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In December of 2016, the board of directors of the Law Society of Ontario (LSO), who are known as “benchers,” imposed a “statement of principles” (SOP) on their membership —a mandatory requirement for renewal of membership—in which they would acknowledge their “obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion” in both their professional and personal affairs.
The regulatory body also required law firms with 10 or more lawyers or paralegals to complete an “inclusion self-assessment” every two years and publish the results. Those lawyers and firms who refused to comply with these demands were threatened with “progressive compliance measures.”
The motivation behind these initiatives was to eliminate “racism” in the practice of law, which in their understanding was not actual bias in the treatment of minority colleagues or clients, but the lack of proportionate representation of minorities in the profession of law. Thus, the SOP was in fact a commitment to a belief system—Marxism in a word—which demands equality of outcomes. Henceforth, for the right to practice law, LSO members would be compelled to express commitment to an ideology rather than to unbiased behaviour in their treatment of colleagues and clients.
A minority of legal professionals were alarmed by its implications and decided to take political action. Twenty-three of us formed a campaign team for the 2019 Benchers election that took place in late April. Our slate of candidates were called StopSOP (“Stop the Statement of Principles”) and we were committed to “repealing the requirement and reversing the imposition of identity politics on professional norms,” as leading dissident, Queens University law professor Bruce Pardy put it in a recent National Post article.
Twenty-two of us were elected, resulting in a majority position and a victory for StopSOP. Many were delighted at the result, and many were dismayed. Everyone was surprised, because in the first year of the SOP rollout, although it was mandatory, no penalties were to be imposed for failure to sign, yet virtually all lawyers and paralegals did in fact sign it. Why the compliance then, and the defiance now? I believe it was because our team made an effective case (this, after all, is what we do for a living), and we opened/changed minds in the court of collegial opinion. Democracy worked.
I have always known that any such SOP is an infringement of my freedom of expression and thought, and that compelled speech and policed thought are unhealthy for any society. But I had assumed my only choice was passive resistance and acceptance of discipline for professional misconduct. When StopSOP arose as an alternative, I seized the opportunity to engage more positively—at first, only by donating money, and then, when asked by organizer Lisa Bildy to join the StopSOP slate (and after overcoming feelings of insecurity and shyness), as a full-fledged activist.
During the campaign, I was sidelined by illness and open-heart surgery. But the team continued to support me without complaint. When I felt well enough, I promoted myself through emails and any other way I could, including a March interview with the Law Times, in which I articulated my motivation for running for office. When the results came in, I felt my sense of vulnerability slip away; I felt pride in setting an example for my children.
The slate chose me as their media spokesperson. I had no hesitation in assuming this task, because I had earned my spurs in this role in 2014 as the spokesperson for David Chen, the grocer whose ordeal changed the law on citizens’ arrests. In an interview with the CBC, the reporter’s first concern was to elicit comment on the fact that I shared the slate with mostly white men. I honestly responded that this fact had made no impact on me. Although there had been many comments on our slate’s racial and gender makeup on social media, my own focus was completely on the principles and goals we shared. I hardly know some of the members of the slate personally, but I consider all of them comrades-in-arms in a just cause.
I was also asked why a group of white people would choose an ethnic woman to speak on their behalf. I am 59 years old, with 28 years experience in litigation (and before that, a career in space engineering), but all this reporter could see was my skin colour. I was dismayed and insulted by the implication that I had been chosen as a token minority rather than for my qualifications to do so, and I said as much to the reporter, who had no response. That portion of our exchange was not aired. Too bad. It would have spoken volumes about the media’s obsession with group identity to the general public.
Our slate knew that the results could have gone either way. We are naturally elated that our message, delivered with heartfelt passion, got through to our constituency. Lawyers are on the front lines of individual rights. This was an important victory for the LSO and its membership, but an even more important victory for the principle of freedom of speech, the foundational right on which all our other rights as Canadians rest.
As an immigrant, I have always loved Canada for the nourishment and support for my endeavours I have received since I arrived here at the age of 15. I have always bristled at suggestions that Canada is a racist country. With this election archived in the history books, it is now my turn to give back to Canada, to offer whatever nourishment and support I can to help ensure that the freedoms that attracted my family to its shores, remain strong for my children and for theirs, and for theirs.