On April 27th, 2021, Level hosted its second *virtual* Facing Resistance Speaker Series. The online event brought together youth, legal professionals, and law students to share in a discussion on the topic of Canada's access to justice crisis and the importance of increasing diversity in the justice system. Level's Facing Resistance Speaker Series offers a diverse virtual platform to not only confront challenging topics and questions, but also learn how we can collectively create a justice system that is responsive, balanced and fair. We are excited to share some event highlights with you!
The event started with a welcoming and land acknowledgment by Shelan Markus, Level’s Executive Director. Following the opening, Ojibway Anishinaabe Grandmother and Knowledge Keeper, Kim Wheatley, did an opening prayer and sent forth good intentions for the event. She spoke of the four orders of creation and acknowledged all attendees and their ancestors. She wrapped up with a joyful song to plant a seed for hope, connection, inspiration, and a little bit of healing.
Panel discussion: Increasing Diversity in the Justice System
Shelan moderated a panel discussion with Ish Aderonmu and Bhavan Sodhi on the topic of increasing diversity in the justice system. Ten years ago Ish Aderonmu found himself on bail and awaiting trial for a drug trafficking charge. Today he’s paying that experience forward as an aspiring lawyer and criminal justice advocate who is currently pursuing a law degree at Ryerson University Law School. Bhavan is a Legal Director at Innocence Canada and in her role, she and her team have successfully represented individuals in overturning their wrongful convictions. Bhavan shared her thoughts on the diversity gap present in judiciary representation in Canadian society:
"There is no question that representation matters… You need a judiciary that is reflective of the population that is coming before the individuals... What is the actual benefit of having a diverse bench? … It enhances public confidence in the administration of justice, and it enhances judiciary impartiality."
She further quotes former Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Peter Cory whom both have made comments on judges bringing their lived experiences to the courtroom. Bhavan questions “whose experiences?” as studies show that the experiences of those who come to the courtroom do not reflect the experiences of those on the bench. She further shares her own stories as counsel:
“The number of times I have gone into a courthouse and it is immediately assumed that I am the person being tried, an interpreter, or not a person that is worthy of addressing, these are unconscious biases that unless I assert myself as a member of the bar, I am subjected to.”
Ish further added to Bhavan’s comments on lived experience:
“The courthouse is reflective of society itself, that people of colour are those who come before the court and white people are those running the judiciary and all the other pieces … that is a very scary place to be if you are a poor kid from the hood, it is intimidating, it is a whole new world.”
The panelists further discussed their opinions on best practices for increasing diverse leadership in the legal profession. Bhavan spoke to seven things that could assist in achieving diversity:
“(1) Ensuring that opportunities are available so people can get there…(2) ensuring that socio-economic resources are available…(3) having data, information and statistics available for discussion…(4) addressing the selection process at the law school level, OCI process and so on… (5) increasing mentorship and having professors, employers and colleagues that can provide you with an ounce of guidance… (6) having opportunities available and someone taking a chance with you… and (7) overcoming imposter syndrome.”
Ish added to Bhavan’s list of practices that can be put in place to increase diversity:
"Start earlier in the pipeline, if you want to have black and brown boys and girls thinking that they can be lawyers and this is something they can do, then this will give them more time to get into law school. Also, you can get rid of the LSAT… it was not written for racialized people and so it is a challenging obstacle. Another tangible thing if you want black faces on your website, the least you can do is pay for them and get rid of that barrier as law school is really expensive now… One other thing we can do is, the law society itself needs to admit that systemic racism is a thing. That would be a great start once we all agree on the same thing.”
Before taking questions from attendees, the panelists commented on their thoughts of what can be done beyond appointing more diverse judges to the bench:
Bhavan: “Having a diverse bench is a necessary step, and you want to make sure that diversity is something that is incorporated in all facets of the legal system: legislation, regulations, the police service… we want to make sure that laws are reflective of the entirety of the Canadian population and that other aspects are diverse in nature”
Ish: “Diversity at the bench is crucial… the judge, the prosecutor, the defence lawyer, everyone involved, those who write the laws. I think at the end of the day it comes down to one important thing, who is at the table when the decision is being made.”
Keynote address by Margaret Froh
Following the panel discussion, Margaret Froh, Metis Two-Spirit lawyer and educator, and President of the Metis Nation of Ontario, spoke to her career journey and her thoughts on increasing diversity in the justice system. Margaret was called to law through her involvement in her community and through her support and work on Mary Patawamakwach’s case. Through that case she decided to learn the language of law and bring these skills back to her community. She mentioned the importance of making space in the legal profession, that there needs to be respect, recognition, and welcoming behaviors. Margaret said that we must also go beyond only making space, we must also make change, destroy barriers, and push law reform. Lastly, Margaret spoke to the concept of multi-jurisdictional law in Canada and her work on the revitalization of Indigenous laws and legal traditions. She concluded with her thoughts on how having an Indigenous person on the Supreme Court bench would allow current youth to see representation out there and know they can also make it to the bench one day.
Kim brought the event full circle by ending with well wishes and a traveling song in the closing remarks.
We would like to thank our attendees and event sponsors. Without you, this online event would not have been possible! We are grateful for having such dedicated supporters in our corner. We want to thank our event speakers, Kim Wheatley, Ish Aderonmu, Bhavan Sodhi and Margaret Froh for sharing their time and insight, and providing us with tools for reflection and incorporation into our daily lives as we continue to combat access to justice issues in Canada. We also wish to thank our event sponsors, CN, Torys LLP, McCarthy Tetrault, McMillan LLP, Krista Hill and Linda Plumpton, WeirFoulds LLP, Goodmans LLP, Enbridge and Cheekbone Beauty for their support of our second virtual Facing Resistance Speaker Series event.