On April 9, 2019, Level hosted its second annual #FacingResistanceTO event, bringing together over 50 legal professionals to share in a candid discussion on the topic of systemic bias in the justice system. We're excited to share with you highlights from this engaging and thought-provoking discussion!
To open the event, Level was joined by retired Senator from the Métis Nation of Ontario, Elder Constance Simmonds. Constance opened with a land acknowledgement, honouring the legacy of the ancestors and the struggles still present today as a result of the history of colonialism. Sharing a teaching on the sacred use of tobacco for Indigenous people, and the importance of women as carriers of the water, Constance emphasized the importance of the next generation understanding their heritage and taking up the fight for equity. She then provided an opening prayer, setting the intention for the event.
Following Constance’s opening, Level Board Member Brittany Twiss and Level’s Interim Executive Director, Lisa Del Col led with some statements contextualizing the current access to justice crisis in Canada. “We know from law society reports, government studies, NGO campaigns, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Supreme Court that Canada is experiencing an access to justice crisis, with the harshest consequences experienced by disadvantaged, racialized, marginalized, and silenced communities. We also know from the current Bencher campaign that these issues also impact the profession”, said Lisa, who reminded the attendees that by being there, they were taking a collective step toward combating systemic inequity.
Perspectives from Within: A Conversation on Systemic Bias in the Justice System
A speaker that needed no introduction, The Rt. Hon. Beverley McLachlin, took the stage to share her perspectives and wisdom garnered from an illustrious legal career and over 17 years serving as the first female Chief Justice on the Supreme Court of Canada. Ms. McLachlin drew on experiences both from the context of her own daily life and from her time serving on Canada’s highest court. She recounted feeling like the hurdles of discrimination were going to be conquered with the enactment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. However, she quickly learned that the impacts of covert discrimination and systemic bias were deeply entrenched and would not be resolved by legislation. For instance, Ms. McLachlin recounted how historic language requirements for university admission in Alberta at that time resulted in discrimination against Indigenous applicants, whose languages were not acknowledged by a colonial education system. Perhaps one of the most memorable moments was when Ms. McLachlin elaborated on “careless bias” – the willingness to look away from inequity. She recounted a personal story of encountering a disheveled man on the bus, and immediately deciding not to engage or make eye contact. Not long into the ride, the gentleman stated, “you’re Beverley Mclachlin aren’t you?" After receiving confirmation from Ms. McLachlin, the man said "Thank you for everything you’ve done... for fighting for justice!”. Ms. McLachlin recounted how her expectations were shattered, and the deep gratitude she felt towards this man for teaching her a valuable lesson in exploring how we can easily be guilty of “careless bias” and of looking the other way, consequently missing out on important dialogues.
Top: Keynote Address by The Rt. Hon. Beverley McLachlin. Bottom: Molly Reynolds moderates a Q&A session with Ms. McLachlin
Following the keynote, Ms. McLachlin was joined onstage by Molly Reynolds, counsel with Torys LLP and mentor with Level’s Blazing Trails Mentorship Program for a Q&A session. In responding to questions, Ms. McLachlin expressed empathy for young lawyers entering law, and encouraged the profession to continue to become more responsive to the realities of the pressures faced by those competing for coveted articling positions. She emphasized the importance of lawyers advocating in their clients’ best interests, including when this meant standing up to prejudice in the courtroom, and emphasized the need to constantly reflect on where our own biases are impacting the way we relate to each other in the profession. The audience definitely benefitted from Ms. McLachlin's candid and personal views
Diving Deep: Exploring Unconscious Bias
Equity and Inclusion learning coach Sheliza Jamal converses with attendees on the topic of unconscious bias
Following Ms. McLachlin’s keynote, we were joined by Equity and Inclusion Learning Coach, Sheliza Jamal, who engaged the crowd through interactive activities and small group discussions to discover the ways we perceive the world based on deeply ingrained biases. She proceeded to differentiate between different forms of biases, as well as stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. She explained how, due to ingrained and culturally conditioned views, sometimes even the most well-intentioned individuals can hold unconscious biases which conflict with their outward views and intentions. She delved into a few of the ways unconscious bias manifests itself in the legal profession, mentioning reports on widespread bias in the jury system, legislation governing religious headwear, and Indigenous overrepresentation in the justice system. Sheliza implored us to challenge ourselves to identify our blind spots. She also reminded us of the three main aspects of being a leader, ally and champion: awareness (recognizing that allyship is given not claimed, taking inventory of where our biases show up, and being mindful, honest and open); education (taking implicit association tests, asking questions, thinking critically, broadening our perspectives and continuing to learn and share); and action (practicing empathy, holding ourselves accountable for our impact on others, engaging in inclusive language and behaviours, and analyzing systems of power and oppression).
Participants engage in various exercises during Sheliza Jamal's training session
Level’s Program Manager, Tristan Mohamed, capped off the event with some closing remarks, reminding us to bring empathy to every interaction, and keep in mind the important principle outlined in Sheliza's presentation that allyship is given, not claimed, saying “facing resistance is never an easy process… your willingness to lean into the discomfort that occurs when facing resistance, to not “look away”, but to encounter inequity head on… to continue the lifelong journey of advocating for justice, gives young lawyers like myself hope that we can unite, and continue to disrupt prejudice, build empathy and advance human rights!”
With the help of our attendees and event sponsors, Level raised nearly $25,000! The proceeds will go towards continuing the discussion on systemic bias, and supporting Level’s outreach, training and mentorship programs. We’re ever grateful for having such dedicated supporters in our corner. We want to thank our event speakers, Elder Constance Simmonds, The Rt. Hon. Beverley McLachlin, Molly Reynolds and Sheliza Jamal for sharing their time and wisdom, and providing us with tools for reflection and incorporation into our daily lives as we continue to combat systemic bias. We also wish to thank our event sponsors, Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP, Torys LLP, WeirFoulds LLP and Enbridge for their generous support of our Facing Resistance event for the second year in a row!
We would also like to thank our in-kind sponsor, the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), our Program Partners who allow us to continue fighting the good fight, our event photographer, Kenya-Jade Pinto, and our event volunteers, Eric Cheng, Massimo Chiarella, James Hannay, Stéphanie Nowak and Joy Pura, who arrived early and stayed late, readily offering their assistance to ensure our guests were well received. Finally, thank you to those who joined us as we continue to level barriers to justice.
Want to see more? Check out the event photo album here!
*Photos by Kenya-Jade Pinto for Level