanity for centuries”.
Despite this, I believed in the value that these legal constructions can contribute to the evolution of increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan human societies; human rights developments are in effect advances in the recognition of once-dehumanized human beings. I asserted that:
“I see ‘human rights’ as a socially constructed tool to counteract the human inclination to ostracize the unfamiliar. I then see ‘human rights work’ as a conscious choice to uphold one equally natural human characteristic over another: compassion over cruelty”.
Contemporary critical views of human rights law highlight its Euro-centric conceptions, its imposition on self-determined communities that exist outside of the Western world and its value systems, and its limited capacity to empower marginalized populations that lack the financial and social capital to bring human rights claims before tribunals or courts. Still, to my disappointment, I continue to believe that human rights rhetoric remains essential for its capacity to emphasize the ‘humanity’ of certain communities. This was made evident to me as I scrolled through Canadian social media responses to several CCLA initiatives that I worked on throughout the summer.
In response to the CCLA’s critical reaction to New Brunswick’s Policy 713 amendments—which includes a provision that requires schools to effectively ‘out’ trans and non-binary students under a certain age to their parents if these students wish to change their preferred name on school records—several Canadian twitters user call into question the autonomy and experiences of these students. Some highlights include:
“When a teacher tells a girl she can be a boy, thats in her best interest? Then when the parent says “wtf are you doing” the kid gets taken to a ‘school professional’ bc the parent is automatically dangerous […] stop conscripting kids to your hdtv cult. you need a psychiatrist”comment by @Ska9gagska on August 26, 2023
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with parents being notified of matters involving minor children. What’s alarming is gender identity politics, surgeries, medications, gay queer ed policy forced on families against their will”comment by @realblueapple on August 26, 2023
“Signing this [petition] means you support the psychological abuse of children through alienation and forcing kids to live double lives”comment by @Cocolovesblueb1 on August 28, 2023
“[H]elpful to know CCLA is another formerly credible Can institution that has lost touch with reality & now worships at the gender cult altar. Do you REALLY believe ppl can change sex?”comment by @Wilms16212300 on August 28, 2023
Here, a lack of societal familiarity with expressions of gender identity outside of strict binary and sex-based categories results in a willingness to deny trans and non-binary students the ability to explore their self-expression with a sense of comfort and safety outside of their homes. This fear-mongering and ‘othering’ trivialize the very real desires and fears of human beings who are growing in their understandings of self, and who are not posing harm to others or themselves in this exploration. Sadly, it seems that it still needs to be established that the human rights to privacy, health, safety, security, dignity, and non-discrimination extend to trans and non-binary students as they would to any other group of students.
Some may dismiss these responses as representative of fringe opinions in the Canadian public. Unfortunately, these stances are evidently not siloed away from Canadian legal and political institutions. New Brunswick and Saskatchewan education policies presently undermine the humanity of trans and non-binary students who would ordinarily have the liberty to determine how they want to be called and when they share their understandings of their gender identities with others.
From my work at the CCLA, I learned that the language of ‘human rights’ must still be wielded—even in a country that prides itself on principles of democratic liberalism and multiculturalism—to acknowledge the humanity of not only trans and non-binary students, but also Muslim girls and women, Indigenous communities, and persons with criminal records. Since delving into Twitter discourse, I have read through hundreds upon hundreds of tweets by Canadians that discount the privacy and dignity rights of trans youth, the necessity to reasonably accommodate Muslim students that wish to pray in public schools, or the value of honouring the presumption of innocence when criminal law provisions disproportionately affect Indigenous or racialized accused persons.
No longer could I live in a world where the questioning of an entire community’s humanity was exercised by peoples in distant war zones or by isolated individuals existing ‘on the fringe’. I would jog through my neighbourhood in Burlington, Ontario, and question whether any of these homes housed the people existing behind these often anonymous accounts. The hatred, and the willingness to subject ‘othered’ communities to the more punitive capacities of the Canadian State, felt so much closer to me. It remains difficult for me to shake off these feelings of precaution and distrust towards the people I pass by in my day-to-day outings. I think of Oscar Wilde’s remarks on how human history is tainted more so “by the punishments that the good have inflicted” than by the crimes of the poor or marginalized, and I worry about whether I am complacent within this punishing majority.
It is this awareness that strengthens my belief that advocacy work is still necessary to establish the recognition of certain humans within contemporary human rights discourses. Canada proves to be no exception to the inclinations of communities to ostracize the unfamiliar. Here, there is, and perhaps there always will be, human rights advocacy to be done.
 Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891) online: Marxists Internet Archive <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/wilde-oscar/soul-man/>.