Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Stories by Amy Stupavsky


Insiya Essajee: Advocating for human rights--and human dignity

Insiya EssajeeHow do we remedy discrimination? How do we address sublte and sometimes unconscious bias, and what kind of training and policy help to effect that change? Insiya Essajee, JD 2011, asks these questions on a daily basis. Her interest in fairness, equality and social justice has shaped her career as counsel at the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).

At U of T, Essajee received the John Yaremko Award in Human Rights and Judy LaMarsh Prize for Feminist Analysis of Law. She articled at the Commission in 2011 and has been counsel since 2012. She has represented the Commission at hearings before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, Ontario Superior Court of Justice and Court of Appeal for Ontario.

“I never take for granted that every single file I work on deals with important issues,” Essajee says. “The Commission focuses on cases that advances human rights law or targets wide-scale, systemic discrimination. We look for emerging issues, so I’m always encountering something new.”

This focus on pushing boundaries has allowed Essajee to work on a range of files—including the use of segregation in Ontario’s correctional facilities, racial profiling, gender identity issues, and police officer mental health trauma and suicide—that have led to major changes.

A 2013 case involving a woman who alleged that she was held in segregation at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre for more than 200 days on the basis of mental health disability and gender resulted in a landmark settlement agreement with the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS). The MCSCS now prohibits the use of segregation for any prisoner with mental health issues barring undue hardship, has implemented mandatory mental health screening for all prisoners, and requires all prisoners placed in segregation to receive information about their rights.

Although changes to human rights law can be slow and incremental, Essajee is especially excited by the transformation in both the law and public perception of transgender issues, which fall under her portfolio at the Commission. Her work on a 2014 case involving a trans amateur hockey player who was denied access to the boys’ changing rooms led Hockey Canada to change its policies and confidentiality agreements, and implement training on gender identity issues for its coaches and staff. Essajee is excited by how swiftly the movement has galvanized the public and media.

“It’s an example of how advocacy, policy and the Human Rights Code have aligned,” she says. “It’s meaningful to see a cause recognized and taken up by the larger community, not just by advocacy groups, and to feel a collective push to promote human rights and dignity. That is the ultimate goal of my work.”


Gillian Hnatiw: Navigating the criminal system with compassion

gillian hnatiwOn February 5, 2016, at the close of Day 4 of the Jian Ghomeshi trial, Gillian Hnatiw walked down the steps of Toronto’s Old City Hall to give a statement to the media about sexual violence against women: “Violence against women is not about the behaviour of the women. It is not about how they cope with an assault, or the details they commit to memory in the aftermath. It’s not about whether they see their abusers again or send flowers any more than it is about what they wore or how much they had to drink.”

Hnatiw, LLB 2002, a partner at Lerners LLP, is counsel to Lucy DeCoutere, one of the claimants in the Ghomeshi sexual assault case. Hnatiw’s words not only encapsulate the often contradictory, complicated ways women contend with violence, but also highlight her empathetic approach to law practice.

“My role is to advocate for Lucy and the issues that are important to her,” Hnatiw explains. “In the process, I hope to help the public gain understanding of what it’s like to stand in her shoes, and to foster compassion for the thousands of people who have endured similar wrongs.”

Hnatiw specializes in civil sexual assault claims on behalf of victims of violence and sexual abuse, as well as medical malpractice and administrative law proceedings. She was named a 2015 Lexpert Leading Lawyer Under 40 and selected by her peers for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in Canada for Health Care Law (2016). In addition to her work as a litigator, she also volunteers pro bono on behalf of sexual-assault victims by helping them to navigate a criminal system that can be alienating and difficult to understand.

“This area of law is most personally meaningful to me,” she says. “I’m a feminist who’s passionate about women’s issues. I’m a mother to three young children. I have friends who were raped when they were younger, and treated very poorly by the judicial system. The abuse cases I’ve worked have left a deep impression on me.”

She believes that her blend of strategic legal thinking and ability to connect deeply with clients who are going through stressful personal and professional situations sets her apart in the field, and speaks to why she entered the law in the first place: to help give people agency in law proceedings.

In particular, Hnatiw notes the series of claims against Ralph Rowe, a former Anglican priest, whose widespread abuse of aboriginal boys in Ontario’s Treaty 9 territory in the ‘70s and ‘80s devastated the First Nations communities and left multi-generational scars.

“The intrusion on personal security, the time it takes victims to shift blame from themselves to their abusers, and the fact that there is almost never ‘objective proof’ make these cases very challenging,” she says, “but the opportunity to make a tangible difference in someone’s life is the very human nature of my work that inspires me.”