BCAHA News: Hello. Thank you for this opportunity to ask you a few questions. In October, you were the keynote speaker at BCAHA’s Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley Areas joint conference. How did you enjoy that experience?
Laura Track: It was a wonderful experience! The audience seemed very engaged and interested in the material – which is, of course, the best kind of audience. I especially appreciated all of the thoughtful questions.
Have you had previous experience with healthcare auxiliaries or with other non-profit organizations?
I’ve been fortunate to work in legal non-profits for my entire legal career. The Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS), where I work now, is a non-profit and has been delivering free legal services to low-income people in BC since 1971. We’re funded through a variety of sources: government, granting organizations, and private donations. Working in non-profits has meant that I’ve had the opportunity to build skills in fundraising and communications, with the goal of trying to get people involved and interested in our work. Things I definitely didn’t learn in law school! Also, my Nana volunteered with the hospital auxiliary in Richmond. I remember pushing the snack and gift cart around the hospital with her when I was a kid! They called them “candy stripers” back then.
Your Nana memory is special and likely left a positive impression about volunteerism. Candy stripers are still in service but other uniform colours and titles such as “youth volunteer,” “junior volunteer” and “volunteen” have become popular. Speaking of change, you are not only a human rights lawyer but also an educator. How do these roles interrelate?
I think that human rights education is absolutely critical to building a rights-respecting culture. As a lawyer, I see so many cases where an employer or other service provider just did not know how, for example, to accommodate a disabled employee or customer, or didn’t know that they had that legal obligation. When people understand their responsibilities under human rights law, they can take proactive steps to make sure they’re meeting those responsibilities. This will mean a lot fewer human rights complaints coming across my desk. I also know that many people experience discrimination and don’t know where to turn. So educating people about their rights, and the tools that exist to help them exercise those rights, is very important to me.
Are there areas of human rights law and advocacy that volunteer organizations should be aware of?
Volunteer organizations should be aware that the Human Rights Code applies to them – all organizations have responsibilities not to discriminate against volunteers, employees, customers, and others accessing their services.
Many of our healthcare auxiliaries own or operate thrift stores. How does the BC Human Rights Code apply to them as businesses and, in some cases, as employers?
A thrift store is, in the language of the Human Rights Code, a “service customarily available to the public.” As a “service customarily available to the public,” a thrift store has a legal obligation to provide its services in a non-discriminatory way. This means treating customers with dignity and respect; accommodating people with disabilities to the extent it’s possible, and ensuring a discrimination-free workplace for all volunteers and staff.
In your presentation, you pointed out that accommodation relates to needs, not wants. You also cited a Supreme Court of Canada quote: “Accommodation of difference is the essence of true equality.” Could you please elaborate?
Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that just treating everyone the same will lead to equality. But it doesn’t – it can’t! – because we are not all the same. We all have different starting points, and different strengths and challenges. We have different needs. Some people are Deaf. Some people use wheelchairs. Some people have cognitive impairments and mental health conditions and arthritis and the list goes on. We can’t treat all these people the same and imagine that somehow, that will lead to equality. If we want to bring about true equality, we have to accommodate and adjust for those differences. We need to provide Sign language interpreters if we want people who are Deaf to enjoy the presentation equally. We need to build ramps and spaces designed to fit wheelchairs if we want people with disabilities to be able to access public facilities. We need to simplify our language if we want people with cognitive impairments to be able to understand. These kinds of accommodation are not rocket science. Provided that we listen to people with disabilities – who are the experts on what they need in order to thrive – promoting equality and fairness doesn’t have to be difficult or costly.
We live in an increasingly diverse and multicultural society. In learning more about the rights and values of others, in what ways can these obligations also be seen as opportunities?
Promoting inclusion and a culture of mutual respect has value in its own right. It’s an opportunity to think about the world from someone else’s point of view. It’s also increasingly being demonstrated through research and study that inclusive and diverse workplaces are more profitable! They retain their staff longer, have happier and more productive workers, enjoy the benefits of a diverse range of perspectives and ideas…diversity is a real strength, in our workplaces and our communities.
You have an interesting and varied biography that includes legal work, community involvement, and studying at Oxford University. What motivated you to pursue this field of human rights law?
I love working with people to help them solve their problems. I know what a difference it can make to have an advocate on your side when you’re dealing with a difficult situation. It’s incredibly rewarding work and I’m grateful every day that I get to do it.
Thank you for sharing your time and insights with us.