Osgoode symposium marks human rights milestone with celebration of anti-discrimination program

Osgoode Hall Law School

In the Fall of 2021, with the battle against COVID-19 raging on, Osgoode Hall Law School students covering intake telephone lines were frequently receiving calls from citizens claiming they were being discriminated against because they refused to wear masks.

For students in Osgoode’s Anti-Discrimination Intensive Program (ADIP), it was a crucial lesson in front-line lawyering.

“That was a space where you’re kind of pushing yourself to think about human rights,” Osgoode Professor Sonia Lawrence told the audience at a recent symposium on human rights experiential learning coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Sonia Lawrence
Sonia Lawrence

The event, titled “From Classroom to Case Law: Human Rights Experiential Learning in the Code’s 60th Year,” was held Nov. 1 at the Osgoode Professional Development Centre. It was co-sponsored by Osgoode and the Human Rights Legal Support Centre (HRLSC), which mentors students in ADIP.

“How do we understand our negative reactions to some of these claims?” Lawrence asked. “How do you talk to people that you disagree with? This was an interesting experience to see the students walking through on their own.”

Osgoode’s ADIP students do a full-time placement with HRLSC conducting detailed legal interviews on files that are referred from intake. They field 24,000 phone calls annually from potential human rights claimants, among other duties. The students, who are assigned a personal lawyer mentor from HRLSC, also draft legal documents and partner with lawyers at mediation and on files scheduled for hearing by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. Since its inception in 2011, ADIP has provided 130 Osgoode students with intensive training in anti-discrimination and administrative law.

Symposium speakers included Osgoode professors who have been involved with ADIP, ADIP alumni, prominent Ontario human rights lawyers and Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey, who is an Osgoode alumnus. The keynote address was given by Osgoode alumna Kimberly Murray, who currently serves as the independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites.

“My time with ADIP equipped me with the confidence and the tools to embark on a career in human rights law,” said ADIP alumna Ania Kwadrans, who now serves as principal policy advisor for the University of Ottawa Refugee Hub. “My time at the HRLSC has continued to influence my career in so many ways.”

Faisal Bhabha, an Osgoode associate professor, said ADIP was a “win-win” in both its design and implementation because it provides quality education and prioritizes access to justice. “One of the things I love about the program,” he said, “is it provides a front-row view of the future of human rights.”’

The three pillars of human rights law

During a panel discussion on human rights law practice, prominent human rights lawyer Raj Anand, of WeirFoulds LLP, noted that Osgoode was an early leader in providing experiential legal education.

“That’s particularly important in the area of human rights because there’s a serious gap in access to justice for human rights claimants,” said Anand.

“It’s a truism in human rights law that the challenge is not knowing what you don’t know,” he added. “This is a void that ADIP is starting to fill.”

ADIP alumna Njeri Damali Sojourner-Campbell, who now serves as an employment, labour and human rights lawyer with law firm Hicks Morley, said one of the most important lessons she learned from the program was to never lose sight of the people who are at the centre of human rights law.

“I don’t believe people file human rights claims for fun,” she said. “I don’t believe in frequent fliers. These are people who are taking a risk.”

In her keynote, Murray emphasized that Ontario’s Human Rights Code had failed many disenfranchised groups – especially the Indigenous children who were effectively held as prisoners in the Indian residential school system. While the Ontario Human Rights Code was enacted in 1962, she noted, the last residential school in Ontario did not close until 1991.

Despite that failure, she added, progress has been made, especially with a major legislative reform in 2008 that created the three pillars of Ontario’s human rights system: the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.

In his short remarks, Downey underlined the provincial government’s commitment to increasing diversity in the judiciary. “You will start to see the face of the bench changing as fast as we can,” he said. “It’s actually the people of Ontario who own the system and we need to make it bend to their will.”

The afternoon event ended with a networking reception sponsored by the Toronto chapter of the South Asian Bar Association.