PILC 35: Building Relationships, Affirming Rights & Protecting the Environment
On November 25th, the Public Interest Law Centre (PILC) celebrated its 35th anniversary. The event entitled “PILC 35: Building Relationships, Affirming Rights & Protecting the Environment” was attended by over 150 members of the legal, NGO and political communities as well as current and former clients and supporters of PILC.
The Master of Ceremony for the event was CJOB reporter, Richard Cloutier. The event began with a prayer in Anishinaabemowin by Elder Florence Paynter. The University of Winnipeg President Annette Trimbee, Deputy Minister David Wright, Manitoba Bar Association President Melissa Beaumont and Executive Director Karen Dyck of the Manitoba Law Foundation brought greetings on behalf of their respective organizations.
Vince Calderhead from Pink Larkin and Robson Hall student, Maddie Pearlman kicked off the formal part of the agenda with a conversation on the public interest. Members of the audience were challenged to think about the things they do not know and rethink their understandings about the “public interest”. We were invited by Vince and Maddie to think about the impacts of our political and legal decisions on the socio-economic rights of individuals.
This discussion was followed by two concurrent sessions. One of the panels which was moderated by PILC lawyer Joëlle Pastora Sala was about the relationship between Indigenous legal traditions and Western laws and included Elder Florence Paynter, Professor Aimée Craft and Derek Nepinak, former Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. We heard that Anishinaabe laws are all about relationships and they give us guidelines on how we can conduct ourselves. They are rooted in the spirit, culture, language and community of Anishinaabe people. Decisions that have been made in the “public interest” have had negative impacts on First Nations people and communities. Western and Indigenous laws have distinct foundational values and there is a potential for conflict between the systems of law. There exists a spiritual deprivation of young people and one of the main challenges is to move away from the imposition of western laws such as the Indian Act back to Indigenous laws which continue to exist today.
At the same time, PILC laywer Katrine Dilay moderated a panel on on financial inclusion and payday loans. Her panel included Dr Jerry Buckland of Menno Simons College, Louise Simbandumwe of SEED Winnipeg and Gloria Desorcy, Executive Director of the Consumer Association of Canada (Manitoba Branch). The panel address the impacts of significant inter-disciplinary research, interventions at the Public Utilities Board and work by community groups, which have benefited Manitoba consumers in the regulation of government cheque-cashing and payday loan rates, as well financial services programming. Opportunities remain for community organizations and academics to continue working together both at the federal and provincial levels toward financial empowerment and for further research into emerging areas of fringe financial services.
The following set of concurrent sessions including a panel moderated by PILC Director, Byron Williams, on water, the economy and the environment. The panelists included Drs Jill Blakley of the University of Saskatchewan and Patricia Fitzpatrick of the University of Winnipeg as well as Pelino Colaiacovo of Morrison Park Advisors. The panel addressed the fact that Manitoba Hydro activities related to water continue to have a profound impact on Manitoba both economically and environmentally. Hydro’s decisions tend to be highly centralized and often behind closed doors with inadequate citizen involvement. They are a source of significant risk but the risks are inequitably shared. Eliminating siloed decision making and enabling better citizen participation are key steps toward better and more equitable decision making.
At the same time, PILC lawyer Allison Fenske moderated a panel on the Charter, human rights and persons living in poverty and/or with disabilities which included Anne Levesque, Professor at the University of Ottawa; Tyson Sylvester, a citizen and current client working with PILC; Janet Forbes, Executive Director of Inclusion Winnipeg and Neil Cohen, Executive Director of the Community Unemployed Help Centre. The Charter and human rights are important tools that we can rely upon which reflect the values of society. Individuals and groups play an important role in ensuring that society’s Charter and human rights are upheld. We heard that PILC plays a fundamental role in reducing access to justice barriers which prevent people from accessing their Charter and human rights. Given austerity cuts, organizations and groups may need to coordinate their efforts.
Small group discussions were held after the panel discussions relating to the future of PILC and of the public interest more generally. We heard that: we need to encourage diversity and meeting people on their own terms, access to information is key, greater use of and engagement with paralegals is important, more opportunities for early engagement is needed with vulnerable individuals and groups, no growth comes from a space of comfort, we need to go into other people’s spaces to engage with them, and we can’t be afraid to speak out.
The Rapporteurs who concluded the event challenged us to think of the things we do not know, to broaden our conversations about the public interest and to respect vulnerable and marginalized persons as experts in their own experience.
See the following news story for more information, click here.
Photos by Diane Poulin