Be the Driver of Real Change in Equality

  • July 15, 2020
  • Vivene Salmon

Be the Driver of Real Change in Equality

I’m sitting on my balcony, high above the city, watching the sun slowly sink below the blazing Toronto skyline. I sip a tall, cold glass of pink lemonade as tiny fairy lights begin to fill in the approaching night sky. The noise of an ambulance breaks the calm of the evening and then retreats. It is summer in the “Big Smoke.”

A million thoughts swirl in my mind. So much has changed in a mere four months, since the coronavirus began sweeping across the world, upending the stability and excitement of daily life while devastating the global economy. It seems the whole world is on stand-by and the future is uncertain.

Meanwhile, my social media feed is on a constant loop, filling up hour by hour, minute by minute with news of the #MeToo movement and of powerful men exploiting their position and abusing their moral authority.

My heart breaks into a thousand pieces as I hear about another Indigenous woman who has disappeared or been murdered, discarded like a piece of trash. I wonder who is wiping away the tears of the family left behind.

I am gripped by the shocking details emerging of a global child trafficking ring orchestrated by Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell, and other power and privileged people.

I recoil with horror and anger as I watch George Floyd, an African American, being murdered over and over again in front of my eyes by a police officer—an agent of the State who is authorized to serve and protect. But I am not shocked. I see the evolution of the equality movement being sparked again as a new generation of protestors takes to streets around the world to protest racial inequality and advocate for #BlackLivesMatter.

All these issues seem years in the making, overwhelming to solve and beyond our control. Quite frankly, I have my own problems to deal with, and so do you. But...

As members of an in-house legal community, privileged by our education, relative power, influence and social connections, we can lead change. Real change.

Each one of us has a voice to individually and collectively demand accountability and answers, to respectfully challenge authority, to not be complicit in silence, to look internally at our own frailties as humans and try to be the positive change we wish to see in the world. We can have the courage to have honest and open dialogue about inequality, racism, sexism, sexual orientation, disability, language rights and more. And not only have the dialogue but also do something about it.

I hope I do not come across as morally righteous. Like you, I am resolutely human and flawed.

A line from the poem, “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost springs to mind: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

Perhaps we can hold each other accountable, we can respect each other, we can listen more and talk less, we can creatively build more inclusive associations and legal profession and a better society. Who more than anyone else has the tools to lead change except lawyers? And as in-house lawyers, we are at the forefront to lead change in corporate Canada.

One of our own, recently retired in-house counsel Ken Fredeen, is playing a key role in leading change and allyship. In a recent article in the Globe and Mail, he writes, “There are four key pillars that Canadian companies can focus on in order to drive systemic change all the way into C-suites and boardrooms: inclusion, education, employment and economic empowerment. These pillars align with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business’s Progressive Aboriginal Relations program and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.” I would also include belonging and the willingness to share power.

What’s Being Done?

The CCCA is about to launch a scholarship for a Black or Indigenous student in its Business Leadership Program for In-House Counsel at Rotman School of Management. A scholarship for a student with disabilities is already offered in partnership with Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusion.

Last year, when Vice-President of the CBA, I spearheaded the Leadership Development Bootcamp for Racialized Lawyers, which brought diverse lawyers from across the country together, creating a safe place for them to discuss the obstacles they face.

The CBA has passed resolutions, made submissions to government and worked with government to create legislation. Through these submissions, it has acted as an advocate decrying the over-incarceration of Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada’s prisons.

The CBA Truth and Reconciliation Task Force on Indigenous issues made recommendations in 2019 on the ways the CBA can promote the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s calls to action. In response to the Task Force’s recommendations, the CBA has begun training staff on diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias, and created cultural competency programming for CBA members. “The Path” educational program seeks to increase awareness of the legacy of the residential school system, support anti-racism/bias training and increase cultural competency as it relates to the Indigenous community.

The CBA Women Lawyers Forum has advocated for more inclusive gowning policies for women lawyers across Canada in our courts and we have trained judges on LGBTQ2SI issues.

The CBA has a podcast series that uses voices in the legal profession to discuss issues of diversity.

These are all steps in the right direction that we should applaud. However, we must also be mindful that we are doing the hard work to make the legal profession truly inclusive and to provide equal opportunity, not merely paying lip service.

The 2020 In-House Counsel Compensation & Career Survey revealed deep issues around compensation in the in-house community. The results show that women continue to be paid less than men in the same roles in the legal profession. The gap of 11% remains the same as reported in 2018 and represents a significant disparity in pay between female and male lawyers. Racialized lawyers report a mean salary $12,000 below that reported by non-racialized lawyers and racialized women are even lower on the scale.

Many Canadian companies have made statements condemning racism, specifically anti-Black systemic racism. However, it comes across as a bit trite if there is no real action to back it up.

One new organization created to drive change is the Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism, which launched its BlackNorth Initiative (BLN) in June. Its mission is to break down anti-Black systemic barriers negatively affecting the lives of Black Canadians. As part of that, it created the BlackNorth Initiative CEO Pledge, asking senior business leaders in Canada to commit their companies to specific actions and targets designed to end anti-Black systemic racism and create meaningful opportunities for underrepresented groups in the business community. Perhaps, we can encourage our own organization to sign on to the Pledge.

There is still a lot of work to be done before we come close to equality in either the legal profession or the justice system as a whole, but that does not mean we should not try. And try hard, with meaningful data and clear targets.

In the words of the writer James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Vivene Salmon is the President of the Canadian Bar Association and holds the distinction of being the first president of colour and only the second president from the in-house counsel community. She works for Bank of America Merrill Lynch as Vice-President, Country Compliance Manager, Global Banking and Markets Compliance