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Alberta lawyers speak out on racism within the justice system

Last autumn, the Law Society of Alberta began collecting stories from lawyers and law students who had experienced racism during their legal career.

Last autumn, the Law Society of Alberta began collecting stories from lawyers and law students who had experienced racism during their legal career in the province.

For the last several months, they have been sharing those stories on their website through what they’ve called the “My Experience” Project. Every week, they share a news story.

While this seems like a great idea, to discover the racism prevalent in the Alberta justice system, not everyone agreed. Or, not entirely anyhow.

For example, submission #2 had this to say:

This project itself, to me, reflects a lack of understanding of what being BIPOC in the legal profession is like because you want us to express our concerns in 750 words. Our experiences, at least my experience cannot be adequately expressed in 750 words.

Submission #1 also had a few critical comments:

I have the impression that this initiative of the Law Society to invite Alberta lawyers of colour to tell their stories, comes up after witnessing the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and the “shocking” remarks made by President Trump on China, non-whites, kung flu (covid-19) etc. If this initiative is indeed the product of the “blunders” of President Trump, then I find it pathetic. Racism has been present in Canada (including the legal profession) for centuries and will continue to prevail after Donald Trump will leave office. Yet, nothing or very little was done so far by the law societies to weed out racism from the legal profession.

As did submission #20:

While I am relieved to hear that the Law Society is making an effort to “adopting a listen, learn and act approach to issues of racism and discrimination within the legal profession”. I am very skeptical due to the long history of efforts made in various formats including the royal commission that is now commonly referred to as “gathering dust”. I can’t help but wonder will this just be another effort to make everyone feel better, so you can say look what we did and does nothing to really address systemic racism? What will be different? More importantly how will my lived experience make any changes?

Submission #30 opened with this:

I do not believe that the Law Society of Alberta will help a single one of us. I believe very much that the people who treat us badly are the same people who end up in positions of power and they are not going to change. I think this project is nonsense. I hope however that my story helps someone feel less alone.

And finally submission #13:

I am concerned that the Law Society’s call for “experiences” is misaimed, as it elicits the same refrain of racism in the legal profession. We already know racism exists in very direct, and systemic ways in law. Calling for the experiences almost seems to suggest that we need “evidence” of this so-called racism in our beloved profession.

Even so, there are quite a few submissions, each of which have insights into the lives of racialized people working within the justice system of Alberta.

There are so many experiences shared in the project so far that it’d be difficult to include them all here in their entirety, so I’ve chosen to summarize a few. You can read each submission in its entirety on the project website.

Asian

“Once I had a JDR before a Calgary judge. This judge did not know me as he was supernumerary and I was working in [a medium sized city in Alberta]. Before going to the JDR, I obviously filed my briefs. At some point during the JDR, the judge asked me where did I study law. The judge was puzzled because my materials were written in good English but I speak English with a French accent and I look Indian.”

Submission #1

No, I’m not going to accept being called “Oriental”; I don’t care that your grandma used that word and it’s what you grew up with to describe people like me. No, actually I’m not good at math and yes, you should not be surprised that I speak English without an accent – why do you think I chose to go law school? No, it’s not appropriate to hearken back to your glory days belittling former Chinese clients speaking English as a second language, doing your best Ching-Chong accent in front of current clients and your clearly Chinese junior. And no, I’m not a liberal snowflake who took his ball and ran off to his safe space.

Submission #19

There is a reported judgment from a jurist I (still) respect, who observed that Asians have a reputation in the community for being industrious and good at math. But as a professor who was recently interviewed in the media about anti-Asian racism has said, we must “interrupt and interrogate our implicit biases.” These stereotypical “compliments” have an enduring impact on generations of Asians who might aspire to enter the legal profession. The subtext is that we are studious and quiet. That we are not expected to excel at English. That we would not excel at persuading a judge.

Submission #27

In less than 1.5 years of practicing law in Alberta, I have experienced the following from the particular legal community that I was practicing in:

a negative comment to me by a lawyer, in front of another lawyer, about how people from my culture eat dogs

upon learning that I had won a trial, a senior lawyer told me that the judge gave me the decision because I was Asian, which I still do not comprehend to this day

an intense scolding by a provincial court judge, who singled me out and yelled at me angrily in open court (in front of other lawyers and members of the public) for not being in court at the exact start time even though there were more senior counsel who had matters to speak to ahead of me (I had never seen anybody else being scolded for not being in court at the exact start time, and there was only one video room that lawyers could use at this particular courthouse to speak with in-custody clients, which I was waiting in line for pursuant to my agency instructions)

a lawyer bragging about calling a person with an Indian accent a “raghead” over the phone

the crossing out of my name on a counsel list at a courthouse by Lawyer “X” for the name of a famous Asian martial artist (he thought it was funny, so he couldn’t resist the urge to show it to another lawyer)

in March 2020, in a busy courtroom and in front of other lawyers and members of the public, Lawyer “X” made a ‘joking’ comment to me that I had started the coronavirus because I was “eating a bat,” which was one of the most racist comments that I have personally experienced in my life (I am not even Chinese-Canadian, and even if I were, it would still have been very offensive).

Submission #37

Black

Although I have lived my entire life being one of a handful of visible minorities in any environment I’ve ever been in, I have never felt less included, less represented and less welcome than I did in law school.

Submission #4

Our law school curriculum barely touched on the existence of systemic racism. With the exception of a single optional human rights course, I do not recall ever being educated as to the challenges faced by visible minorities in accessing justice through the law nor the existence of systemic racism and its interplay with the rule of law. Likewise, the bar admission course also failed to identify awareness surrounding these issues as a professional competency.

Submission #4

The articling experience was also fraught with challenge. I realized very early – and in fact was even told by one interviewer that I might be a better fit elsewhere due to reasons associated with my hairstyle.

Submission #4

I strongly believe that visible minorities – and in particular both black and indigenous lawyers, have a more difficult time finding articles, often have very poor articling experiences with limited supervision and mentorship, and due to systemic barriers, often end up working for themselves independently after articles due to challenges in finding employment.

Submission #4

Comments about either my perceived “accent” or shock at how well I speak English being confused with the handful of other black female lawyers in the City, assumptions about my prior educational background or lack thereof, assumptions about the fact that I must have benefited from affirmative action in order to gain entry to law school, snide comments about “black lawyers” and their competence — while all seemingly minor, have further supported the feeling of not being entirely welcome.

Submission #4

Indigenous

While serving as in-house counsel to oil and gas companies, I frequently and regularly encountered racial discrimination and stereotyping towards Indigenous peoples from my General Counsels as well as Executive Teams. The most common themes included:

Indigenous peoples only want money, are lazy and have no rights or interests worthy of protection or respect

Indigenous people are all drunks (or worse) and can’t be trusted

Indigenous peoples will accept whatever is thrown their way and should be grateful that anything is even thrown their way

Indigenous peoples have worldviews and beliefs that are primitive and nonsensical

Reconciliation is pointless and can never be achieved so no sense bothering to try

Indigenous peoples don’t have it that bad so why can’t they make something of themselves

Submission #18

Is it really my job to share my experiences so society can learn about systemic racism? Do I really have to tell you your being racist when you say things like:

“Why are we paying for the mistakes made a 100 years ago”

“Don’t associate with the Native Courtworkers they’re not professional”

“Oh poor me, I had a bad childhood and my parents were mean to me because they went to residential school, I need a Gladue Report…. give me a break”

“Be careful what you say, it will be all over Windspeaker or APTN”

Submission #20

The kind of comments that I have heard working as an Indigenous lawyer coming from other lawyers, colleagues and even from the bench tell me one thing: we have failed as a society to teach each other love and respect for each other, we have failed to learn from each other, we have failed to acknowledge the mistakes of our past and learn from them.

Submission #20

When I started appearing in the different courts, Judges would look at me like I should be in the prisoners’ dock! One Judge told me that Native Courtworkers do not sit at defence counsel table. Another Judge started to ask me about my credentials (did I graduate from Law School). Another Judge literally GAPED once I appeared at defence counsel table and introduced myself.

Submission #23

The law firm that hired me wanted me to bring the group of First Nations that I was from with me as clients. They wanted the resource files and litigation files of my nations. When I did not bring that in, my principle stopped speaking with me, as did some of the partners of the firm. I had to rely on others for my articling work. Needless to say, they did not keep me. But, any failures in my articling experience were my fault, and not the firm’s. That was made very clear to me.

Submission #24

Once, I had to go to Master’s chambers to obtain an order. I can’t recall what I was asking for in particular, but it was for a fairly routine order. I made a mistake in my verbal submission, and I got blasted by the Master. The room was full of students and lawyers. I was blasted and berated for asking for something that was so improper and so illegal that he would never grant it. I had responses to give him, but he never gave me the opportunity to correct myself. By the time he was finished my mind was blank and I couldn’t recall my responses to his charges (there were so many). I never was sent back to chambers after that. I spent the rest of the day in tears.

Submission #24

Sometimes when I was in court, duty counsel would often ask me if I needed representation. Sometimes, in chambers, masters would ask me what I was there for, and it was on the assumption that I was there as a plaintiff or defendant, and not counsel. It didn’t matter that I wore suits. I think that even if I went to court in robes, I would still get looked at askance as though there was a mistake. In court, clerks and sergeant-at-arms would assume I wasn’t counsel. This happened all the time.

Submission #24

At law school a non-aboriginal student placed notes in each class arguing against the [Alberta] [u]niversity[‘s] separate admission process for aboriginal students and the free education they received. He wanted the non-aboriginal students to be given credit towards their law degree for passing high school courses, which he felt was need to level the playing field between the aboriginal and non-aboriginal students.

Submission #29

During my practice of law several years ago I was in attendance at a consultation meeting in [a small town in Alberta] with municipal government officials. A town councilor with disdain referred to “those people” in reference to a nearby aboriginal community. I immediately interrupted asked the person to clarify who “those people” were. A colleague next to me put a hand on my arm and quietly asked me to let it go. The councilor was uneased and backtracked on his words. I let it go but was visibly angered. A different councilor approached me immediately after the meeting to assure me that they weren’t racist, just frustrated with the community. I could do nothing but walk away.

Submission #29

When meeting with our client to sign all of the asset-purchase documents, and celebrating that we were near the finish line (and after all of my hard work), the client proceeded to bring out a piece of paper that he printed off at home and started to read it to me and the partner in the room – this paper was from an email thread that essentially denigrated First Nation people and perpetuated some awful myths and stereotypes.

The client knew I was Indigenous and did not consider that I would not appreciate what he was doing. And the partner who was sitting with us in the conference room knew I was Indigenous, and said nothing to me until after the meeting – at which point the partner said he was not sure what to do and brought up another similar incident with another client and said he didn’t know what to do in that moment either.

Submission #35

South Asian

Whilst at law school, you are asked in class to explain the reasons behind the actions of terrorists

At an Articling interview at a national law firm, the first question you are asked is what your view is on the events of September 11, 2001

During your Articles, you visit a penitentiary and are asked for additional ID because the prison guards don’t believe you’re a lawyer

At a law firm interview in a large city, you are again asked what your view is on the events of September 11, 2001

Whilst visiting a client, client calls the firm to verify you speak English

Submission #6

As a Muslim, East-Indian woman, practicing as in-house legal counsel at a large organization, I was subjected to inappropriate comments about my religion, my culture, and about being a female by the other male lawyers.

“I hope you are not going to start wearing that thing around your head?”

“If Muslim women are permitted to wear the niqab, we will wear a balaclava to the bank.”

“How do you justify your faith after the terrorist attack in the world today?”

“It’s Ramadan, do you want a ham sandwich?”

They would often mock Muslims by imitating or making fun of the Arabic recitations.

A Muslim, member of the public had an issue with a decision, this was discussed at a meeting, and the Director responded “tell him to go pray to Allah all he wants…”

I told the Human Resources Advisor I was very unhappy about the Islamophobia comments being made, she responded by asking “what is Islamophobia?”

At legal meetings – the Director thought it would be funny to give everyone who attended an Indian name, so “Marvin” would be called “Marvinder” as the Director thought it was very funny to ridicule traditional Indian names.

Once a Senior Male Lawyer justified his racist views by explaining he was permitted to be racist as he “grew up being a poor white kid.”

Submission #26

And it’s not just racism either. There were several submissions from white lawyer who shared experiences of sexism and classism.

My first stereotyping experience occurred during articling recruitment. I had made it to second round interviews with a prestigious law firm. I sat down with the interviewing partner who subsequently asked for my forgiveness, as “he was not used to women like me being in this position”. According to him, “women like me are better suited as secretaries. We should sit there with our [breasts (but instead of using the word, he gestured to my chest)] pushed out and keep the male clients happy.” After all, “those were the good days”. In hindsight, I guess I expected to face some stereotyping during articling recruitment, but I did not expect the comments to be so abrupt and obvious – especially because it was 2017. I spent the remainder of the interview in shock. Even though he wasn’t alone in conducting the interview, none of his colleagues spoke up.

Submission #33

The difference in my experience is because I did not share the life experience of my privileged counterparts, and I had to work my way through undergrad and law school so I would not come out mired in debt. As such I did not benefit from many of the programs that the those from wealthier families could secure. I did not fit in at articling interviews as I had no experience interviewing for professional employment. Before going to law school I worked underground in a mine, and bar tended.

I did not have a lot of time for developing friendships in university as I was too busy working. I could not do exchange studies overseas because I could not afford it. As such I spent a lot of time alone at the gym. It was a lonely and devastating experience. Law school made it so much worse.

Submission #3

When I graduated from law school could tell you from looking at the members of my third year class who had and who did not have an article. Anyone who was “different” did not have an article in third year. By “different”, I mean anyone who was not a young, white, male. The people who struggled to get articles were the
students who were visible minorities, students who had disabilities, mature students, and students who would likely be characterized as not physically attractive. The women in our class who were “textbook” attractive were more likely to get articles but even then faced inappropriate questions about their fertility and priorities. Having spoken to law school graduates recently, it sounds like not much has changed in law firm hiring practices in the last 20 years.

Submission #14

By Kim Siever

I live in Lethbridge with my spouse and 4 of our 6 children. I’m a writer, focusing on political news, social issues, and the occasional poem. My politics are radically left.

I’m also dichotomally Mormon. And I’m a functional vegetarian: I have a blog post about that somewhere around here. My pronouns are he/him, and I’m queer.

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