2020 has been an unprecedented year.
Yes, there have been pandemics before, but never in a world this populous and this dependent on global trade and supply chains that cross multiple borders.
Yes, there have been protests against systemic discrimination before, but never has the stark evidence of it reached so many people at the same time, resulting in increased awareness and calls for action everywhere.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement—which itself has become shorthand for systemic discrimination against any people due to their colour or creed, particularly Indigenous peoples in Canada—have highlighted both the limitations and inequities in the legal profession and the justice system, as well as the opportunities that can come from major disruption. They have pushed leaders to become more focused on their people, and have intensified demands for more diverse and inclusive workplaces.
The CBA has long called for modernization in the justice system, but it seems those who had the ability lacked the inclination to do so—that is, of course, until there was no alternative. The CBA created a COVID-19 task force to consider solutions to the evolving problems posed by the pandemic, as well as systemic changes to improve the justice system generally. One thing most who are involved in the system can agree on is that there can be no going back to the way it was before. Not every change that has been considered can be implemented and sustained at this time, but movement forward has begun and must not be permitted to stop.
The CBA has also been a strong proponent of equity in the legal profession and the justice system, but since the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd this past spring, along with incidents here in Canada, we’ve all heard and seen numerous examples of the work that is left to do.
Here are a few of the things the CBA is currently doing:
- In September, former CBA President Vivene Salmon and I wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Justice Minister David Lametti to call for more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) representation on the federal bench. Our letter was part of a coordinated effort to increase awareness about the lack of diversity in the courts. Vivene and I also met with Minister Lametti to discuss next steps.
- Following the recommendations of our Truth and Reconciliation Task Force in May, we launched The Path, a five-part accredited series that dissects the historic relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples, and looks at the legacy of institutionalized oppression like the Indian Residential School Program. More than 1,500 people have registered for the program so far.
- In September, we launched a podcast series presented by Myrna McCallum in partnership with the Truth and Reconciliation Initiative on trauma-informed lawyering.
- My own podcast series, Conversations with the President, will look at the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that deal directly with the legal profession and the justice system.
- Unconscious bias exists and is real, so our Equality Subcommittee created a webinar on the subject to assist members to understand it and address the issue in their own practices, organizations and lives.
In addition, we are looking at ways to increase and highlight our equality-related offerings.
The private, public and in-house bars all have a role to play in making the legal profession more welcoming to our BIPOC colleagues as well as those from other equity-seeking groups, such as disabled lawyers. In-house counsel, in particular, can be instrumental in areas such as succession planning and attracting and retaining diverse talent, since they are also strategic business advisers. You can be champions of diversity and inclusion in your departments and your organizations, encouraging employees to speak up and be heard on diversity issues. You can demand, when hiring external counsel, that those firms have a commitment to hiring and promoting diverse lawyers and encourage them to provide mentoring opportunities.
The business case for promoting diversity and inclusion has been made over and over again: diversity around the boardroom table subverts group-think, introduces a variety of perspectives necessary in today’s world, and leads to better decision-making, not to mention an improved bottom line. It can also improve your reputation and make your business more attractive to diverse clients.
It’s 2020. It’s an unprecedented year, and it is a prime opportunity to rewrite some of the rule books to better reflect our profession’s commitment to justice and human rights.
Brad Regehr is the 2020-2021 President of the Canadian Bar Association.