First-ever leadership bootcamp for racialized lawyers a success

  • June 11, 2019

You could see it in the packed rooms, with people spilling over into the overflow seating at the back. You could hear it in the noisy conversation at break times, strangers becoming comrades. And you could feel it in the air, the energy crackling in the room as the CBA’s first-ever Leadership Bootcamp for Racialized Lawyers kicked off in Toronto.

Organized by CBA Vice-President Vivene Salmon, and her committee of John P. Brown and Charlene Theodore from Ontario, Kang Lee from Quebec and Kamaljit Lehal of B.C., the sold-out event brought lawyers from a variety of equity-seeking groups together to talk about what they need to do in order to succeed in the profession.

The event attracted a lot of corporate interest as well, with sponsors for the event including Cassels Brock, Mcmillan, Stockwoods Smart Litigation, LawPay, Koskie Minsky, Gowling, Lenczner Slaght, Blakes, Paliare Roland Barristers, BLG, The Counsel Network, Simplex Legal, Fasken, McCarthy Tetrault , Zsa, WierFoulds and the Canadian Donors’ Guide.

Sessions dealt with topics such as executive presence, discovering your strengths, adapting to change, resilience, and leadership: stories of leadership, authentic leadership, and intergenerational and intercultural leadership.

“This is a safe space,” Vivene said in her opening remarks, and panellists and delegates took that on board, telling deeply personal stories of obstacles they’d had to overcome to get where they are, including incidents of racism, sexism and addiction. It was the kind of atmosphere where one delegate could admit that it was “exhausting” to be the only indigenous person, or person of colour in the firm, and therefore are expected to teach others about the race or ethnic group you represent. Compensation doesn’t reflect that other work, the audience member noted.

Random scenes from the conference:

  • “The first mistake” people make, said Isfahan Merali, senior counsel with The Consent and Capacity Board in Toronto, “is to think ‘it’s never going to happen.’ Then it happens.” She noted that women often won’t apply for or seek things that they think they’re never going to get because they don’t have all the qualifications. “You don’t know until you try,” she urged the audience sitting in on her panel discussion on stories of leadership. Julia Shin Doi, general counsel and adjunct professor at Ryerson University, agreed. “’Never going to happen’ is a very strong feeling that racialized lawyers have,” she said.
  • At the networking lunch, Gowlings’ Scott Joliffe was honoured for his role as an ally of racialized lawyers in the firm. He said there are three things about leadership that he has become passionate about: good leaders know that it’s not about them, it’s about their ability to inspire and the impact they have on their team and the people they serve;  a good leader brings out the best in their team and helps them to succeed; and a good leader is able to develop a clear sense of what needs to be accomplished, what success looks like, and finds a way for others to support that vision.
  • In an afternoon session where panellists discussed authentic leadership, diversity and inclusion expert Ritu Bhasin said “be yourself” is meaningless advice when you’re in a culture where you have to conform. Your authentic self, she said, is who you would be if there were no negative consequences to being that person. But “no one can be authentic 100 per cent of the time because we live in a social dimension,” she said – we have to keep our jobs, our families, and we need to stay out of jail.
  • Bindu Cudjoe, general counsel with Canadian Western Bank, said as she’s grown older and more confident, she’s found she cares less about how others process the self she presents. “I don’t have the energy to have so many separate lives any more,” she told the audience. “You are different at home, you are different at work … But when I was younger it was very different. I think my fear of the consequences of non-conformity have gone down.”
  • Fernando Garcia, Vice President, Legal, Compliance and General Counsel at Cargojet, noted that “people like it if you have something different to bring to the table.”
  • Katherine Hensel of Hensel Barristers talked about being trained from a young age to identify racism. She talked about standing outside an injunction hearing with an opposing counsel and explaining the position of her First Nations client. The opposing counsel said, “Wow, you really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you?” His assumption, she said, was that “you’re either a lawyer and you think the First Nations side is absurd, or you’re not a lawyer.” She said he spent the rest of the day trying to make up with her, “and I took tactical advantage of that.”