Monday, February 10, 2014

My Letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

In 2011, I participated in the International Youth Internships Program managed by CIDA in partnership with the Canadian Bar Association to work in human rights law in Namibia. Since then, the program has been postponed and is now under review, where the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development must decide whether to continue funding the program. I wrote this letter in support of the program.

The Honourable John Baird, P.C., M.P.
Minister of Foreign Affairs
House of Commons, Ottawa, ON
K1A 0A6

Dear Minister Baird,

My name is Gloria and I live in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

From 2011 to 2012, as part of the International Youth Internships Program (IYIP) managed by the Canadian International Development Agency, I had the privilege to spend seven months in Windhoek, Namibia, working with the Legal Assistance Centre on a project focused on human rights. The Legal Assistance Centre is a non-profit organization that was originally founded to combat apartheid, and now continues to assist local Namibians with important legal human rights issues.

You see, in 2007 I went to law school so I could become a human rights lawyer. However, I found that it was difficult to gain experience in human rights law, as most of the opportunities were unpaid. Many law school graduates cannot afford to work for free, especially if they have student loans.

This is why I consider myself to be fortunate that the IYIP existed at the time. It was a rare and exciting opportunity to get experience as a human rights lawyer, while receiving financial support to help cover my basic day-to-day living expenses. While working with the Legal Assistance Centre as part of the IYIP in partnership with the Canadian Bar Association, I developed essential skills in human rights law while learning to adapt to life in a developing foreign country. It was a life-changing experience where I learned so much.

I am now working as a poverty lawyer in Nunavut, one of the few such lawyers resident in the entire territory. I assist my predominantly Inuit low-income clients with their legal rights, including in employment law, landlord-tenant disputes, and human rights complaints. I feel very fortunate to be working here.

I would like you to know that my employer has informed me that my experience in Africa under the IYIP was one of the reasons why they thought I was a suitable candidate for this position. They explained that my IYIP experience demonstrated my ability to adapt to and thrive in a cross-cultural context, often with limited resources. The experience that I have gained from the IYIP continues to directly help me with my job today, as my clients in Nunavut often deal with similar themes of poverty, addiction, domestic abuse, and isolation that I saw in Namibia – although in a very different environmental climate, of course.

Many of my colleagues who graduated law school with me are still struggling to find steady work.
We all know the story: in order to get a job, you need experience. But in order to get experience, you
need a job. The number of young lawyers that are out of work is particularly frustrating when
juxtaposed with the fact that there is a huge need for lawyers in remote areas such as Nunavut or
northern Ontario. But these vacant positions require some work experience in order to ensure that
clients’ needs are adequately and competently addressed.

I am very lucky that I have been able to achieve my dream of being a human rights lawyer, which
was made possible through my time with the IYIP. At the same time, I feel saddened that the next
generation of law school graduates may not have the same wonderful opportunities that I had with
the IYIP. My understanding is that your department needs to decide whether it will renew funding
for the International Youth Internship Programs. The IYIP offers exactly what new university
graduates need – paid experience. It prepares them for their future career and is an important
investment in the future of young Canadians.

As such, I am respectfully asking you to ensure the continuation of the IYIP, and to engage all
relevant stakeholders in a dialogue should you wish to review the program.


part of a report about domestic violence I helped work on while at the Legal Assistance Centre

Note: You can read about my experiences in Namibia here, or starting from the beginning here

Note: You can also read the letter written by my friend Joshua Lam, who is accomplishing wonderful public interest work in Alberta with Pro Bono Law Alberta and Calgary Housing & Employment Services.