Cassels Brock Black Female Lawyers Network

  • October 09, 2019

Thank you for your kind introduction, and thank you Cassels Brock and to the Black Female Lawyers Network for honouring me with this event. And a special thank you for Denise Dwyer and Patience Omokhodion for taking the lead in organizing it.

Today is very special, because it was only a few years ago that I attended my first black female lawyers’ annual Sistahs-in-Law Retreat.  I was in a very different position than now. In fact, I didn’t have a job and I was there to network. I was handing out business cards to try to score a new legal job.  I remember Denise telling me not to worry that I would get a job, but it sure didn’t feel like it then. Well, the good news is that nothing last forever, including unemployment and things can and do turn around in a heartbeat. Next month, BFLN celebrates its 13th anniversary. Incredible!  Here's to sisterhood, here’s to black women, here's to empowerment, here's to inspiration, inclusion and belonging to a real community.

There are so many of you who have supported me in all kinds of ways – I have sat on Verlyn’s Francis living room couch many times, Patricia DeGuire and Frank Walwyn have been kind enough to read my speeches and many others have given me their time and advice.  Thank you to Dulce Mitchell and Justice Leiper who have over so many years provided me with their advice and have been a listening ear. So, thank you to all my mentors and supporters for helping me arrive to where I have. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Today, I’d also like to thank the members of my family who have come to support me today, my dad, my uncle Mel, aunty Ven, Garfield and my brothers Syd and Greg. Last but not least my VP Brad Regehr has managed to escape the cold western clime of the prairies to support me here in Toronto.

There is one special person missing who is missing from this evening of celebration and that is my mother. My mom was diagnosed with early onset dementia shortly after I was called to the Bar.  I am so happy that both my parents were able to witness my call to the Bar, but saddened that my mom is not here today to celebrate this historic event. My mom would have been so proud and over the moon to meet you all and be here this evening.

One of the personal anecdotes I wanted to share with you is that, one of the first comments I heard after it was announced that I was to become CBA President was, “This should have gone to someone that deserves it.”

Maybe the speaker thought the CBA President should come from a firm instead of in-house.  It could be the speaker thought that – as a young lawyer – I couldn’t have worked hard enough, or proved myself enough, to have earned the office after ten years of volunteering for the CBA. It could have been a suggestion that the President’s office was no place for a Black woman – or any woman for that matter.

Or perhaps it was personal, in which case there’s not much I can do about it. But if any of the other explanations prompted that comment, it demonstrates that there much to be done to improve our legal profession and provide equal opportunity for all.

My area of practice … my youth … and my race …  are positive attributes and indicia that the CBA is serious about and intends to continue as a respected voice for the legal profession, one that not only extols the values of diversity, inclusion, and belonging, but puts its money where its mouth is.

In-house lawyers are a valuable CBA constituency. I am the second in-house lawyer to serve as President in the Association’s history. We need to do more to represent all lawyers in our profession, to bring all areas of practice under our CBA family tree.

We have been seeking ways to attract young lawyers and encourage them to become active, productive, life-long members. I’m one of the youngest presidents this Association has ever had. They say the best way to find out what someone wants is to ask. Give people the opportunity to use their voice, show that you are listening. And embrace their desire to take leadership roles as a way to prove that they are valued and their opinions matter.

As for being Black and female … The CBA is 123 years old. It has had nine female presidents, all in the past 27 years –five of them since 2011. I will be the tenth women.  And I’m the first CBA president of any gender who is not white.  I am sure we all can agree that it’s about time the Association broke the racial barrier.

It’s a good thing to celebrate – not just my achievement, but the Association’s as well. So, let’s raise a glass to that.

Now down to business.

My focus as Vice-President was on improving communications with members, creating and strengthening the relationships between the Board and the Branches and reaching out to colleagues who have not always felt welcome in our CBA community of lawyers. The first-ever Leading Change: Racialized Lawyer Leadership conference was held in Toronto this past May to great success. Our own Charlene Theodore was instrumental in supporting me to make sure it was the great success that it was. We hope to replicate its success in other Canadian cities in coming years.

 As Volunteer-in-Chief my personal priority is sparking intergenerational dialogue between members of the legal profession. There are misunderstandings on either end of the generational gap about what the other side wants and expects. I have also asked CBA Young Lawyers to take the lead on organizing a national young-lawyer conference which will be held in spring 2020. More details will follow.

Other priorities for me this year include promoting healthy lawyers. Being a healthy lawyer MUST be a priority – for individuals and for firms, big or small. Being a healthy lawyer should not threaten your productivity, rather it should increase it!

The CBA has been leading change for diversity, inclusion and belonging, and I plan to continue that work, which includes implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Task Force Report. On December 5th, the Senior Racialized Lawyer summit will be held here in Toronto, for lawyers with 10 years of practice or more.

Members have told us they value CBA’s advocacy work. I am excited about our #LegalAidMatters campaign, which hopes to raise public awareness around the need for stable, sustainable legal-aid funding as an access-to-justice issue. Visit the cba-dot-org website to get more information, and use our letter-writing tool to let candidates in your riding know how you feel.

Je crois que l’ABC doit être à l’avant-garde en matière de réforme du droit et des politiques; et qu’elle doit faire la promotion de systèmes de justice équitables et défendre la primauté du droit. L’ABC est respectée partout au pays et dans le monde; elle ne doit pas hésiter à faire entendre la voix collective de ses membres, tant au Canada qu’à l’étranger.

All in all, I have an ambitious year planned. Working with you and other members of the CBA, I hope to move the bar on intergenerational dialogue, healthy lawyers and diversity and inclusion. I look forward to what we can achieve together. Bonne soirée et profitez du reste de la réception. Merci.