Living on the Edge at the Equal Justice Summit

Last week I had the good fortune to have attended the Canadian Bar Association’s Envisioning Equal Justice Summit: Building Justice for Everyone in Vancouver. Many participants live-tweeted sessions and otherwise engaged in #equaljustice discussions. The summit culminated in a compilation, by the participants, of ideas and concrete strategies for legal and justice system reform. These will be presented in a report to the full conference of the CBA with a plan for implementation. I’ll write about highlights in subsequent posts over the coming weeks. Others have written, here and elsewhere, for example, about the stimulating event as well.

The summit opened with an intense simulation in which participants lived a month, compressed to an hour, in the shoes of families living at or below the poverty line: See my Storify for a glimpse. Through role-playing, we experienced systemic problems of daily life for many fellow citizens. We saw how unexpected legal issues can severely compound already troubling circumstances and upset the precarious balance with which many families live. We felt the consequent frustrations families in challenging positions might face in navigating the justice system.

This exercise was extremely challenging and highly effective. Our “family” experienced confusion in trying to figure out how to budget and prioritize the small funds and time we had available to accomplish what we needed to do for daily life. My role was the adult child and acting head of this single-parent family while the father was incarcerated. The experience was shockingly real – I felt genuine frustration develop at being told “no” repeatedly and, it seemed, unreasonably, at having to make regular fruitless trips, at encountering hurdle after hurdle. I was embarrassed to have had my younger sister expelled from school in her first week under my care, though secretly relieved that she could then stay home and take care of the toddler while I tried to get utilities paid and cheques cashed.

I was likewise amazed to see generosity arise from others, often spontaneously – for example, a donation of a scarce “transportation pass” to allow a trip to the bank, or being given a food or utilities voucher by a little-known resource centre.

The experience of others seemed similarly real. The volunteers who played mercilessly rule-abiding bankers or unreasonable and illegitimate mortgage brokers offered kind and apologetic words and smiles throughout the rest of the summit.

Normally role-playing and simulations are not my thing. Though I usually opt to observe from afar, I decided to participate in the simulation. I’m glad I did: Not only did I get the full flavour of the evening and absorb the tone for the conference, I also had a brief occasion to walk, as they say, a mile in another’s shoes.


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