How pro bono work made me a stronger advocate

How pro bono work made me a stronger advocate
Mahmood always presents well: He’s clean shaven, well dressed, gracious and polite. Soft-spoken, with a medium build and slight frame, and, though not yet fluent, he speaks English proficiently thanks to Canada’s English as a second language program for immigrants.

Mahmood is from a marginalized Muslim community in Pakistan. Nine years prior, he was forced to leave his wife and three children after having been subjected to serious death threats due to his ownership of a small bookshop, which printed and sold religious books. He’d fled to Uganda on the first available flight and was granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A year later, he was sponsored privately by family in Canada and arrived in Toronto as a landed refugee with permanent resident status.

I first met Mahmood as an articling student at the Immigration Law Program at the Centre for Newcomers Legal Clinic — part of my firm’s official pro bono initiative. Once a month, low-income clients would meet with us to discuss their immigration issues. As a group of corporate commercial and litigation lawyers, our role was primarily to act as an entry point into the legal system, providing preliminary guidance and referring matters to formal immigration pro bono services as required.

During one of these shifts, Mahmood told me his story. Prior to coming to Canada, he’d been given the option of either having his family meet him in Uganda or having them sponsored through the One-Year window of opportunity provision offered by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which allows refugees coming from a third country to sponsor their family from their home country within a year of their arrival in Canada. He chose the former option and, by the end of June 2013, all of the necessary paperwork had been submitted to the High Commission in Islamabad.  

One full year went by and Mahmood received no response. He attempted to contact the High Commission and received little response. Once, he was even told he didn’t have a valid application number. His MP was also unsuccessful in receiving a response from CIC — no such application existed, he was told. After two years in Canada, working the graveyard shift at a local gas station and sending all of the earnings he could afford back to his family in Pakistan, Mahmood decided to seek legal advice.

In the scant time we had together at the law clinic, I tried to guide him to some resources that I thought he might find helpful. Still, there was something about his story that resonated with me, and I knew I could do more.

Back at the office, I decided I wanted to help him. I wasn’t sure how or where to start, but I wanted to take him on as a client. However, as an articling student, I needed a licensed lawyer to supervise me. I soon found a backer in an experienced litigator and we put the proposal to our firm’s pro bono committee. We asked for 50 hours to work on Mahmood’s case — equal to more than $15,000 worth of legal services — which was quickly approved.

The first thing I did was put the High Commission on notice that Mahmood was now represented by counsel and that we were seeking an update on the status of his family’s file. I received a response similar to the previous ones Mahmood received: No such file existed.

I sent the High Commission proof that Mahmood had couriered the documents to its office, along with confirmation of which Canadian official had signed for them, at what time and on what date. Months later, the High Commission advised that it had suddenly “found” the file; surprise, it had been received and was simply misplaced.

All of a sudden, Mahmood’s family had been placed back into the processing line, as if they’d always been there. We were asked for documentation after documentation, often duplicating what had been provided. Forms that had been previously submitted needed to be completed again. We rarely received any feedback on next steps. It took us close to a year to accumulate all of the information required.

After re-submitting, we sent follow-up letters. As months went by, Mahmood’s family in Pakistan wasn’t sure what to expect anymore. Finally, his family was asked to surrender their passports and told their visas were ready to be issued. A month later, they received a call: The UNHCR would be arranging and paying for their flights and they needed to be ready to depart at a moment’s notice. The call came in the middle of the night two months later.

When his family finally landed in Canada, his youngest son, who’d been less than two years old when Mahmood fled Pakistan, met his father for the first time that he could remember.

Not long after, Mahmood asked if he could come to visit me at the office. He brought along his daughter and said, “This is what you fought for, this is proof that you helped me.” And there she was, a poised 19-year-old, ready to tackle life in Canada and eager to resume her studies. I told her to contact me if she ever needed any help or advice and I truly meant it.

I’m not an immigration lawyer and the majority of the work I did would not constitute classic “legal” work. What I did was advocate: I asked the right questions and demanded answers and accountability.

A formal pro bono program can be more than words on paper; it can provide opportunities for juniors to learn new skills and to better appreciate the significant roles that lawyers can play — beyond the billable hour. As a result of my firm taking a chance and supporting an articling student’s lofty goals of assisting on an immigration matter, Mahmood was reunited with his family and I gained valuable advocacy experience that continues to shape my career.

Danica Doucette-Preville is an associate in Gowling WLG's Calgary Office practising in the areas of international trade, white collar defence and investigations, government affairs, and estate planning and litigation. She can be reached at

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