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Groups say hard work ahead in battling racism

|Written By Alex Robinson

While the Law Society of Upper Canada has adopted recommendations to battle systemic racism in the legal profession, diversity advocates say the report is just the beginning of what needs to be done.

Ranjan Agarwal says ‘there is still lots of work to be done’ to assist racialized lawyers with challenges they face.

After a marathon debate that saw benchers question whether the 13 recommendations should be adopted entirely as one package, Convocation approved the report in a 33-0 vote with three abstentions.

Equity groups that were consulted on the report applauded the passage of the recommendations, which they have been advocating for years. But they said there is a lot of hard work left to do, starting with implementing the recommendations.

“The report here is intended to create the framework of the house and now you’ve got to build the bricks,” says Ranjan Agarwal, president of the South Asian Bar Association of Toronto.

At issue in the meeting were two motions, one of which would pass the 13 recommendations all together as one package. The report was the culmination of four years of work by the Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees Working Group.

The recommendations included requiring firms of at least 10 licensees to implement a diversity policy, which would provide fair recruitment practices. They also require firms of that size and larger to complete a diversity self-assessment every two years and submit it to the law society.

The other motion, introduced by Bencher Sidney Troister, was an attempt to discuss and vote on the 13 recommendations separately so benchers could pick and choose.

“Putting them all together as a package means the nuances get overlooked in the whole. This is important policy and is important legislation and it will be with us for many years to come,” Troister told Convocation toward the beginning of what turned into a daylong discussion, originally scheduled for 80 minutes.

“If the recommendations are so sound, what is the fear of looking at them separately?” Troister added.

The motions provoked an emotional debate with many benchers sharing their own personal stories of racism they have encountered.

The idea of voting on the motions on a piecemeal basis was unpopular among diversity associations, who have said the recommendations did not go far enough, but they supported the report under the understanding the whole package would be approved together.

“I think our advocacy would have been different if we had known that what was being recommended or what was being considered was voluntary,” says Agarwal.

A number of benchers took issue with a recommendation that requires every licensee to “adopt and abide by a statement of principles acknowledging their obligation to promote equity,” saying having such a requirement would amount to creating a thought crime.

Bencher Joanne St. Lewis and a number of others took issue with a recommendation that the law society will provide firms of at least 25 licensees with data concerning the demographic makeup of their employees from information gathered in annual reports.

St. Lewis said this recommendation could be harmful for lawyers who do not want their confidential information submitted to their firm and that firms could easily identify those the information came from.

“The reality of firms over 25 is that there is not sufficient critical mass in just about any firm I can think of to provide that level of cover for people,” she said.

“Those individuals should not be forced into a position where you are returning the information to their employer if they chose not to tell them,” she added.

She later introduced a successful amendment, which changed the recommendation so that it would be “consistent with the best practices established to protect licensees vulnerable to harm” that could come from the disclosure. Despite some benchers’ opposition to some of the recommendations, members of the working group said it was vital for them to be voted on an omnibus basis because they were designed to work together. Troister’s motion failed in a 31-19 vote with two abstentions.

While diversity associations applauded the approval of the recommendations, they noted that getting the report passed was just a start.

“This is still a base level of recommendations and there is still lots of work to be done,” says Agarwal.

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