What Happens Next
Monday, Nov. 14 - 11:10 a.m. (Halifax, Nova Scotia)

Well, I'm back on Canadian soil and settling in to my regular work once again. We travelled home on Friday through Munich. In Montreal the team scattered to their respective cities, closing the chapter on this part of our mission.

It's hard to put into words these past two weeks. The long hours, language barriers‎ and occasionally tense moments were nothing compared to what I've learned and the opportunity to do some truly meaningful work.

And it's not over yet. In the coming weeks I'll be reviewing the list of action items ‎for Odessa and Ivano-Frankivsk to see what communications materials already exist, what will need to be adapted for use in the Ukrainian Courts and what documents we'll need to create.

I'm glad that I'll still be playing a part, albeit from the comfort of home. It's been amazing to meet so many wonderful, bright, warm people from around the world, a handful of which I'm sure to stay in touch with.

But quite frankly, it's nice to be back in Canada where our legal system fully embraces openness, transparency and fairness. Knowing that not everyone has it the same way makes you appreciate it that much more.

I'll be sure to touch base as our work continues. Until then, thanks for your interest‎ and for following along!

- Jennifer Stairs, Director of Communications


The Home Stretch
Wednesday, Nov. 9 - 7:15 p.m. (Lviv, Ukraine)


We just rolled in to Lviv after about a two-hour drive on winding, rainy roads. It's dark now but from what I saw earlier, the countryside was beautiful, dotted with small, rustic farmsteads and statuesque churches.

Lviv is small city, not unlike the neighbourhoods in Ivano-Frankivsk, located about 60 kilometres from the border with Poland. Here we'll be meeting with Judges from the Appeal Courts, which hear‎ many of the appeals in the Ivano-Frankivsk region).

Our last few roundtable discussions went well, although our conversations with lawyers and members of the local media yielded few suggestions on ways we can help. As I mentioned before, Ivano-Frankivsk is more advanced in terms of its court communications, but not quite to the level of the Courts in Nova Scotia or other areas of Canada.

Today's meeting with representatives from civil society was by far the most productive. I was surprised at the turnout - a crowd of 20 or so young to middle‎-aged men, individuals who were closely involved with the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 and more recently with the ongoing conflict with Russia.

It was an eclectic and vocal group, with members from anti-terrorism and anti-corruption groups, community activists, law and political science professors and even a city councillor. Most understood the role that civil society plays in building public confidence and they are eager to stand up for the Judiciary. Others were more focused on how to oust corrupt Judges, which is not the focus of our mission.

I have to give credit to the local Chief Justice, who sat in on all our meetings this week. I'm sure at times it wasn't easy, but he was quick to commit to ideas that could be implemented in the near future to improve openness and transparency, and ‎he promised to meet further with groups to discuss ideas for the longer term.

I'm off to grab a quick dinner and get some sleep. It's hard to believe we have only one more full day in Ukraine - I plan to make the most of it!

- Jennifer Stairs, Director of Communications

Progress Continues
Monday, Nov. 7 - 5:12 p.m.

Our time so far in Ivano-Frankivsk has been nothing short of wonderful, both our meetings with the Judges and our tour of the town on Sunday.

This is a small city of about 200,000 people, whose history and culture have been shaped by the Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish and Armenian communities. Formerly a part of Poland, they speak primarily Ukrainian here, although Russian is not uncommon.

This morning we were joined by the Mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk and the Governor for the Oblast. Both noted that in their conversations with residents, one of the primary concerns they heard about is trust in the Judiciary.

Fortunately in this region, they seem more established in terms of communications, at least compared to our experience in Odessa. With press secretaries already in place at some of the Courts, a "fire brigade" team that handles crisis communications, protocols for media relations and even criteria for identifying and preparing for what are expected to be high-profile cases, they are now looking to Canada for assistance to further improve communications with the public.

It helps that most of the Judges here recognize the importance of openness and transparency in the legal system. That meant much of our conversation today was focused on what they need and what help we can actually provide. We still need to speak this week with members of the Bar, civil society and the media, but it's safe to say that establishing a joint committee with journalists and developing materials to help educate the media on the role of the Judiciary and how the Courts work will be high on our list.

One thing I should note before signing off. We got great news today that we feel is at least partly due to our meetings in Odessa last week.

This morning 12 of the Chief Justices in the Odessa region held a joint press conference with media to openly discuss the situation in their Courts. The event is unprecedented in that area of Ukraine, and was welcomed by journalists.

Small steps, but progress all the same. Let's hope that continues this week. Talk soon!

- Jennifer Stairs, Director of Communications

 

The Halfway Point
Saturday, Nov. 5 - 8:32 a.m.

These last couple of days have been a bit of a blur, but an overwhelming success.

Thursday we met all day with members from civil society groups, including anti-corruption groups and public advocates, the equivalent of Legal Aid in Nova Scotia. They all seemed appreciative of the opportunity to share what they see as the problems in the system. But more importantly, they have some great ideas to improve communication and boost public confidence in Ukraine's judical institutions.

Friday morning was our first of two debrief sessions with the team. We've started to develop a list of action items for after the mission, things like developing communications protocols for Judge Speakers, training for press secretaries, templates for communications materials and a handbook for members of the media on legal system.

Later in the day we visited the Channel 7 television studio across town for a team interview on the mission, followed by another meeting with media, this time with the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine.

I feel this was a far more constructive conversation than earlier in the week, and they actually gave us heart-shaped lollipops as a thank-you! They also seem very committed to improving their relationship with the Judiciary and they're interested in setting up something like the Media Liaison Committee that we have in Nova Scotia.

Today is officially our last day in Odessa. We'll be flying to Ivano-Frankvisk this afternoon and we'll start it all again on Monday.

- Jennifer Stairs, Director of Communications

Breakthroughs
Wednesday, Nov. 2 - 11:08 p.m.

Today can only be described as exhausting, but productive. Whereas we met an entire day with the Judges yesterday, today was split into two sessions. We spent the morning with members of the Bar and in the afternoon we met with members of the Ukrainian media, our largest session and most lively discussion thus far.

The lawyers were enthusiastic and seemed grateful for the opportunity to share their ideas about strengthening the relationship between the Bar and the Judiciary. Members of the media, however, were understandably skeptical that their issues could be addressed. We were told by some that this is the first time in Ukraine's 25 years of independence that an international delegation such as ours has reached out to journalists.

After the initial airing of grievances - nothing we hadn't anticipated, really - we started to hear about the practical and logistical issues reporters have. Things like poorly trained press secretaries or no press secretaries at all, limited access to timely or accurate information about court cases, and little knowledge on the part of the journalists as to what court decisions mean and what details they can report on.

Many found it useful to hear about the success we've had in Canada, particularly Nova Scotia, with facilitating access for the media, and ensuring they play a part in establishing policies, such as the use of electronic devices and technology in courtrooms.

In the end, I think it was an eye-opening experience for everyone, and hopefully it sparks more conversation and ultimately changes in the years to come. After all, that is our intent.

Time now for some much-needed sleep, and tomorrow we do it all again, this time with representatives from civil society. Until tomorrow!

- Jennifer Stairs, Director of Communications

The Realities in Ukraine
Tuesday, Nov. 1 - 10:31 p.m.

I'm finally back at the hotel, going over our discussion with the Judges. Today really drove home for me the challenges facing the Ukrainian Judiciary and the Courts.

Fears of violence against the Judges and their families; verbal attacks delivered by senior elected officials; painfully low salaries and benefits—it’s no wonder there’s such a high turnover rate for Ukrainian Judges and their staff. And that means little experience on the Bench and a fading institutional memory.

There were roughly 20 Judges on hand today from all levels of court in Odessa. Many of them are also judge speakers who are expected to do media interviews.

I noticed right away that some in the room looked barely older than myself (Judges here can be appointed right out of law school). There were just as many women as men, and only one spoke English.

But what I noticed above all else was their pure emotion — the passion they have for their careers, their frustration over their inability to properly defend themselves in public, and their skepticism that anything can be done about it.

You see, it’s been five years since the country introduced a new system of selection and appointment of Judges to address allegations of widespread corruption. Now it’s true, some corruption is a reality in the courts, just as it is in the rest of government, but in many instances Judges are being used as scapegoats.

This perception is not going to change overnight, but as I talked about in my PRESENTATION >> there are incremental steps that can help, some of which they’re already experimenting with.

It will be interesting to see the action plans that start to develop from these conversations, and how the Ukrainian Judges adapt the Canadian approach to their unique situation.

Tomorrow we meet in the morning with members of the Bar, and the afternoon is a workshop with Ukrainian media. It should be another interesting day.

- Jennifer Stairs, Director of Communications

It's Game Time
Monday, Oct. 31 - 10:37 p.m.

Our first full day is under our belts and the team is feeling good about the days ahead. Tomorrow we meet with Judges of the Odessa District Administrative Court and their press secretaries.

Our program kicks off with Chief Justice MacDonald talking about the balance between judicial independence and judicial accountability in Canada. It's a topic he's spoken on many times before and touched on briefly during his first visit to Ukraine in the spring.

I will follow with a presentation on public and media relations in Canada, particularly the unique approach taken in Nova Scotia through the Executive Office. My objective is to show how the open courts principle and strong working relationships with the media can enable more accurate reporting and higher public confidence in the Judiciary and the Courts.

Professor Peter Solomon of the University of Toronto will expand on that topic by looking at public and media relations in other areas of Europe. Finally, Justice Mary Moreau will outline the problems and opportunities identified during the May mission, which will kick off the guided discussions in the afternoon.

It's going to be a full day, and a fascinating one. I'm looking forward to sharing the highlights with you! Until then, have a wonderful night.

- Jennifer Stairs, Director of Communications

Getting Down to Business
Monday, Oct. 31 - 1:45 p.m

Our work got off to a roaring start this morning at the hotel in Odessa.

The Canadian members for this mission had the opportunity to meet our Ukrainian partners, who will be helping on the ground over the next two weeks. Among them is Professor Mykhailo Buromensky, a member of the Constitutional Commission and president of the Institute of Applied Humanitarian Research.

His insight and vast experience has already been a huge help in tailoring our presentations to the different audiences we'll be speaking with, and also to reflect the current political situation and other realities here in Ukraine.

It was an incredibly enlightening experience for me to learn about the differences between the Canadian and Ukrainian courts, and also how the media operates in both countries. It was especially interesting to hear that members of the media were somewhat puzzled as to why they would be included in dicsussions about court communications. More on that later.

For now I have to run, my tour bus and the beautiful city of Odessa awaits!

- Jennifer Stairs, Director of Communications

The Odessa Dilemma
Sunday, Oct. 30 - 9:44 p.m.

After a lovely dinner at a traditional Ukrainian restaurant in town, I'm getting ready to turn in for the night. But first I thought I'd share an interesting tidbit that we learned this afternoon, which solved a little dilemma I'd been having.

In the weeks leading up to this trip, I struggled with whether to spell Odessa with one 's' or two. A seemingly insignificant detail but I'd seen it spelled both ways and I wanted to ensure I got it right in our communications materials.

In the end I opted for the longer version, as it seemed to be the most common. I learned today from Oleg that the city's name is originally Greek, spelled "Odessa". Translated into English and Russian, that spelling is consistent; it was only after Ukraine gained it's independence from Russia in 1991 that the country adaped its own spelling with only one 's'. Hence the different spelling here in town.

For my purposes, I plan to stick with the English version, but it's good to have that little mystery cleared up. Goodnight for now!

- Jennifer Stairs, Director of Communications


First Impressions
Sunday, Oct. 30 - 3:50 p.m. (Odessa, Ukraine)

Well, we made it, and we’re no worse for wear. A long day of traveling but everything went smoothly and we’re now settled at the hotel in Odessa.

We received a warm greeting at the airport from a small group led by The Honourable Oleg Glukhanchuk, Chief Justice of the Odessa District Administrative Court, where our meetings will be held throughout the first week of the mission.

The Chief Justice speaks no English, but was quick with a smile and a hearty handshake. Oleg Shakov, the head of our Canadian delegation, speaks Russian and quickly translated our appreciation. They’ve met before, during meetings in May, and they are clearly pleased
to reunite, as is Justice Mary Moreau from our group, who also visited in the spring.

With introductions under our belt and our luggage safely tucked in the trunk of the van, we were off, whisking through the busy streets of Odessa.

It’s a cool fall day, much like at home in Halifax this time of year. The scenery is quite industrial, a lot of metal, rust and graffiti. But small markets dot the sidewalks, adding
splashes of colour. Justice Moreau points out landmarks along the route, including a
beautiful, sprawling train station not far from our hotel.

It’s a lot to take in, especially on little sleep. But I’m looking forward to exploring later. We plan to meet up for a walk and dinner in a couple of hours, once we adjust to the time difference. We’re five hours ahead of Atlantic Canada.

Tomorrow we meet to go through our presentations before the meetings begin on Tuesday. I’ll check in, hopefully with photos, later on Monday.

- Jennifer Stairs, Director of Communications


The Journey
Saturday, Oct. 29 - 2:40 p.m. (Halifax, Nova Scotia)

Today is the day. It only really dawns on me as I’m sitting at the gate at the Halifax airport, waiting to board the plane for Toronto. This time tomorrow Chief Justice Michael MacDonald and I will be in Odessa, Ukraine, with the rest of the team from across Canada.

It will be the start of two weeks of meetings, presentations and discussions with judges, lawyers, journalists and citizens, all part of a larger project to help rebuild trust and confidence in Ukraine’s judicial institutions.

I have to admit, it’s still a bit much to wrap my head around it. This is no small task and these two weeks are only a small dent in what will eventually be four years of work. But like the Chief has been saying, you have to start somewhere.

This trip will focus primarily on communications, which is what I do. I’ll be speaking about how public and media relations works in Canada, and how some of those ideas and tools could be adopted in Ukraine. I’m quite excited about it, now that the weeks of preparation have come to an end.

Our meetings start Tuesday and I will do my best to post regularly on this page about what we’re up to. You can also follow my tweets on the Courts main Twitter account @CourtsNS_News >> with the hashtag #Ukraine.

It’s getting close to boarding time, so I’m going to sign off. More tomorrow, when we arrive Odessa. Until then, enjoy your weekend!

- Jennifer Stairs, Director of Communications