Social Distance ≠ Extinguished Connections


Social Distance ≠ Extinguished Connections

On March 13th, 2020, the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic (“ICLC”) transitioned from a predominantly in-person clinic to a primarily remote legal clinic as the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic was realized by the University of British Columbia and the legal community. At first glance, it appeared that this move may jeopardize the already meagre access to legal services sought by Indigenous peoples — a conundrum that had been compounded by the onset of the Federal Indian Day School Class Action Settlement (“FIDSCAS”) — however, this proved not to be the case.

As the ICLC commenced its navigation of the uncharted territory of remote clinical work, the immediate challenges regarding serving a marginalized population became wholly apparent. First, how does one serve an individual struggling with homelessness, colonization, and no access to technology? Second, how does one provide effective counsel to a uniquely traumatized client such as an Indian Day School survivor?

With respect to the first quandary, the ICLC quickly realized that there are limitations to the social distance that can be placed between counsel and the most disadvantaged population of Canada. Simply put, access to legal assistance is not possible without the opportunity to interact in a physical space for those who have been most impacted by the pandemic, such as those finding refuge in makeshift shelters within the doorways of buildings on a frigid night. Sadly, this is a grim actuality in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside where the ICLC operates in the physical realm.

Consequently, one must consider the challenges of serving marginalized peoples. For instance, consider the hindrances with distributing a letter to a client with no fixed address. Also, contemplate the difficulty of prospective clients to complete an intake when they have no access to a phone. The solution? Scale back in-person interactions and employ rigorous safety protocols such as physical barriers, mandatory masks, and a meticulous cleaning regimen — walk-in clients are a reality.

Regarding the second issue, how does one offer effective legal support to those who have suffered the odious effects of the colonial project? With FIDSCAS underway, the ICLC quickly realized that the process suffered many of the same shortcomings as analogous class action settlements such as the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, and saw that there was significant demand for assistance with the traumatic process in which claimants are forced to revisit the atrocities of their lives by collecting a suite of narratives, medical records, and attendance records, or to settle for a quick $10,000 payout by selecting a level-1 harm, which requires nothing of the sort.

This work is demanding, labour intensive, and calls for a trauma-informed approach; and, although it may be argued that this heavy work is best conducted face to face, by virtue of the pandemic, the ICLC discovered that this vital work can still be undertaken in a safe and effective manner via digital platforms and telecommunication. Concomitantly, the reliance on remote practices highlighted the ability of the ICLC to expand its reach throughout British Columbia and beyond. Accordingly, clients have been provided with access to legal services that, but for COVID-19, may not have been available to them.

Establishing a meaningful connection with clients is foundational to the practice of law — particularly when one’s clients are perpetually suffering from the malignant impacts of colonization. Bearing this in mind, while it is true that a few FIDSCAS claimants preferred to postpone work on their claims until such a time that COVID-19 restrictions have lifted, the vast majority of claimants have chosen to continue on with the process with many finding it beneficial to share their stories from the comfort of their own homes where they can easily be supported by their loved ones, and finding that their connection with counsel still runs deep.