Her speaking voice is nearly a whisper. But don’t be fooled. In a mere four years as counsel at the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Insiya Essajee has earned a reputation as a bruising defender of human rights. Her biggest legal achievement to date: forbidding Ontario prisons from placing the mentally ill into solitary confinement, except as a last resort. And the 31-year-old’s not done. There’s plenty of work left — like ending solitary confinement for all inmates. To any would-be social-justice warrior, Essajee’s track record and zeal make her a pretty perfect role model. So PrecedentJD sat down with the soft-spoken lawyer to learn about her career path, her work and what it’s like to handle heart-breaking cases.
As a law student, how strategic were you in making choices that would help you build a career in social justice?
I always knew I wanted a job that would contribute to my community. But if you want to do social-justice work, it’s hard. Students who want to work on Bay Street have the on-campus interview process, while students like me have no clear-cut path. Some clinics might have funding to hire a student one year, but not enough in the next. So I took courses in areas that interested me — like refugee law, children’s law and health law.
And it worked out. Today, you’re counsel at the Ontario Human Rights Commission, a pretty coveted job. What do you do there?
I’m involved in many aspects of the Commission’s work. One big thing we do at the Commission is watch what cases are filed with the human-rights tribunal. Then, when we see a major systemic discrimination issue at play, we intervene. But we can also start our own human-rights claims. And we sometimes throw the full weight of our resources behind our cases in order to push for some sort of systemic change.
You’ve done a lot of work on prison reform. Is that a good example of this process?
It’s a great one. We saw a claim come in from a woman with a mental illness who had spent more than 210 days in segregation — also known as solitary confinement — in an Ottawa prison. So we intervened to address the use of segregation on people with mental illness, particularly women.
And, in the end, you got the change you wanted. When we reached a settlement with the Ministry of Corrections, it agreed to only use segregation on prisoners with mental illness as a last resort. Now, it must look for alternatives, such as treatment.
Another big success for you involved a trans teenager playing youth hockey. Tell me about that case.
Here’s the backstory. A trans teenager, who played amateur hockey, alleged that he was kept from using the boys’ change room. At the time, Hockey Canada’s policy separated dressing rooms by anatomical sex, not gender identity. He didn’t feel like a meaningful part of his team, so he filed a human-rights claim.
And you intervened?
That’s right. We reached a settlement and, starting this fall, all Ontario youth hockey players will have access to change rooms according to their gender identity.
One of the tragedies of your work, it seems, is that someone — a mentally ill prisoner or a trans teenager — has to be a sacrificial lamb, and go through the hell of litigation, in order to push for change.
I wouldn’t use the phrase sacrificial lamb. These people choose to fight for change. Many even refuse to resolve their cases unless they see systemic changes, which is so inspiring. It takes so much courage. It’s not easy to be at the centre of a human-rights case.
How emotional is the work?
It can be really emotional. And it’s not always easy to leave work at the door. I was recently over at a friend’s house, relaxing, and we decided to watch Orange is the New Black. The episode touched on segregation in prisons and the challenges of being trans. And I started crying, at which point my friend said, “We are not watching this! This is supposed to be fun.” So it can be hard to let go.
Timeline of a young human-rights lawyer
2000: As a high school student, in Oakville, Ont., Essajee volunteers at the long-term care unit in a local hospital. “Many of the patients had dementia,” she recalls. “Between meals, they’d just be wheeled into the hallway. There was little programming or stimulation. So I’d do things like take them to the park or play cribbage.”
2003: Essajee starts her undergraduate degree in the arts and sciences program at McMaster University.
2008: Her first year of law school, at the University of Toronto, begins.
2009: In second year, she has a crisis of confidence. “I thought I wanted a career in social justice, but I saw all these intelligent, thoughtful peers going the Bay Street route. I wondered if I should be doing the same.” So she went to a few interviews with corporate firms. “But I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm. This reaffirmed that I wanted to do public-interest work.”
2011: Essajee articles at the Ontario Human Rights Commission and gets hired back at the end.
2016: After four years as counsel at the Commission, she’s had some big successes — a welcome surprise. “In law school, I heard a human-rights lawyer say, ‘If you want to work in human rights, accept that you may never see real change because it happens so slowly.’ To already see a few big changes is really meaningful.”