Promoting diversity on the federal bench

  • October 30, 2020
  • Angela Ogang

The need to combat systemic racism in the courts and the importance of bringing more people of colour into the judiciary were among the topics discussed during a recent legal forum, which featured four trailblazing women from the legal community.

The forum, held virtually on Sept. 17, 2020, was led by the Hon. David Lametti, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and moderated by Donna E. Young, the inaugural dean of the Faculty of Law at Ryerson University. The panel also included Marc A. Giroux, Commissioner of Federal Judicial Affairs Canada, Justice Audrey P. C. Ramsay of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Justice Diane Rowe of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, and Rajwant Mangat from the Federal Judicial Advisory Committee for British Columbia.

The panelists shared some of the significant moments in their lives that shaped them and helped define their dreams and aspirations. This made them relatable and helped me see that I, too, could rise to such heights if I set my mind to it.

A call to justice

Justice Minister David Lametti, who spoke about systemic racism in the criminal justice system in a recent CBA podcast, related his own story, which helped build rapport with the participants and set the tone for the panel discussion. He is the son of immigrants from Italy who came to Canada in their early 20s to afford their children a better future. While he admits that he had privileges that others did not have, he recognizes the importance of acknowledging the continued existence of barriers to admission into the “legal club” for certain groups.

Minister Lametti reiterated his commitment to rooting out systemic racism from our justice system. Like Dean Young, he believes that diversity on the bench is not just a numbers game. To him, ensuring a diversity of experience and culture within Canada’s judiciary will ultimately enhance public trust and lead to better decisions and a fairer justice system. This idea is well captured in Dean Young’s assertion that “diversity is not a catchphrase, it’s a call to justice.”

An improbable journey to the bench

Madam Justice Ramsay’s story resonates with many first-generation immigrant families and individuals from racialized communities. She was born in Jamaica and recalled being misdiagnosed with a learning disability upon arriving in Canada at the age of 10 and placed in special ed. She talked about living on social assistance in subsidized housing, and raising her four siblings whom she still considers her children. Despite the burdens and challenges of her early years, Justice Ramsay never lost sight of her goal to make a better life for herself and her family. I could literally feel her enthusiasm and kindness as she spoke, and I was inspired by her improbable journey to the bench.

As a lawyer, Justice Ramsay got involved in various professional associations, which helped her grow her network and build her reputation. She also highlighted the importance of paying it forward, a concept that was instilled in her at a young age and which she carried into law school and private practice. Not surprisingly, she is the 2020 Recipient of the OBA Distinguished Service Award. She also received the Lexpert Zenith Award in 2017 and the OBA’s Linda Adlam Manning Award for Volunteerism in 2010.

The significance of having allies

Justice Diane Rowe is Anishinaabe, two-spirit, and a Sixties Scoop child. I was delighted to learn that her first name is actually an Anishinaabe name hidden within a European spelling which means ‘that person has it.’ I listened intently to her account of growing up in Newfoundland as a visibly Indigenous child, and I could visualize the desolation and hopelessness that surrounded her at the time. She talked of social expectations being extremely low for Indigenous women, and admitted that very few people expected a positive outcome after she came out as two-spirit in high school.

Fortunately, Justice Rowe encountered many people from diverse backgrounds along the way who did not prejudge her or her abilities, and who were generous with their time and resources. She specifically referred to Justice Linda Lee Oland with whom she was paired through the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society Judicial Mentorship Program. Justice Oland, who is now retired, was the first justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia to come from a racialized community and, in 2000, became the first Chinese Canadian to be appointed to a Court of Appeal in Canada.

Justice Rowe’s message to those who are considering applying to the federal bench was loud and clear and is worth repeating: “Don’t let any internalized low expectations that you may carry derail you, and at the very least, you may discover a new perspective on your practice and future.”

The JAC application process

Rajwant (Raji) Mangat, who has an impressive track record in her own right, gave the participants a detailed behind-the-scenes look at the Judicial Advisory Committee application and appointment process.

Raji explained that the JACs are independent advisory committees that are organized by region, with each JAC consisting of seven members representing the bench, the bar and the general public. They assess all applications for judicial appointments and forward their recommendations to the Minister of Justice. The JACs receive extensive training on how to interrogate their own conscious biases, and look well beyond what would be regarded by the legal profession as “markers of prestige” when reviewing applications.

Raji herself has an extremely rich professional background and a keen interest in understanding the lived experiences of candidates who may not have followed the traditional pathways to the bench. She insisted that JAC members complement one another and carry out their work independently, diligently, with integrity, and without discrimination.

A collective responsibility

The pandemic did not detract Minister Lametti from his commitment to diversify the bench. Justice Ramsay and Justice Rowe, both appointed in May 2020, join a slew of women currently serving as judges across the country. However, only 19 per cent of judges appointed since November 2019 are visible minorities, only three per cent are Indigenous, and only nine per cent self-identified as LGBTQ2+. Minister Lametti conceded that more work needs to be done, but added that we are heading in the right direction and making progress.

Another issue raised during the forum is the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada is made up entirely of white judges. While Minister Lametti committed to doing his best to promote all forms of diversity on the bench, including in the Supreme Court of Canada, Marc A. Giroux noted that they are still not receiving enough applications from groups that may better reflect the diversity in Canada.

Nevertheless, this forum served as a reminder that diversity is a collective responsibility. Indeed, we all bear the responsibility of ensuring that our judiciary reflects our diversity and the different forms of identity that exist in our communities. We can do this in a variety of ways, from encouraging our colleagues to apply for judicial appointments, to instilling in our young lawyers the confidence to pursue their ambitions, to making our law schools and licensing processes more accessible for groups that have historically been underrepresented.

Angela Ogang is a bilingual member of the Ontario Bar and an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya, and a Member at Large on the CBA Women Lawyers Forum National Executive. She can be reached at