Black law students honour judge, mentor

Black law students honour judge, mentor
Justice Donald McLeod speaks to Semhar Woldai and another Osgoode law student after accepting the Lincoln Alexander Award. Photo: Zachary Pedersen
One of Ontario’s newest judges has been awarded The Honourable Lincoln Alexander ‘53 Award from the Black Law Students’ Association at Osgoode Hall Law School.

 Justice Donald McLeod, appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice in September 2013, accepted the award last week at the BLSA’s Black History Month celebration and spoke to the crowd about the importance of being a lifelong mentor.

“If you come to law school, it is incumbent on you to become a mentor to make sure that somebody else gets a leg up just because of where you are,” he said. “I think that if we don’t do that, whether as lawyers or as law students, then we’ve done a disservice.”

Now in its second year, the Lincoln Alexander Award was created by the BLSA to pay tribute to the achievements of the late Lincoln Alexander, an Osgoode law graduate, the first black Canadian MP, and the 24th lieutenant governor of Ontario.

“When we made the very easy decision to award Justice Donald McLeod, much of that discussion centred on his contributions toward youth, the programs that he’s involved in, and the community work that he champions,” said BLSA president Semhar Woldai. “Even in anecdotal conversations that I witnessed today, he was providing guidance and advice to students. It’s that type of spirit that Lincoln Alexander embodies and that’s something we really wanted to recognize at the school.”

McLeod told the crowd he has seen the legal landscape evolve since he initially began practising.

“When I started becoming a criminal lawyer, white people didn’t even come to us,” he said, referring to himself and black colleagues. “Because they would say . . . the judge is white and the Crown is white, so I can’t have a black lawyer. If I have a black lawyer, then there’s a strong possibility that I’m going to be found guilty just because I’m sitting with you.”

But as time went on, he noticed a shift in the profession.

“It changed because of how good of lawyers they were,” he said. “They started winning cases, they started gaining notoriety, they started to stick with it — and I say that because it requires everybody that is a mentor to stick with it.”

Mentorship was a key theme of the evening.

“You are to transform as a mentee into a mentor. If you do not, then you should not be a mentee,” McLeod said, adding mentors need to keep a firm head on their shoulders.

“The reality is that just because we stand here or sit here in law school and people tell us that only two per cent of the population make it here, doesn’t mean that we’ve arrived. There’s a whole lot more left to be done.”

McLeod believes mentoring sets the bar higher for future generations to aspire to, which is true progress.

Royland Moriah was mentored by McLeod and now has his own firm in Toronto, Moriah Law. Moriah was at the event and McLeod spoke of what he now expects from him.

“The reality is that my expectation for Royland is that he surpasses me. That he not be just where I left him, but he continues on to where he needs to be,” McLeod said. “So the expectation isn’t that he simply have a firm . . . but that he do even something more.”

Raised in Toronto’s Regent Park, McLeod said he knew from age 10 he wanted to be a lawyer. At 17, he began working for three summers in mailrooms at different Toronto law firms. In 1995, he attended McMaster University for political science and then went on to law school at Queen’s University. He was called to the bar in 1998.

He began practising criminal law at Hinkson Sachak in Toronto and ultimately became senior managing partner of The McLeod Group, which focused on criminal law trials and appeals, as well as administrative law.

Some of McLeod’s prominent cases include successfully arguing the 1999 Supreme Court of Canada case R. v. Golden, which addressed the constitutionality of police strip searches, as well as R. v. Douse in 2009, a case that looked at non-conscious racism in the Canadian judicial context. Using scientific data, questions were designed to examine whether or not potential jurors had a bias.

McLeod chairs 100 Strong, an initiative for black men to fund a summer school program for 12- and 13-year-old African-Canadian boys. He also co-chairs Stand Up, a mentoring program for grades 7 and 8 eight boys from at-risk neighbourhoods.

While McLeod was honoured to receive Osgoode’s award, he left the law students in the audience with something to think about.

“As opposed to coming here and patting myself on the back and saying how great it is, how great I am, and how great it is to be the recipient, I don’t believe in that,” he said. “What I believe in is whether the foundation you’re going to lay is a strong one that my 10-year-old son can stand on. If not, then you have not done your job. You have come here for the wrong reasons.”

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