Edmonton Sun

Saturday, July 17, 1999

Lawyers can begin by righting biases

Edmonton Sun

When hundreds of lawyers from across the country descend on Edmonton next month for the annual Canadian Bar Association meeting, they'll be airing some dirty laundry.

Up for debate are more than 60 recommendations stemming from a stark internal report on racism in the legal profession.

The contents of the report, Racial Equality in the Canadian Legal Profession, are depressing, considering lawyers are supposed to uphold justice.

"We must acknowledge that systemic racism is still widespread within our profession," says the study, prepared by a CBA task force. "As lawyers, we must become radical. Radical in the sense of going back to our roots," concludes the report.

"The root of law is justice. It demands that we no longer tolerate or remain passive in the face of racism."

The problem is lawyers aren't a particularly radical bunch. It's still very much an old-boys' network.

So it will be interesting to see if the CBA not only passes the task force's anti-racism recommendations but follows through with concrete action.

As far as civil rights lawyer David Matas is concerned, it's high time there was a concerted effort to tackle discrimination in the profession.

"It's long overdue. There's a real problem. It can be solved and we should just get on with it," he says.

The matter is close to his heart - he was a member of the task force that spent four years gathering information for the report.

And it will be the main issue at the conference.

Students from "racialized communities," as the report puts it, have trouble getting into law school because of admission tests geared towards the majority culture.

If they do get into law school they have difficulty getting articling positions - a requirement for becoming full-fledged lawyers.

Interviewed by the task force, one unidentified lawyer recalled that when he was being sized up for an articling job one of the partners asked him: "Why are you in law school? I thought all Asian people went into sciences."

There was general concern, according to the report, that many firms didn't want to hire minority students because of the perception that they couldn't bring in clients or the clients would be poor.

So it's no surprise that a 1995 bar association survey in Nova Scotia showed 70% of white males were hired back after articling - but only 29% of white women and no minority students.

Shutting out minority lawyers is a strange way of building a client base when 13% of Canada's population is foreign-born (according to the 1996 census) and the mother tongue of 17% of Canadians is neither English nor French.

While racism in the legal profession is no longer overt, it lurks behind the scenes, says the report.

"We conclude that the legal profession is effectively segregated," it says.

"Entire sectors of the profession ... lack proportional representation from racialized communities or anything close to it. The 'race bar' has yet to be crossed in many institutions."

Trying to get lawyers from minority groups to talk about it on the record is impossible, though. Canada's legal profession is small and the fear of repercussions is overwhelming.

Of the testimonials in the report, not a single person is identified.

A U of A law student who believes she was rejected by a mainstream firm for an articling job because she is native backed out of an interview, although I offered her anonymity.

Similarly, an interview with a veteran Chinese-Canadian lawyer came to a halt when I asked about racism he'd experienced.

No one wants to rock the boat, says Bradley Enge, director of the indigenous law program at the U of A.

"When you need that little break, the tie-breaker is 'this guy is a shit-disturber and caused me grief,' he says.

Then you lose your case.

Racism is rampant in other professions too, of course. But lawyers should know better.

Letters to the editor should be sent to sun.letters@ccinet.ab.ca.

Copyright 1999, Canoe Limited Partnership.