By Aditya Rao
Canada’s refugee system is sophisticated and world-class, but not problem-free. University of Ottawa law student Victoria Wan, for one, views aspects of current Canadian policy as putting the human rights of refugees at risk.
“The mandatory detention of certain categories of refugees, including children, based solely on their country of origin or mode of arrival in Canada, is arbitrary and unjust,” Wan said. “Among other problematic issues, Canada imposes a ‘travel loan’ on many government-assisted refugees, forcing them to pay back thousands of dollars after they’ve been resettled here.”
Taking advantage of their location in the nation’s capital, Wan and other uOttawa law students organized a day-long conference and lobbying effort to push for progressive changes to Canadian refugee law. The event was organized by the uOttawa chapter of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL/ACAADR) in conjunction with CARL McGill and ACAADR at the Université de Montréal, and was billed as the first-ever student-led “CARL LobbyCon.”
More than 40 students from five law schools in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia attended the October 6 event, which was held on campus at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre and on Parliament Hill.
Before heading to the Hill for an afternoon of lobbying, the students spent the morning learning about public interest advocacy and lobbying from leading experts, including Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.
Recently appointed independent senator Ratna Omidvar gave the keynote address. She encouraged students to pursue a career in refugee and social justice law and shared her own story of fleeing Iran as a refugee in 1981. She inspired attendees to remember that the human element in the law is as important as the law itself.
In addition to pushing for change with parliamentarians, event organizers hoped to provide law students with the opportunity to learn public interest advocacy skills from lawyers who are actively engaged in this work. Guiding students during their meetings on the Hill were several uOttawa professors, including Jennifer Bond and Jamie Liew, and practitioners such as lawyer Jean Lash, who works at South Ottawa Community Legal Services. With the success of this year’s event, efforts are already underway to organize the 2017–2018 CARL LobbyCon.
“While I am hopeful that the new government will continue to move in the right direction, we need to keep pushing,” said CARL president Mitchell Goldberg, a Montreal lawyer who also spoke at the conference. He called it a great opportunity both for the students who attended and for MPs to meet “some passionate law students who are informed and engaged.”
Learn more: CARL recommendations on reforming refugee law.