“A lot of it has to do with the home I grew up in — we had the [Canadian] Bill of Rights followed by the [Canadian] Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] on our family room wall,” she says.
Her father was a union rep who worked for a large automotive company at the time. “It wasn’t a very diverse workforce, so he always had some experiences that were fairly unique to someone who was black and male,” she says. “He would tell us about advocating for your rights.”
She remembers well the spring of 1973. He was off with a back injury and as an eight-year-old girl she was heading outside to play one day when her father stopped her and said, “There is something important happening in the world right now — it is called the Watergate scandal — the Congressional hearings are on television and you should really be watching them so you understand the politics of the United States and how it affects the politics of Canada.”
Dwyer sat down and together they watched the Watergate hearings. “I remember him telling me that [counsel to Richard Nixon] John Ehrlichman was not a very good lawyer and that I could be a much better advocate than he was. I look back and realize I grew up in a home where my father really respected the law and felt it was the avenue for you to express your rights and you shouldn’t be afraid to do so,” she says. “I feel those were the drivers. It all seeped into my consciousness from a lot of his own words.”
Dwyer, who is an assistant deputy minister at the Indigenous Education and Well Being division at the Ontario Ministry of Education and founder of the Black Female Lawyers Network, would go on to study economics and political science, earning a bachelor of arts degree from McGill University, and then going on to graduate from the University of Windsor Law School.
Her career in the Ontario public service began in 1991 as assistant Crown attorney at the Ministry of the Attorney General and later expanded to conducting drug prosecutions for the federal Department of Justice. In 2006, she became counsel for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and, three years later, was promoted to legal director.
Before going to the Ministry of Education in 2016, Dwyer was assistant deputy minister, Public Safety Training Division, at the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Her role included oversight of the Ontario Police College and the development and co-ordination of training across the Ontario Fire College and Ontario Correctional Services College.
She was also part of the team supporting the largest policing transformation in Ontario, the “Strategy for a Safer Ontario,” which was focused on the professionalization, education and training of police officers.
It is with this combination of experience that Dwyer now faces perhaps one of the biggest challenges educators and legal professionals face in Ontario.
Her focus at the Ministry of Education is on equity of opportunity for all students. “I’m not talking about just supporting academic achievement but looking at their well-being — cognitive, social, emotional, physical and as much as you can do that in the elementary and secondary, it also opens opportunities for them in post-secondary.”
Dwyer says that, by 2031, 40 per cent of the population of Ontario will be racial minorities and the fastest-growing group will be indigenous. “To a certain degree, the way that our demographics are unfolding, there isn’t room for divisive voices because everywhere you turn you will be seeing people from all sorts of different backgrounds. That will be Ontario,” she says.
The indigenous education office is focused on commitment to indigenous learners not only from the perspective of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but also a commitment to ensure that everyone — teachers, educators and other students — become more knowledgeable of the culture and history of the First Nations, Metis and Inuit populations. “That is another way of neutralizing some of the negative voices,” Dwyer says.
One of her main areas of focus right now is on indigenous students, especially the Nishnawbe Aski Nation students of Thunder Bay, and commitments for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Seven First Nations students have died in Thunder Bay since 2000. They were forced to leave home to pursue a high school education because their own communities don’t have high schools.
“There are a lot of issues about any student that has to leave home after Grade 8 to go into the urban centres. It’s hard to imagine that’s the province we all live in. I think partly the schools are underfunded, but it’s not a safe community from the perspective of crime and racism, so the province has announced some crisis funding,” she says.
Her day job is a big one, but Dwyer also remains passionate about developing the careers of young women lawyers, which is why she established the Black Female Lawyers Network, a registered not-for-profit, in 2006.
“I began the Black Female Lawyers Network because when I was called to the bar I, too, had some unique experiences, just like my dad, because of the intersection of race and gender and wanted to talk to another black female lawyer about it. I was a bit perturbed that those more senior lawyers hadn’t approached me,” she says.
This year, Dwyer was one of seven women honoured by the YWCA Toronto as a 2017 Woman of Distinction for her work helping women and girls.
Dwyer says she is supportive of the recent decision by the Toronto District School Board to suspend until at least November a program from 2008 that put armed police officers in three-dozen Toronto public schools. Activist groups such as Black Lives Matter Toronto had been demanding the program be scrapped to address anti-black racism in the school system.
“There are many programs and supports that were either born of or impacted by the tragic death of Jordan Manners at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate and were important to put in place so students could be safe and have an opportunity to learn, but that is almost 10 years ago,” she says.
Dwyer believes it is a good opportunity, whether it comes by a way of agreement or disagreement of parties, to rethink and re-evaluate the program in current circumstances and by asking good questions such as: What do you really need in a school to keep it safe? Is the presence of a police officer what is needed or is it another type of professional? Is there another way for police services to have contact with students to build a relationship?
“I’m always happy to see the voices of students, of which Black Lives matter is one of those, and parents, because it informs you that there are times when you have to rethink,” she says. “The voices are very clear — whether you agree or disagree, there are a number of parents and community members who don’t want that. At the very least, that should attract a level of inquiry to find out if their views should cause a different way to implement this or not at all.”
Dwyer says she also receives many ad hoc requests for mentoring as a senior member of the public service.
“I get a lot of job applications from racialized people because they apply where they see they will be welcome. I always link that back to the profession and the importance that the profession have a contemporary composition that reflects the province of Ontario’s population,” she says.
Dwyer is hoping to see numbers rise for black female judges in the next 10 years. Currently, there are seven female black judges in Ontario.
Despite being a strong advocate of promoting more black women lawyers to the bench, Dwyer says she’s not interested in being a judge herself.
“I’m so reluctant to say no, but it’s not where I see my skills and competencies best used. I need the freedom to express myself and I think you lose that becoming a judge. You do as [assistant deputy minister], too, but I think I have more freedom than they do,” she says.
Editor's note: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to Denise Dwyer and not to her employer, organization, committee or other group.