Before I arrived in Whitehorse, I was asked what skills I would like to develop this summer. The one I came up with was “being more adventurous.” That might seem like a strange response from someone doing a legal, “international” human rights internship from within Canada. But I am someone who is very cozy with her routines. I like to think that consistency provides me with a sense of stability, so that I can comfortably adapt to surprises. But I also know that big changes can be healthy for me. Living in Whitehorse for the last six weeks has provided me with tremendous opportunities for personal growth.

To commit to my resolution to be more adventurous, I decided that I must do, see, or experience something new every week. Mostly, this has translated to hiking different trails. A few weeks ago, I did the Kusawa Ridge trail. Despite having grown up in Vancouver, I am used to trails that remain quite flat. This is my first summer with my own car; my access to trails before this was contingent on who was willing to drive me and where they wanted to go.

I started getting a little nervous when the trail became less defined. The steep angle of the mountainside, combined with the large amount of scree, made me anticipate a difficult descent; I am not accustomed to walking downhill when there is not a lot for my boots to grip onto. Frankly, I probably would have turned around, had it not been for two people I had met at the trailhead. Although they were much faster than me, every time they stopped for water, they waited until I had caught up before starting off again. I didn’t want them to think that I had gotten hurt if I turned around and seemingly disappeared. And, of course, there was the matter of my pride.

A view of the ascent

Eventually, I did make it to the top of the ridge. The view – like all views in the Yukon – was spectacular. My descent was painstakingly slow and less than graceful.

I wrote in my journal that evening:

A guy going up while I was going down actually asked me if I was okay. I smiled and told him I’m just slow. He said, “Don’t want to slip,” as a kind of validation of my pathetic progress. I couldn’t look more than a couple feet in front of me. Every time I did, my heart stopped a little.

The view from the top

Acknowledging my own fear has made me more sensitive to the emotional element of submitting complaints to the Yukon Human Rights Commission, where I am doing my internship. One aspect of my work involves meeting with members of the public interested in submitting a complaint alleging discrimination. Despite reprisal being prohibited under s. 30 of the Yukon Human Rights Act, this does not always reassure people experiencing very stressful situations. In my first six weeks at the Commission, I have been told by numerous people that they fear what might happen if the person they are making the complaint against – often their employer – learns that they spoke with us or submitted a complaint. Submitting a complaint is a laborious process, mentally and emotionally. It surprised me how this manifests in ordinary, quotidian aspects of life: worries about what a supervisor might say or do; concerns about access to services; anticipation of stigmatization; the emotional labour of relaying one’s story; the mental load of monitoring the progress of one’s file, submitting documentary evidence, and other administrative work. It takes courage for a person to bring forward – and see through – a complaint.

It also takes courage to receive that complaint. Accepting a file means being privy to very personal details about others’ lives. I am practicing being “adventurous” in my legal work by embracing the variety of tasks available, all the while acknowledging what a privilege it is to participate in this endeavour.

My co-worker said, “This process is a marathon, not a sprint.” I am finding that patience is a virtue – for both complainants and Commission staff. For my co-workers, so much time is spent gathering evidence and contacting complainants and respondents, communicating messages between the two parties, and gathering evidence. Meanwhile, complainants must wait for thorough investigations to be completed. I observe people exercise patience while experiencing an enormous amount of fear. It is perhaps a weak comparison, but I experienced the need to practice patience while under the pressure of fear as I inched down that mountain. I am impressed by the emotional strength of both complainants and Commission staff.

Perhaps all of this seems obvious. But I have learned that it is one thing to “know” these facts and an entirely other thing to internalize them. Much like the beauty of the Yukon wilderness, I had to encounter it directly in order to properly understand it. It is an immense privilege to have strangers and friends introduce me to human rights work and life in the north. Being “adventurous” has opened my eyes to the multitude of skills that I am still working on – to name just a few, courage, patience, and walking downhill.