(The following account of last week’s hearing at the Supreme Court of the Quebec workers’ compensation appeal case and its personal significance is written by injured worker Sang Hun Mun with B. Lim)
It was Thursday, March 30th, 2017. More than 15 injured workers including me from all over Ontario (ONIWG), lawyers and organizers from IAVGO and IWC all travelled many miles to show support for the Supreme Court case in Ottawa. This case regarded whether employers were legally required to make necessary accommodations for workers injured on the job. It sure seemed like common sense to us. After several appeals, the case was now before the highest court in the land. It wasn’t my first time in Ottawa, but it was my first time going to the Supreme Court of Canada. Standing in front of it, I thought, “This is a big impressive building. Important decisions get made here.” I felt hopeful that change was possible and justice was within reach.
Why did I feel hopeful? It was the group I was with. It was our strength, our determination and our unity. This group of 15 injured workers had lived the experience; we had suffered the effects of a broken system for too long. We organized our lives to leave our families and our home for this trip, we got financial assistance to cover the costs, and we made a decision to overcome the discomforts and pain of travel because we knew what was on the line. We knew our presence would make a difference and our voices needed to be heard. The night before the hearing, our lawyers and organizers met with the injured workers for an educational session and discussion. The summary and details of the case were well explained by the IAVGO lawyers who were to present at the hearing. But it was the injured workers who raised so many great questions and made many insightful comments. It was clear to me that injured workers play a central role because our real lived experience gives us a deeper understanding of how the system actually works (or doesn’t work); the lawyers cannot fight this case without us.
Another reason I felt hopeful was this. During the hearing, I was listening to the lawyers from the employers’ side who dismissed any responsibility on the part of the employer to provide accommodation for the injured worker who wanted to return to their job. Those lawyers didn’t blink an eye as they argued: “It’s beyond the jurisdiction” and cited different sections of legislation to support their side. That was the law as they saw it. However, their arguments didn’t make any sense to me. While I was listening to them, I thought: “Who will help the injured worker if everyone closes the door?” To my utter surprise, one of the Supreme Court Justices stopped the lawyer and asked him that very same question! Not only did the justice know the law, they understood how the vulnerable felt and spoke up for those marginalized. This justice understood our pain. I was stunned and amazed.
I never thought I could change the system, but now I believe we can. But we have to stand as a united group and fight for a fairer system not just for ourselves, but for everyone. If we fight as individuals and for our individual case, we will be forever fighting. This is not just an injured workers fight for accommodation at work. It’s every worker’s right to have that protection. This affects all workers, our family and friends, our local communities and society as a whole. Therefore, we need to involve everyone in our community in this fight. Through public education, out reach efforts, protests and demonstrations, using social media and the internet, let’s raise awareness of these issues. These are issues people don’t think about until they themselves get injured on the job. Yes, there are many pieces that need to be coordinated to build a grassroots movement. Changing the system is not an easy task.
Changing the system will be a long battle. Injured workers are faced with many hurdles and plagued by a lot of stress, anger and other emotions. It’s so hard and it feels hopeless. We have to figure out how we can redirect this powerful energy in the right direction towards a solution. There is a line from a poem by Mary Oliver called “Wild Geese” that goes: “You don’t have to walk on your knees a hundred miles through the desert.” Yes, it’s a fight, but a fight for justice, a fight for what’s right, a fight for everyone’s benefit. I don’t want to die in this fight. Rather I want to laugh, dance, sing, and enjoy the fight together. Enjoy the fight together.