Never forget the lessons of Europe’s concentration camps: Justice Abella

Powerful commencement address by SCC Justice Abella:

You see before you a Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada who is deeply worried about the state of justice in the world. I was born right after the Second World War. That was the devastating war that inspired the nations of the world to unite in democratic solidarity and commit themselves conceptually, aspirationally, institutionally and legally to the promotion and protection of values designed to prevent a repetition of the war’s unimaginable human rights abuses.

Yet here we are in 2017, barely seven decades later, watching “never again” turn into “again and again,” and watching that wonderful democratic consensus fragment, shattered by narcissistic populism, an unhealthy tolerance for intolerance, a cavalier indifference to equality, a deliberate amnesia about the instruments and values of democracy that are no less crucial than elections, and a shocking disrespect for the borders between power and its independent adjudicators like the press and the courts.

It is time to remind ourselves why we developed such a passionate and, we thought, unshakeable commitment to democracy and human rights, to remember the three lessons we were supposed to have learned from the concentration camps of Europe: Indifference is injustice’s incubator; it’s not just what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for; and we can never forget how the world looks to those who are vulnerable.

Two hundred thousand European Jews survived the Holocaust. Three of them were my parents and grandmother. My mother’s family manufactured roofing materials. My father graduated with a master’s in law from the Jagiellonian law school in Krakow. My parents spent three years in concentration camps. Their two-year-old son, my brother, and my father’s parents and three younger brothers were all killed at Treblinka. My father was the only person in his family to survive the war. He was 35 when the war ended. My mother was 28. As I reached each of those ages, I tried to imagine how they felt facing an unknown future as survivors of an unimaginable past. And as each of our two sons reached the age my brother had been when he was killed, I tried to imagine my parents’ pain at losing a two-year-old child, and I couldn’t.

After the war, my parents went to Stuttgart, Germany, where the Americans hired my father, who taught himself English, to help set up the system of legal services for displaced persons in the Allied zone in southwest Germany. In an act that seems to me to be almost incomprehensible in its breathtaking optimism, my parents and thousands of other survivors transcended the inhumanity they had experienced and decided to have more children. I think it was a way to fix their hearts and to prove to themselves and the world that their spirits were not broken. I was born in Stuttgart on July 1, 1946, 30 years after Louis Brandeis was appointed to the Supreme Court, and my sister two years later.

My father, who was the head of our displaced persons camp, applied to emigrate to Canada, but was refused because his legal training wasn’t considered a useful skill. He eventually was permitted entry as a tailor’s cutter and as a shepherd. Within days of arriving in Toronto, my father went to the Law Society to ask what tests he would need to take to become lawyer. “None,” they said. Non-citizens could not be lawyers. Waiting the five years it took in those days to become a citizen was impossible. There was a family to feed. So he became an insurance agent for the next 20 years, happily. I never heard him complain.

The moment I heard that story as a child about my father not being able to be a lawyer was the moment I decided to become one. I was four. I had no idea what being a lawyer meant, but I did have an idea that I wanted to carry on what I thought he was unfairly prevented from doing. My father died a month before I graduated from law school, and he never lived to see his inspiration take flight in the daughter he raised to fear only injustice, indifference and cowardice, or in his two grandsons, both of whom became lawyers. And he never had a chance to see the marriage he had exuberantly celebrated with me the year before he died flourish into a miraculously joyful partnership with one of Canada’s most brilliant historians.

But my mother did, and carried me proudly into the future on the shoulders of her unwavering confidence for the next 40 years, until she died in 2010. This extraordinary honour [of an honorary degree] from Brandeis is for me above all a tribute to her unwavering resilience, inspiration and courage.

A few years ago, she gave me some of my father’s papers from Germany that I’d never seen before. In those papers I found the answer to why he always spoke so respectfully and appreciatively of Americans. I saw letters from American lawyers, prosecutors and judges he had worked with in the U.S. zone in Stuttgart. They were warm, compassionate and encouraging letters, either recommending, appointing or qualifying my father for various legal roles in the court system the Americans had set up in Germany after the war. These Americans believed in him, and as a result they not only restored him, they gave him back his belief that justice was possible.

I found one of the letters written to him by an American lawyer in 1947 to be particularly poignant. It said, “Under extreme difficulties, you contributed your share in helping to make life bearable for your friends, co-nationals, and those of other nationalities. It is hard to be a refugee, and it is twice as hard to be a refugee and a lawyer. You were battered, but you did not allow yourself to be beaten. You continued to fight for your human rights and for those of your fellows in fate, like brave fighters for a new society.”

And here I am 70 years later, a member of that new society he fought and hoped for, and the beneficiary of generosity and opportunities he would never have dreamed possible, including, amazingly, an honorary degree from Brandeis, a university he venerated, and all because the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Auschwitz was justice – beautiful, democratic, tolerant, compassionate justice.

My life started in a country where there had been no democracy, no rights, no justice and all because we were Jewish. No one with this history does not feel lucky to be alive and free. No one with this history takes anything for granted, and no one with this history does not feel that we have a particular duty to wear our identities with pride and to promise our children that we will do everything humanly possible to keep the world safer for them than it was for their grandparents, a world where all children – regardless of race, colour, religion, or gender – can wear their identities with dignity, with pride and in peace.

Source: Never forget the lessons of Europe’s concentration camps – The Globe and Mail

Liberals’ replacement for Office of Religious Freedom will promote broader range of rights | National Post

Less new than meets the eye and unclear regarding resources(there was an existing Human Rights Division with 14 people) so it may be more repackaging and reorientation:

The Liberals have unveiled a long-awaited replacement for the Office of Religious Freedom, which will now include championing the rights of indigenous peoples abroad.

Canada has a “duty” to speak up for and help indigenous peoples around the world who may be struggling for their rights, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said in an exclusive interview to mark the launch of the new Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion on Tuesday.

“If we are improving, as we hope, the situation of indigenous people in Canada, we have the duty to try to do the same around the world,” Dion said from Vienna. “The situation of indigenous people around the world is worrying. There is a lot of room for improvement, to say the least.”

The emphasis on indigenous rights creates a potential conflict with Canada’s commercial interests, especially in Latin America and Southeast Asia where local populations have opposed Canadian mining operations. But Dion said he believed most Canadian mining companies would welcome the new approach.

“I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of the mining industry of Canada will welcome this focus and will say it’s exactly what they want,” he said. “In order to do good business, you have to have the support of the populations. … So they will be willing to work with this office, I’m sure.”

The new office effectively replaces the Office of Religious Freedom, which the Conservatives established in 2013. Representatives from some faith groups had urged the Liberals to keep the religious freedom office open but the government let its funding expire in March.

Dion described the new office as a “pooling” of the former Office of Religious Freedom’s resources with Global Affairs Canada’s work on human rights promotion. He said the new office will have a budget of $15 million — three times that of the religious freedom office.

Dion said it was a “mistake” to “isolate” freedom of religion from Canada’s broader human rights efforts. The new office’s mandate will include promoting religious freedom, and an official will be in charge of interacting with faith groups and other stakeholders. But the work will fall under the broader rubric of inclusion.

“Inclusion is not only the freedom of religion,” Dion said. “It could be sexual exclusion. It may be political exclusion. So inclusion includes freedom of religion with other aspects of our society. Pluralism. Rights of women. Rights of refugees.”

Source: Liberals’ replacement for Office of Religious Freedom will promote broader range of rights | National Post

Is being a vegan a human right? Advocates claim protection under new Ontario policy, but that wasn’t the point

Interesting how different groups tend to stretch definitions:

It’s a question the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal may soon tackle after an update to the provincial definition of “creed”. Animal-rights and vegan advocates are calling the new policy, released in December, an important recognition of their right to express their beliefs. The 179-page policy, the first update from the provincial human rights commission since 1996, offers guidelines for what defines “creed,” historically treated as religious beliefs and practices, in the more secular 21st century. That opens the door for vegans, atheists and other groups to claim similar protections under the law.

“This is nothing new. For decades we’ve accommodated people who have beliefs about wearing leather or eating certain foods based on their religious beliefs,” said Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice. In a blog post last month, the charity said the new policy offers human rights protections to ethical vegans (people who don’t consume or wear any animal or fish byproducts for reasons of conscience). “This is a recognition that we are becoming an increasingly secular society and people have other reasons behind their beliefs now that aren’t necessarily religious in nature.”

What we were really trying to capture are things like atheism, belief systems that might not have a religious basis

But according to Ontario Human Rights Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane, that was never the precise intent of the review of the definition of “creed.”

“We did hear from (vegan and animal rights groups) and I have a lot of respect for their advocacy… but in framing the definition, that is not the group that we were attempting to address. That’s not to say the tribunal might not find… in a certain instance for that to qualify as creed,” said Mandhane. “But that wasn’t where we were going.”

Instead, the aim was to provide an update that hedged against growing religious persecution in some areas, particularly against Muslims, and to make it more inclusive of, for example, atheists or those who practice an indigenous spirituality. “Creed” is now much broader than the more strictly religious interpretation intended when the Code was first drafted and is intended to capture more modern belief systems.

That doesn’t mean any belief system can qualify, however. The updated policy uses a five-pronged approach to determining whether a belief system qualifies as a legally protected creed:

  • Is it a sincerely, freely and deeply held belief?
  • Is tied to personal identity and spiritual fulfillment?
  • Is it “a comprehensive and overarching system of belief that governs one’s conduct and practices?
  • Does it address ultimate question of human existence, including ones about life, death and purpose?
  • Is there an organization or community that practices the same belief system?

“What we were really trying to capture are things like atheism, belief systems that might not have a religious basis but are sort of about that ultimate question of our existence and our identity,” Mandhane said, since “we’ve become a more secular society.”

Source: Is being a vegan a human right? Advocates claim protection under new Ontario policy, but that wasn’t the point

New Ontario Human Rights commissioner Renu Mandhane vows aggressive approach

Good profile on the background and values of the incoming commissioner:

The story underscores the empathy and compassion friends, colleagues and family say 38-year-old Mandhane — academic, lawyer, High Park-Junction resident, mother of two young boys, front line international human rights advocate — brings to her new job as the province’s top domestic rights watchdog, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

“It was that moment where I realized, wow, I’m hard-wired to really think about the underdog and the perspective of people who are less privileged than I am.”

Her brother, Piush Mandhane, an Edmonton pediatrician and medical researcher, says Renu “always had a sense of ethics and what is right and wrong. And she’s always been willing to stand up for what she believes in.

“I think Ontario couldn’t have got a better person,” he says. “That position comes with a lot of carrots, and then some sticks. I think she will know when to use which.”

Mandhane leaves her old job as executive director of the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program to take on her new role, beginning Monday.

During her time at the program, Mandhane edited a 2015 research paper on migrants to Canada with mental health issues who are subject to arbitrary imprisonment. It is a bleak assessment of how the country deals with these newcomers, and prompted calls for more humane treatment and an end to indefinite detention.

She also works with PEN International, and through the U of T rights program helped produce a 2015 research paper on freedom-of-speech challenges in India.

With her new role comes a public profile and the power to make change.

Source: New Ontario Human Rights commissioner Renu Mandhane vows aggressive approach | Toronto Star

Ontario must combat racism, says outgoing human rights commissioner Barbara Hall

Barbara Hall’s exit interview:

In an interview at commission headquarters, Barbara Hall said she strongly believes the very success of our society depends on ensuring the disadvantaged or marginalized are able to contribute fully.

“The most discouraging part of this work is the persistence of racism, particularly as it impacts black Ontarians and aboriginal people,” said Hall, whose 10 years as chief commissioner ends Friday.

“We see progress on issues but we need to — as a commission, as a society — be vigilant about these issues. It requires constant pushing.”

Discrimination, Hall said, is something that can touch everyone. As examples, she cited women returning from maternity leave to find their jobs have “mysteriously” disappeared or those sexually harassed at work.

Ontario must combat racism, says outgoing human rights commissioner – Macleans.ca.

York U Accommodation Contrary View – It’s not about sex — it’s about the law – And other commentary

The contrary view about York U and the accommodation request to be exempt from working in a mixed gender group. Lawyers (like policy analysts!) can argue anything. Reasonable accommodation requires requests to be considered but not automatically granted. Weaknesses in Albertos Polizogopoulos’ argument include:

  1. No threat to women’s equality rights: Perhaps not materially on an individual level – they can still do the course work – but certainly symbolically.
  2. Impact of the human rights of others: There is an impact in the implicit implication of the request that there would need to be a male-only work group. This impacts on both the women in the course and the men, as it would reduce the pool of men for mixed work groups (75 percent of sociology students are female in Professor Grayson’s course at York), with increased gender segregation as a result.
  3. While an exemption would have less direct impact, apart from the normal questioning why someone appears to be getting off lightly, particularly in the case of the particular student who, if accounts are correct, is enrolled in other in-person courses with both male and female students.
  4. Would Polizogopoulos argue similarly if a student, of either gender, request an accommodation to avoid being in a group with gays? With people of another faith? From another ethnic community?

And stepping beyond accommodation, the broader question of integration, and what it means to live in and participate in an integrated society, where discrimination among and between groups is discouraged (and illegal), remains. Multiculturalism and reasonable accommodation were never about “anything goes”; positions like Polizogopoulos’ undermine the case-by-case approach by forgetting the reasonable element of reasonable accommodation.

It’s not about sex — it’s about the law – New Canadian Media – NCM.

Some further commentary. starting with Maclean’s Thanks to York U’s absurd policy, Canadians know where the line is drawn on human rights:

While it apparently remains official policy at York to indulge every request for special religious treatment regardless of implication or precedent, such blind adherence to patently absurd policy may ultimately prove to be a good thing. The massive publicity given this story—it dominated national news media and online forums and has been reported everywhere from Europe to Japan to Australia—and the universal disapproval of York’s administrative position may serve as a wake-up call for Canadians, highlighting the extent to which the bureaucratic concept of human rights has lost contact with common sense.

Brian Lilley in The Sun, while usefully identifying some examples where accommodation has gone too far, takes it over the top with a colonial reference in Get a backbone, Canada: The country needs to regain its cultural confidence:

Canada, and the western world in general, needs to find its backbone, it needs to regain its cultural confidence that stood for basic rights for all.

In the 1840s, when Sir Charles Napier was governing a large part of India, he is said to have witnessed an attempt to practice suttee, the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. His response could instruct us today in standing up for our principles.

“You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them.

“Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

We need to find that backbone again before Canada is no longer recognizable.

Lastly, the questionnaire and responses by Professor Grayson’s students on the requested accommodation and approach, where students were divided in their response (bit.ly/1dyPJCj or Organizations and Human Rights):

It is clear from the foregoing analysis that students in Sociology 3480 are divided on the accommodation requested by the male student in the scenario presented. Some see the request as consistent with the student’s religious rights.  While others acknowledge religious rights, they also believe that the exercise of the male’s religious rights conflicts with the rights of females in the class. A number of females in this latter group clearly articulated that were a similar accommodation granted in their class they would be outraged, feel that they were victims of discrimination, and some would take action to rectify the situation.

Mourani: adopter la Charte à la majorité simple, un acte «immoral»

Interesting points from former Bloc MP Maria Mourani. But given that the proposed Charter affects human rights, setting a higher bar than a simple majority makes sense. Unanimity may be too high a bar, even if on policy grounds I would prefer the threshold for such legislation to be as high as possible.

Mourani: adopter la Charte à la majorité simple, un acte «immoral» | Lia Lévesque | Politique.

Provincial human rights commission slams proposed Quebec values charter and other charter news

Not surprisingly, the Quebec provincial human rights commission comes out against the proposed Charter. As the provincial charter can be amended by a simple majority vote in Quebec’s Assembée nationale, not an insurmountable obstacle.

The federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms, on the other hand, is in our Constitution and is not subject to easy amendment (in practice, likely impossible).

Provincial human rights commission slams proposed Quebec values charter – Need to know – Macleans.ca.

Attaque en règle contre la Charte des valeurs

And more fall-out from the Janettes, this time from well-known Quebec actress and director Denise Filiatraut, who apologized for characterizing women who wear the hijab as “follies” (fools).

Propos sur les musulmanes: Denise Filiatrault s’excuse

And naive and paternalistic commentary by Fabienne Larouche in Le Devoir, who, while advocating a strong secular approach, nevertheless wants a gradual process of integration and emancipation.

Naive, as many who wear the hijab are second-generation immigrants, and thus to assume an automatic “emancipation” from the hijab across generations runs against  experience. Looking at any old photos from before the 90s in most Muslim countries, one sees much less wearing of the hijab (see any university graduation photo – the contrasts are striking:

Ces femmes ont hérité d’une culture. Elles sont venues ici pour comprendre ce que notre culture à nous pouvait leur offrir de mieux. Donnons-leur du temps pour changer, s’adapter et permettre à leurs filles de s’émanciper comme les nôtres, mais sans oublier que cette émancipation est inévitable et que nous resterons inflexibles sur cet objectif. C’est tout.

But more fundamentally, this assumes that the only form of emancipation is not wearing the hijab; participation in politics, the workforce, other engagement with broader society is ignored. And such participation is a more important indicator of integration than the head covering worn by men or women.

Une Charte, chez nous…

Deeper Than God: Ronald Dworkin’s Religious Atheism

A good review and overview by Stanley Fish in the NYTimes of Ronald Dworkin’s last book, Religion without God. Some of the argumentation is complex, but treating belief and non-belief as equal rights (freedom of and freedom from religion), and how liberals recreate an ethnical framework, is of interest. Quote:

By “ethical independence” Dworkin means the individual’s independence to decide for himself or herself how to acknowledge the “felt conviction that the universe really does embody a sublime beauty.” One form of acknowledgment might be the practice of theism — traditional religion with its rituals, sacred texts, formal prayers, proscribed and prescribed activities; but the conviction of the universe’s beauty does not, says Dworkin, “suppose any god” as its ground. Once we see this, we are on the way to “decoupling religion from a god” and admitting into the ranks of the religious those who are possessed by that conviction but do not trace it back to any deity. They will be, Dworkin declares, “religious atheists.”

Deeper Than God: Ronald Dworkin’s Religious Atheism

Minister Kenney issues statement on the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Government’s Apology for Japanese Internment during the Second World War

Worth noting, as this was the first major historical recognition initiative by the Canadian government, and important acknowledgement of historical wrongs. Read Obasan by Joy Kogawa to understand the internment and related experience. US government also made comparable acknowledgement.

Statement — Minister Kenney issues statement on the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Government’s Apology for Japanese Internment during the Second World War.