Maroussia Lévesque / From Working on Gender-Based Violence in Haiti to Exploring the Impact of Technology on Civil Liberties

After graduating from Concordia University with a B.F.A. in Computation Arts, Maroussia lead teams of designers, artists and programmers at the Obx lab for experimental media. She graduated from the McGill Law Faculty in 2012. During her studies, she researched stem cell innovation and intellectual property at the Center for Genomics and Policy. Following a two-year clerkship with Quebec’s Chief Justice at the Court of Appeal, she spent six months in Haiti working on gender-based violence and pre-trial detention. Having recently completed a mandate at the Quebec inquiry commission on the electronic surveillance of journalists, she pursues her interest in the impact of technologies on civil liberties. Stay up to date with @_m_a_r_o_u_ on twitter!

Let’s start with the basics. Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?

No. Coming from a background in interactive arts and critical theory, I chose the Faculty of Law to understand the grammar of power. Somewhat naïvely, I thought I could subvert it. I didn’t intend to practice law initially. But I found intellectually satisfying opportunities within the field.

I learned about judicial decision-making while clerking at the Court of Appeal. As volunteer legal counsel in Haiti, I grappled with, then leveraged, my white lawyer privilege in criminal defense efforts.

I keep a healthy dose of criticism about whether law changed me more than I changed it. It’s an ongoing dance, a healthy struggle. I saw a lot of people going in wanting to work in human rights / social justice only to end up golden handcuffed in corporate jobs. It’s important to be clear about your metrics for professional fulfillment. And that requires perspective, a really hard feat when working in a fast-paced environment.

What did the journey from big law to your lawfully uncommon career look like?

Five years after graduation, I’m still figuring out how much I want to be embedded in the system. I like how effective you can be in litigation. I also cherish the freedom that comes with operating in more peripheral spaces like academia (#sorrynotsorry). I’m moving towards more speculative/activist stuff now, with graduate studies on the horizon. I’m interested in civil liberties in technologically-mediated environments, namely how data mining dovetails with privacy and equality protections.

What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?

A fascinating exam question in Property Law by professor Piper: who owns placenta? Professor Campbell, who managed to make Wills and Estates interesting, and so many other spectacular professors. It was an outstanding education.

The Christie Bike Ride, a tradition honouring struggles for social justice, where we get to put our money and quads where our mouths are (that sounds weird).

During opening remarks for a debate tournament in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where Maroussia was a member of the jury.

During opening remarks for a debate tournament in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where Maroussia was a member of the jury.

What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?

Face-value judgements ignoring structural inequalities definitely made my blood boil. A lot of oppressive, majority-centered ideology went unquestioned in course content and discussions. In second year, I made a deal with a few classmates to speak up once a week when such content came up.

It seemed like the Faculty was committed to diversity on paper, but the real life dynamics often pit a token minority (racial minorities, LGBT+, etc) against the group. There weren’t a lot of woke people to commiserate/strategize with. While there were pockets of resistance, such as student-led seminars and art shows, I wondered if the Faculty walked the walk on its commitment to diversity. At any rate, I found the dynamic draining and chose to put my energy elsewhere. In the long run, the ideological rigidity I struggled against gave me the strength to defend my point of view.

Do you still see law all around you?

Yes. The formal training gave me the power to articulate injustice. The informal training, in the form of feeling like the underdog at the Faculty, provided me a sensibility to the (over)power of law to prevail and coopt worldviews.

I try to be careful when exchanging with people from other disciplines (or laymen as we problematically call them), not to talk law at them. Lawyers have a tendency to think they’re always right – a pre-existing condition for many of us – that gets amplified with the social status.

You are at a coffee house speaking to a first-year law student. What advice would you give them? 

 I’m not at coffee house. I’m having lunch or 5 à 7, reminding her of life outside the Faculty. At the commencement speech, my cohort was told to keep doing what we were doing before law school. That’s excellent advice I ignored to my own detriment. I’d remind her that the Faculty selected her because she does amazing things outside core studies. First year was an overwhelmingly steep curve and I couldn’t find the confidence to keep being awesome. You have to learn to work smart early on to still feed your soul.

All smiles after 70 kilometres of cycling at the 2011 Christie Bike Ride.

All smiles after 70 kilometres of cycling at the 2011 Christie Bike Ride.

What does a day in your life look like? Give us the rundown!

 I alternate between high intensity marathons and deep recuperation.

Up until recently, I was at the Inquiry Commission on the Protection of Journalist Sources. I’d get there around 7h30 / 8h to prep for the hearings, then put out fires throughout the day and squeeze a few more hours of work in the evening when things got more quiet. I’d go for drinks, late dinner or a show at least twice a week (weeks sometimes being 6 days affairs), and workout also least twice a week. I ate a lot of frozen lasagna.

I just returned from Toronto where I gave a workshop on algorithmic accountability at the Citizen Lab Summer Institute. I’m scheduled to give a workshop on safe sexting soon.

I’m now entering an explorative phase, planning my next move. I’ve learned to tolerate uncertainty and wait out for the right opportunity. It’s very exciting and a little scary. In the morning I read scholarly articles about topics of interests for my thesis such as artificial intelligence ethics, mass surveillance, and constitutional protection in the realm of data mining / analysis. In the afternoon I work on grant applications and try to blog. In the evening, I live. Sometimes, I do nothing and the best things happen.

If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?

Teach myself AI / relearn Arabic / read Bill C-59. 

Any regrets? (Yeah, we are retrospective like that).

I made lifelong friends, learned from excellent professors, and settled a few scores on the dance floor. As time passes, I reap more and more benefits from my time at the Faculty and its challenges fade away.