Osgoode symposium marks 60th anniversary of Ontario Human Rights Code with celebration of Anti-Discrimination Intensive Program

For students in Osgoode Hall Law School’s Anti-Discrimination Intensive Program (ADIP), it was an important lesson in front-line lawyering.

In the fall of 2021, as the worldwide battle against COVID-19 raged on, Osgoode students covering the intake telephone lines were working from home and frequently receiving calls from citizens claiming they were being discriminated against because they refused to wear masks.

“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 organized to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Ontario Human Rights Code.

The event, titled From Classroom to Case Law, was held Nov. 1 at Osgoode Professional Development, Osgoode’s professional education division. It was co-sponsored by Osgoode and the Toronto-based 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 students participating in ADIP do a full-time, full-term placement with HRLSC, participating in its summary advice and legal information service and conducting detailed legal interviews on files that are referred from intake. Among their duties, they field about 24,000 phone calls annually from potential human rights claimants. The students, who are assigned a personal lawyer mentor from HRLSC, also draft legal documents and partner with HRLSC 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.

At the Nov. 1 symposium, the 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 graduate. The keynote address was given by Osgoode graduate 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.”

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

During a panel discussion on human rights law practice, prominent human rights lawyer Raj Anand, a partner with Toronto-based WeirFoulds LLP, noted that Osgoode was an early leader in providing experiential legal education. The law school continues to offer unparalleled depth in experiential education with its 17 clinical programs.

“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 Toronto-based 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.”

Keynote speaker Kimberly Murray emphasized that, for decades, Ontario’s Human Rights Code failed many disenfranchised groups – and 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 so-called 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, Ontario Attorney General Doug 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 (SABA).