Sunday, June 24, 2012

Jews Yesterday African-Canadians Today: Diversity and Social Change in the Legal Profession

     Bora Laskin was one of the most talented and influencial jurists in the common law world by any standard.  He was also a highly accomplished legal scholar and labour arbitrator.  Bora Laskin possessed all of the skills and qualities which one would traditionaly expect of a lawyer. 

     However, with all of his skill and intellect Mr. Laskin had a very difficult time finding firms among Toronto's legal establishment in the 1930s who would hire him as an Articling Student -a mandatory practical placement which lawyers must complete as part of the licensing process. Mr. Laskin was Jewish.  In those days in keeping with the unwritten but well practiced policies Jews were for all intents and purposes not welcome in the legal profession.  In his publication entitled From Immigration to Integration: The Canadian Jewish Experience, Richard Menkis states, "In one glaring example just after WW II the Quebec Bar held its conference at a lodge that excluded Jews." One of the basis for exclusion of Jewish lawyers - especially among firms doing corporate commercial work - was that the clients were opposed to their hiring and they could not attract worthwhile corporate-commercial work.

     Jews were not alone in their exclusion from the legal profession.  Indeed, I recently came to learn that a group of Irish Catholics were forced to form their own firm, Holden, Day-Wilson as a direct result of their circumstances in the profession. 

     I do not profess to be an expert in these areas.  I will be the first to admit that I am no scholar and no expert.  History shows us that there are a wealth of other ethnic, religious and racial groups that have been similary excluded or discriminated against in the legal profession.  My goal here is simple and straightforward.  I wish to point out that discrimination and exclusion is not new to the legal profession.  It is not a phenomenon that has been thrust upon us by the advent of the increased numbers of African-Canadians, Asians and women who are joining the profession.  It has always been there.  The only difference is that the players or actors have changed.

Fast Forward to 2012:

     Today African-Canadian lawyers are disproportionatly unable to secure articling jobs of any sort and some observers have suggested that once qualified to practice law African-Canadian lawyers are disproporionately the subject of discipline proceedings.  Advocates for the status quo will argue that there are causes other than race for these phenomena.  On a micro-level there may well be deviations from the norm of exclusion or discrimination.  However, that arguement rings hallow in light of the historical experience of Jews and others in the profession.  Anyone who is unable to see the connection between the historical reality noted above and the current plight of lawyers of African-Canadian background in the profession today choses not to see it. 

     If anything - history shows us that the more things change the more they stay the same.  The reality is that Justice is not blind because the law deems her to be.  Justice can only be blind when we all believe in our hearts that all men are equal regardless of race and other irrelevant considerations such as race and religion.  The legal profession and the administration of justice is no more immune from discrimination than the rest of society.  Social change does not happen by accident.  Social change is the by-product of concerted and determined effort.  The reality is this.  Racial diversity in the legal profession and among our judiciary is a manifestation of social change.

Note:  This piece was written for the sole purpose of drawing attention to an issue of public importance and to enourage debate on that issue. 


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