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A Student Perspective on Human Rights

human-rights-1898841_1280A number of recent events in my personal life and in the mainstream media have led me to reflect on the importance of being aware of and to advocate for basic rights and laws.

I have the misfortune of having an online stalker who sends repeated private messages to me from new Facebook accounts every month or so. This has been happening to me for at least four years despite blocking and reporting each account. Similarly, an acquaintance has also been the victim of online criminal harassment. She was at a party, and a male at the party offered to take her picture. She casually agreed thinking of it as an innocent, friendly gesture. Unfortunately, it was later determined that he had digitally altered the photos to appear inappropriate. This was shared widely on social media without her consent.

Moreover, I have held discussions with a colleague who has faced repeated obstacles and apathy in acquiring necessary academic accommodations related to their disability.

Another colleague, who identifies as Indigenous, shared stories of facing discrimination growing up in her own small hometown in Northern Ontario. With a population of approximately 40000 people, one would assume the town is a close-knit and warm community where everyone supports and looks after each other. It is unsettling to learn that even then she and her family members faced constant and generational discrimination.

In the media, there has been an online social media movement on Twitter in which women and men have shared their experiences of sexual harassment instances in the academic sphere.

These examples demonstrate situations in which it may be beneficial to be aware of your rights and basic laws in order to act in your best interest either before or immediately after an unfortunate instance might occur. This will ensure that you’re prepared, able to seize the moment, and respond in an appropriate way to prevent any harm to yourself or others. Below, I divulge into some common laws and rights that may be of relevance specifically to the University student population.

Disability and Accessibility

Accessible and disability-related laws and policies often fail the community for which they are designed. Certain policies and laws may technically be followed. However, the execution of such laws is at times done in a more bureaucratic way without much compassion or perspective.

Some faculty members view disability-related accommodations as giving some students with a disability an unfair advantage over others. 

Invisible disabilities, such as mental health and learning disabilities are often viewed with suspicion and less likely to be accommodated.

Such attitudes further stigmatize students living with a disability.

In the words of my peer who suffers from a disability, “They put up a bunch of little obstacles in my way. It is as if the purpose of the accessibility services is to make sure that things aren’t too comfortable for disabled students.”

At some schools, including Queen’s, the department organizes academic accommodations for graduates with a disability such as arranging a scribe or proctor to be available for lectures and exams. Often times, the course TAs would be assigned as a scribe by professors. This may compromise confidentiality in some instances as the student may end up revealing more than necessary about their functional limitations as a result of their disability in order to facilitate such arrangements. Ideally, such arrangements should be made by a separate third-party accommodation service in order to preserve absolute confidentiality.

Online Harassment

Above, I discussed personal examples of online harassment experienced by myself and my colleagues and acquaintances. Besides some of the obvious resources available to students, Ontario Women’s Justice Network, a popular online legal resource for issues related to women and children in Canada, exemplifies the following activities as abusive behaviour that are also against the law under the Criminal Code of Canada:

“stalking or repeatedly sending you unwanted texts, emails or messages through social media that make you feel afraid”, “spreading rumours or untrue information about you online to embarrass you or hurt your reputation”, “monitoring your phone to see who you are calling or texting”, “controlling your passwords and who your Facebook friends are”, “constantly criticizing or insulting you”, “not letting you keep a job and making you miss work”, “using religion as justification for abuse”

Ontario Women’s Justice Network’s article on Need to Know about Criminal Harassment or Stalking? is a great resource for coming up with a safety plan and how to get help.

Sexual Harassment

A recent Twitter post on sexual harassment was eye-opening. Many shared personal stories of sexual harassment at the hands of superiors or colleagues at an academic conference. It was hard to digest that such misconduct still happens at conferences and university environments.

It’s unfortunate to know that in academic environments, which are known for fostering knowledge and progressive thinking, this kind of harassment is still rampant. University students should be aware of their basic right to feeling safe and the expected codes of conduct in the academic environment.

Discrimination

Due to the diverse nature of the University student population, discrimination against race, gender, sexuality, and other identifiable aspects is quite common. This discrimination can be deliberate, but often is indirect or unintentional and a product of the academic system. For instance, if a University form requests that the student disclose their gender, there may only be two options to choose from (male or female). This fails to accommodate members of the LGBTQ community who do not identify as a traditional gender. Members of the LGBTQ community are often denied access to washrooms and change rooms which are designated as male and female only.

People should be recognized as the gender they live in, regardless of whether they have undergone any type of surgery.

In Canadian academia, discrimination against Indigenous students can be seen in the form of faculty and professors being ignorant of Indigenous values and teachings.

The lack of early and empathetic education surrounding the legacy of the Indigenous populations of Canada results in a generational ignorance of the hardships they have endured, which has produced teachers who are unable to fully sympathize with Indigenous students and peers who have biased or racist perceptions of the culture.

Lack of understanding and silent discrimination can further widen the disconnect Indigenous students may experience. A radio panel discussion points out how professors are sometimes unintentionally known to single out Indigenous student(s). There have been instances when a class has had one or a few Indigenous students, and the prof would be quick to openly ask the student their opinion on an Indigenous matter. In this way, some students may feel obligated to be a voice for their people. Canada, as a whole, should consider it critically important to understand Indigenous rights and values by taking part in cultural initiatives. At Queen’s, the university hosts Indigenous Roundtable Discussions, known as Understanding through Learning, discussion as well as various Indigenous ceremonies.

 

Human Rights at Work

During my undergrad, I completed one of my co-op placements at a pharmaceutical company that had dangerously poor and inadequate lab equipment. Toxic chemicals were transferred and handled without a proper fume hood, and training was next to negligible. Strangely, I did not realize at first the severity of the situation. I just assumed that the scientists and seniors at the company knew better, and being a student, I felt incompetent to question the working conditions. It was upon discussion with the peers and co-op coordinators did I realize how unsafe the working conditions were. Luckily, my university was quick to intervene and find me a different placement once I voiced my concerns. It is important to voice safety concerns and to question working conditions or procedures.

I know that students can experience conflict with their supervisors with respect to the expected time at work and unreasonable deadlines. Students in these situations should be aware of their rights regarding the length of work periods.  As per the Employment Standards Act, an employee should not work continuously without a 30-minute meal break free from work. Usually, an employee should get a minimum of 11 consecutive hours off work daily.

Moreover, most workplace training programs are also online these days. The employer may ask you to complete it from home. It is essential to know that any mandatory training must be counted as work time. For example, new hire training, training required for continued employment, or training required by law counts towards your weekly allotment of work hours.

Your guide to the Employment Standards Act by Ontario.ca is a great resource for work-related rights and responsibilities.

Tenant Rights

Rental housing is a popular housing choice for University students. Discussions with my peers made me realize that awareness of the following aspects of the Residential Tenancies Act may be helpful in certain rental situations;

A landlord of a rental unit shall pay interest to the tenant annually on the amount of the rent deposit at a rate equal to the guideline determined under section 120 that is in effect at the time payment becomes due.  2006, c. 17, s. 106 (6).

The guideline is set each year by the Ministry of Housing. If the landlord refuses to pay the interest, the tenant can deduct the interest owed from the future rent, or file a Tenant Application for a Rebate.

Here’s an example of how to calculate the interest owed on the last month’s rent deposit

There also tends to some confusion around renting with pets. Section 14 of the Residential Tenancies Act states that “A provision in a tenancy agreement prohibiting the presence of animals in or about the residential complex is void.”

This means that the landlords are free to screen and reject prospective tenants that they suspect may move in with pets or may have pets in the future. But once a tenant signs and enters a rental agreement, the landlord cannot evict the tenant for pet ownership.

There are some exceptions where landlords have the right to evict tenants, for example, due to allergies or in case of troublesome pets.

Need legal help or advice?

If you require legal assistance, you may wish to contact the Queen’s Legal Aid which provides a wide range of free legal services for Queen’s University students, including attending courts and tribunals. Law Society of Ontario Referral Service is another way to get legal help. The Law Society Referral Service will get you in touch with a lawyer who meets your needs within 3 business days, which will provide a free consultation of up to 30 minutes. If you’re in crisis and need immediate help then instead of using the online referral form, call Law Society Referral Service at 1-855-947-5255.

It is a good first step to do online research regarding a legal situation you may find yourself in. But there are often loopholes or local variations of the law. The way the laws and legal rights are written also makes it difficult at times to determine their applicability to a specific situation.

An efficient and reliable way to seek clarification and validation is to just call relevant community contacts. And it is most often free! I have many times seen a variation in opinions and advice between public services, such as police services, collision centers, insurance companies, and lawyer offices. So it is always a good idea to get multiple opinions.

Overall, it is important for University students to understand these relevant laws and their personal rights in these all too common situations. Having some background knowledge of the appropriate processes and resources will be helpful if you should find yourself in a bad situation and will help you to navigate the issue beyond any initial emotional reactions or clouded judgment.

 

Below are some great resources and support systems available for Queen’s students:

Student Wellness Services – in particular the SGS embedded counselors who work with graduate students only: http://www.queensu.ca/studentwellness/home

Student Community Relations for questions around housing and tenant rights:  https://www.queensu.ca/studentcommunityrelations/home

The SGPS peer advisor program: https://sgps.ca/paa/

Queen’s Human Rights Office: http://www.queensu.ca/humanrights/home

Queen’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Support: https://www.queensu.ca/sexualviolencesupport/home

Office of Faith and Spiritual Life: https://www.queensu.ca/faith-and-spiritual-life/home

SGS Habitat, a resource-hub on the SGS website: https://www.queensu.ca/sgs/habitat

 

Posted in Community, General, Kingston, New Students, Orientation, Student Perspective, Women Tagged with: , , , , ,

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