New Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers Ontario president Gerald Chan says the group is driving to keep up momentum from the last year, which included a Supreme Court appearance, a visit from a chief justice, and a mention in parliament.
“I’ve been involved with FACL for a number of years. Especially over the last couple of years we have built a strong momentum in terms of the enthusiasm our members have and the buy in from the rest of the profession. I feel really fortunate to take on a leadership role at that time,” says Chan. “One of the really striking moments for me was when the House of Commons had hearings on new criminal law legislation. The parliamentary secretary for the Minister of Justice was asking questions of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association representatives during one of the hearings…. and at one point he put to the CLA representative, ‘Does FACL have a position on this and do you know whether they share your position?’ Just to have that credibility with the broader community is something we have aspired to achieve.”
Chan acted for FACL in R. v. Le, 2019 SCC 34, and the Supreme Court of Canada adopted FACL’s submissions in the case, decided May 31. The group will continue to be very active on cases that engage its mandate, says Chan.
“Part of Michael Doi’s — now Justice Doi’s — vision when he was president last year was that FACL would get involved in advocacy on a number of fronts including interventions in court cases,” Chan says.“That’s an example of where FACL can, through the legal skills of its members, work to achieve greater equity, diversity and inclusion in the community, so that’s going to be a continuing priority going forward.”
An immediate advocacy challenge for the group will be engaging the Law Society of Ontario’s board of benchers about the statement of principles requirement. As part of a package of recommendations to improve equity, diversity and inclusion, the law society has been requiring lawyers to write a statement saying they will promote diversity and inclusion principles. While FACL Ontario supports the requirement, many members of the newly elected board at the law society do not support it.
“It’s an interesting time for equity, diversity and inclusion — and a challenging time, many would say — given what’s happened in the recent bencher elections and all of the debates surrounding the statement of principles,” says Chan. "Our advocacy has taken many forms in the past. Certainly, it has taken the form of engagement with law society and Convocation, and now, more than ever, that’s important. But it’s not limited to that and I don’t want it to be limited to that.”
Exactly what opponents of the statement of principles will do is still unclear, Chan says, although a discussion is planned at a June 27 Convocation meeting.
“I recognize the concerns expressed on the other side about [the SOP] being inappropriate compelled speech. We disagree,” says Chan. “If you look at the oath that all lawyers have to swear — because it is a privilege to be a lawyer — it requires us to promote access to justice, among other things. No one quarrels with that. We don’t see equity, diversity and inclusion in the profession and in the community as any different.”
FACL is one of the equity-seeking groups that has advocated for preserving the statement of principles. The group is an intervenor in a related court case, Alford v. The Law Society of Upper Canada, and endorsed bencher candidates that supported the statement of principles requirement in an election this past spring.
“The main priority for me as FACL president would be to continue FACL’s commitment to equity diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, to be sure, but not just in the legal profession — in the broader community,” says Chan.
Given the strong reaction to the bencher endorsements, Chan says that social media will continue to be a big part of FACL Ontario’s outreach going forward. The group released a series of social media videos in May instructing viewers on how to pronounce names of Asian origin to coincide with Asian Heritage Month. The effort was inspired by insights from Janani Shanmuganathan, a partner at Goddard Nasseri LLP, and Eva Chan, a social media strategist, consultant and trainer for lawyers.
“[Shanmuganathan] wrote a great piece about how diminishing it can feel when either a judge or other lawyers don’t refer to you by your name out of fear they will mispronounce it …. Especially when that’s contrasted with calling the lawyers on the other side of the dispute ‘Mr. So-and-So’ or ‘Ms. So-and-So,’” says Chan. “The campaign has gotten a lot of positive feedback. The Ontario Court of Appeal, as I understand it, even showed it to their judges, because they thought it was an effective way to educate the profession and the public on the importance of making a real effort to pronounce people’s names. It sounds like a simple thing, but when it’s not done, it can have the effect of making racialized lawyers — or other lawyers with names that aren’t easy to pronounce — feel marginalized.”
FACL Ontario’s renewed board — which includes three new members appointed at a general meeting last week — will also work on events to keep the community connected and provide mentorship, says Chan. Last year, a Chief Justice of Canada Richard Wagner was a keynote speaker 12th Annual Conference and Gala.
“Our members may not always feel the same sense of belonging in the broader profession that non-racialized lawyers feel,” says Chan. “That’s not uniform across the board, but I think it is the reality for many of our members and members of other equity-seeking associations. That’s a need we hope to continue to serve.”