Last month, Law Times reported an Ontario Court of Appeal decision upholding a finding of racial discrimination against the Peel Law Association. The story reminded us how the profession can still go out of its way to make some members feel unwanted. Like the case of Rosa Parks, the famous Alabama civil rights defender who refused to sit at the back of the bus, this proceeding involved seating.
In Peel Law Association v. Pieters, the courthouse law librarian challenged the right of three black lawyers to meet in the lawyers’ lounge. The absurd episode unfolded after the librarian got huffy about the lawyers’ rearrangement of some chairs. The librarian went up to Pieters and asked him for proof he was a lawyer. She then asked the same of the black members of his group. When asked whether she was going to ID others in the room, she refused, stating she knew everyone else was a lawyer. This statement was later proven false. There were, in fact, non-lawyers in the room.
That afternoon, association board members approved the posting of a new sign that stated:
Unless gowned, individuals must produce ID upon request
No Public Access
Peel Law Association
What would the sign have read, had Pieters been challenged at a drinking fountain?
To me, an unreported side story was that a Toronto-area law librarian failed to recognize Selwyn Pieters. In fairness, her failure to recognize him as a lawyer was not on the same scale as the Buckingham Palace security detachment who stopped Prince Andrew as an intruder, and told him, “Put your hands up and get on the ground.” No stranger to controversy, Pieters is a well-known “champion of the underdog” who could well emerge as the next Julian Falconer, Clayton Ruby, or Ujjal Dosanjh.
History brings you to where you belong
After reading this discouraging story, I enjoyed a chance meeting with a prominent judge, who asked for a copy of a brief speech I delivered at the 2010 Canadian Association of Black Lawyers fundraiser for Haiti disaster relief. That request made the original effort of preparing the speech worthwhile.
CABL is one of several niche bar associations that have sprung up in recent years to hasten the glacial speed of change in attitudes toward diversity in the Canadian legal profession. Like its counterparts, CABL invests heavily in the mentorship principle. A core of trailblazers who endured exclusion from the legal establishment now endeavours to teach new lawyers how to build self-confidence.
In addition to encouraging the generations that follow to “hang in there” and work hard, these mentors remind them not to turn their backs on their heritage. The experience of minority groups in law has been overlooked in the general law school curriculum. In Canada, this is the equivalent of omitting negligence law as a branch of torts. Some stories told at CABL gatherings are so moving the mentors get carried away and fail to deliver the message: The real reason for retelling an equity-seeking group’s story is to inspire belonging.
My three-minute speech for the Haiti relief fundraiser was on the origin of our duty as citizens of the Atlantic to bring law and order to the people of Haiti. It was certainly not without risk for a Japanese-Canadian addressing an audience comprised mostly of men and women of Caribbean origin. The difficult subtext, however, was one we often overlook. What the mentors within CABL and similar organizations provide to members of the bar from groups labeled as “other” in our society is reassurance they do belong and need not be impeded from serving the public in the world’s most prized calling.
Even those who did not snore through high school history and geography classes need to plug themselves into the reality that North America, in all its prosperity and challenge, is founded on the traffic of people and resources across two oceans. That anyone should be made to feel, by dint of personal characteristics, less entitled than others to a place in a profession whose mission is justice, is not only wrong; it is historically incorrect.
By rights, the descendants of sufferers of humanity’s darkest moments have access to experiential understanding of the very problems the law is supposed to solve. It may be unrealistic to eliminate overnight every disadvantage to entry and success in our profession. However, instilling lawyers from equity-seeking groups with the confidence to prosper and effectively serve the public is entirely feasible. It starts with taking an interest in a lawyer’s background.
Learn, as I did when researching a speech for a Haiti relief fundraiser, how the wealth of the community in which we live is connected to Haiti’s unresolved historical conflicts. The present-day plight of Haiti and the African communities that once fed its working population represent consequences of interrupted human development. I imagined what would happen if large numbers of Canada’s young adults were rounded up and transported to another continent to work as slaves. (Remember, the slave traders did not abduct the weak or the elderly.)
The message here was that CABL’s answer to an S.O.S. from a fellow people of the Atlantic was an allegory for the principle that there is no “other,” only people whose existence we ignore.
I knew there was a connection between this allegory and the humiliation faced by Pieters and his colleagues, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I started writing this column. The link between the two is history. The people of Africa were transported to the Western Hemisphere. Their descendants belong here and deserve to be treated as family. Pieters’ story should now drive black lawyers from far and wide to the lawyers’ lounge at the Peel Law Association, to sit en masse in the lounge where they belong.
For those who could not make it to the CABL dinner, here is an excerpt of my speech:
We in Canada enjoy rule of law and a life full of hope, but our heritage is built on a history of the Atlantic our children do not read about in school. How do the history of Haiti, its dictatorships and its lawless streets figure in the prosperity we now enjoy in the North Atlantic?Pre-Columbian Haiti and the Dominican Republic were originally settled by Amerindian natives known as the Taino people. After the Spanish conquest, the Kingdom of Spain colonized the island and employed the Taino in forced labour as gold miners. Consistent with much of the history of this time, the Taino people did not have natural immunities to common European diseases, and were virtually eradicated in the process. It was at that point, in about 1517, King Charles V of Spain authorized the importation of African Slaves. I need not explain to this audience, what happened next.Before their abduction, these African men and women were farmers, shopkeepers, musicians, healers and leaders of communities not dissimilar to lawyers and magistrates, who were building societies in West Africa.The history of slavery is not just the history of the black man. It is not just the history of the Caribbean or pre-Civil War America. It is also the history of the abductors. It is the history of all people from all countries with shores on the Atlantic Ocean, who have prospered from the legacy of crimes against humanity. It is the history of individuals, people with identities and vocations, love and laughter. It is the history of colonial survivors such as Haiti, whom the developed world has abandoned and allowed to fall into lawlessness.For the people of Haiti, let us help them build a society founded on the rule of law. Let them build it with laws for the people.