David O’Brien, Róisín Hennessy, Marika Giles Samson, John Hursh, and Claris Harbon
David O’Brien (middle), with O’Brien Fellows Róisín Hennessy, Marika Giles Samson (back row) and John Hursh and Claris Harbon (front row).

Justice for an unjust world

It’s the stuff of nightmares. Imagine working 10-hour days, six days a week at a food processing plant for a mere $8 an hour, and then having most of your meager wages clawed back for meals, a bed, even pillows and sheets. As if this weren’t bad enough, that bed is crammed into a tiny bunkhouse shared by 36 people. For Chiraphon Phaiphae and 18 other Thai immigrants, this nightmare came true. For two years, this was Chiraphon’s reality – and it took place right here in Canada.

“The migrant worker situation in Canada exemplifies some of the core ethical and philosophical issues at the heart of our legal system, which is why it’s so important to me” says Bethany Hastie, a doctoral student at McGill’s Faculty of Law who studies Canada’s Stream for Lower-skilled Occupations, one of three mechanisms by which individuals qualify for Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Hastie has long harbored an interest in issues of justice and advocacy. After being inspired by the example of the strong, justice-minded community leaders that she encountered as a young person, she decided that law school was the best way for her to make a meaningful contribution to vulnerable individuals and communities. After completing her law degree, she decided to continue her studies at the Doctoral level, and was able to do so thanks to an O’Brien Graduate Fellowship.

Established through a gift from David O’Brien, BCL’65, the Fellowships support outstanding graduate students studying human rights and legal pluralism in the Faculty of Law. “Realistically, the fellowship made a huge difference in my ability to take up doctoral studies,” she says.

O’Brien Fellows operate within McGill’s renowned Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism (CHRLP), where philanthropy has played a big part in supporting a wide range of programs dedicated to the study of human rights in communities around the world. This includes one of the Centre’s most high-profile activities: the internationally recognized Echenberg Family Conferences on Human Rights. The Conferences, created through a $1-million gift from Gordon Echenberg, BA’61, BCL’64, and his wife, Penny Echenberg, bring together academics, policy-makers, community organizations and others to address critical issues at the intersection of the law and human rights.

The Echenbergs’ generous support also brings together young leaders working in human rights around the world, creating amongst them a network of Echenberg Fellows, who meet regularly to network and exchange ideas. “For us, this is not a donation,” says lawyer Gordon Echenberg. “It is an investment in an innovative McGill outreach program that will have practical and positive results. If just one of these young leaders makes a difference in the world, then both we and McGill will have succeeded.”

Hastie calls the CHRLP “an amazing environment, where people take a very progressive view on social justice. Engaging with other researchers whose work has common themes is really helping me grow as an academic.”

For Chiraphon Phaiphae, justice finally came in 2011, when she and her fellow workers were deemed victims of human trafficking, and were given permission to remain in Canada.

For Hastie and her fellow students within the CHRLP, along with the generous donors who support them, such success stories are inspiration enough to continue their efforts to make sure the law supports human rights in Canada and around the world.