Osgoode grads serving Canada’s top courts as law clerks – including the Supreme Court of Canada

Barbara Brown and Jennah Khaled

Barbara Brown thought she had blown it. Sitting face to face over Zoom with two judges of the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) in February 2022, the 2021 Osgoode Hall Law School graduate suddenly found herself stumbling and stammering. The interview lasted less than 20 minutes and, afterwards, it felt like her chances of being hired as a 2023 Supreme Court law clerk were fading fast.

“The interviews feel like quite a blur,” she recalled. “I wasn’t feeling super confident about how it went.”

But the second interview with two more justices seemed to go much better. And last February, when she was articling with the Court of Appeal for Ontario, she noticed a call coming in from an unknown number. It turned out to be the Supreme Court of Canada with a job offer.

“I was kind of shaking and very overwhelmed,” she remembered.

Brown and her Osgoode classmate and friend Jennah Khaled will both be serving as law clerks for the Supreme Court of Canada, beginning in August 2023. Khaled will be clerking for Justice Malcolm Rowe, while Brown learned in October that she will clerk for Justice Michelle O’Bonsawin, the Supreme Court’s first Indigenous judge.

Brown and Khaled are among a bumper crop of Osgoode graduates who are currently clerking for top Canadian courts or who are slated to serve in 2023-24. Clerkships typically run for a one-year term, with an option to extend them to two years.

Law clerks assist judges with all aspects of their work, including researching, drafting and editing judgments. It’s an invaluable experience for any young lawyer.

Khaled, who is currently clerking for Justice David Stratas of the Federal Court of Appeal, said she was encouraged to apply for the SCC clerkship by Osgoode Professors Karen Drake, Richard Haigh, Dan Priel, Carys Craig and Emily Kidd White.

“I worked with many of these professors closely while I was managing editor of the Osgoode Hall Law Journal (OHLJ),” she said. “They taught me about the relationship between legal academia and judicial thinking.”

She noted that the rigorous interview process challenged her to “think deeply and honestly about what my motivations were, why I had chosen this profession, and what I thought about the state of the law at this early stage of my career.”

Brown said she was drawn to the opportunity, in part, because of her interest in complex civil litigation cases.

“I thought if I was going to be arguing those cases,” she said, “it would be useful to know how judges decide these things. There’s no better person to learn from in terms of how to win a case than a judge.”

She said that pursuing the opportunity also seemed important in terms of representation because a comparatively small proportion of Black law students go on to clerk.

She added that she’s looking forward to witnessing first-hand the dynamics of legal argument in Canada’s highest court and the collegiality of exchanging ideas with Supreme Court justices and her fellow clerks.

Khaled said that she has received “fantastic” mentorship and foundational training in legal writing and administrative law through her work with Justice Stratas and is eager to compare the two experiences.

“I am looking forward to seeing the contrast between the work of an intermediate appellate court and Canada’s apex court,” she said in an email.

Osgoode graduates who are currently serving as clerks at other courts for the 2022-23 term include Akshay Aurora (Court of Appeal for Ontario), Adam Donaldson (Ontario Superior Court of Justice), Joshua Hearn (Ontario Superior Court of Justice), Alison Imrie (Court of Appeal for Ontario), Matthew Kay (Ontario Superior Court of Justice), Haritha Popuri (Ontario Superior Court of Justice Divisional Court) and Erin Sobat (Court of Appeal for Ontario).

Osgoode students or graduates who will be serving as clerks for the 2023-24 term include Annika Butler (Ontario Superior Court of Justice), Emily Yin Kot (Federal Court), Frank (Francis) Nasca (Court of Appeal for Ontario), Priyanka Sharma (Federal Court), Matthew Traister (Federal Court) and Emily Wuschnakowski (Ontario Superior Court of Justice Divisional Court).

“I am tremendously proud of and inspired by all our students who successfully obtained clerkship positions,” said Osgoode Associate Dean (Students) Karen Drake.

“They will have a rare opportunity to gain insight into the inner workings of our judicial system and to hone their legal analysis and research skills,” she added. “I look forward to following their careers and future accomplishments with great interest.”

Osgoode Hall Law School and Toronto District School Board join forces to break down barriers to legal careers

Raise the Black Bar. Opening up career opportunities in law

Canada’s leading law school and the country’s largest school board are coming together to create a unique program designed to break down barriers for Black high school students considering careers as lawyers.

Known as Raise the Black Bar (RTBB), the initiative is the result of a ground-breaking partnership involving Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, the Osgoode chapter of the Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA Osgoode) and the Toronto District School Board. It will officially launch during a ceremony at Osgoode Hall Law School on Nov. 30.

“We believe this is the first program of its kind focusing specifically on the needs of Black high school students,” said Bunisha Samuels, president of BLSA Osgoode and a third-year law student at Osgoode. The program was initiated by members of BLSA Osgoode who wanted to bridge the gap to university and create more opportunities for Black students in the legal sector.

“I’m optimistic that Raise the Black Bar is going to help create a whole new generation of Black law students and Black lawyers,” she added. “I wish I had had this when I was in high school.”

Osgoode Hall Law School Dean Mary Condon said that Osgoode’s goal to be the most diverse, accessible law school in Canada is integral to its vision for excellence.

“Beginning with the introduction of our holistic admissions policy 15 years ago, Osgoode has been a leader among Canadian law schools in breaking down barriers to inclusion,” she said.

“We’re proud and very excited to continue that tradition by partnering with Canada’s largest school board to create the Raise the Black Bar program,” she added. “Like the TDSB, we believe to our core that diversity is our strength and the path to true excellence in the legal profession and beyond. RTBB will open the door to a new generation of talented lawyers and we can’t wait to witness their amazing achievements.”

Colleen Russell-Rawlins, TDSB Director of Education praised the new program as a potential springboard into legal careers for Black students.

“The Toronto District School Board is committed to improving the experiences and outcomes for Black students and is proud to partner with Osgoode Hall Law School for the Raise the Black Bar initiative,” she said. “This initiative is an incredible opportunity for Black secondary students to learn more about the diverse career options in law, enhance their understanding of legal education and pathways, and connect directly with Black law student mentors.”

Samuels said the program is open to all Black students across the TDSB’s 110 secondary schools, with a focus on those in Grades 10, 11 and 12. As the program ramps up, RTBB will give students the opportunity to participate in small group mentorship meetings with practicing Black legal professionals and Black law students.

Among other things, students will learn about diverse career opportunities in law, pathways to law school and financial aid. Mentors will also help students navigate barriers unique to Black students and will debunk myths about law, law school and legal careers. They will also coach them on how to build a winning resume and cover letter and how to network in professional and academic areas of interest prior to entering law.

As RTBB evolves, high school students will also be eligible to participate in additional outreach events, including presentations from Osgoode administration and Black law students focused on the admissions process and what it means to be a legal professional. In addition, RTBB organizers are planning law firm and court tours to showcase a typical day in the life of a lawyer, judge or court clerk, a mock trial to help develop skills such as written and oral advocacy, and a panel event with select Black lawyers at the annual Know Your Worth youth empowerment conference, which is open to all Black students.

The official, Nov. 30 Raise the Black Bar launch will take place at Osgoode Hall Law School on York University’s main Keele Campus, beginning at 9:30 a.m., and will feature a tour of Osgoode Hall Law School, a panel discussion with Black legal professionals on the topic of “So, you want to become a lawyer,” and a Black law student panel discussion on “What can I do NOW to prepare for law school.” About 100 high school students are expected to attend.


Osgoode PhD candidate receives prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship

Even amid the glitz and glam of Hollywood, Deanne Sowter had a longing to make a real difference – not a reel one. Taking on the role of a true changemaker led her to Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.

Now the former film producer turned Osgoode PhD candidate is poised to influence the future of family law practice and legal ethics as one of the recipients of what some consider Canada’s most prestigious doctoral award: the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGS).

Sowter was officially named Nov. 28 as a 2022 recipient of the Vanier CGS, which will provide her with $50,000 per year for up to three years to support her research.

Osgoode Hall Law School Dean Mary Condon paid tribute to her achievement. “This is wonderful news, not only for Deanne, Osgoode and York, but for Canada’s legal community,” she said. “Deanne’s work in the area of legal ethics and family law has already been cited by the Supreme Court of Canada, and the awarding of the Vanier scholarship will help to ensure that the legal system will continue to benefit from her research.”

In a testament to the significance and quality of her research, Sowter learned soon after receiving word about the Vanier that she had also placed first among 136 applicants across Canada for a SSHRC Canada Graduate Scholarship – Doctoral, valued at $35,000 per year for up to three years. She was obliged to decline the offer, along with a $15,000, one-year Ontario Graduate Scholarship, in favour of the Vanier scholarship because students may only hold one Tri-Council CGS award at a time.

“The Vanier means an enormous amount to me,” she said. “It’s an endorsement of my research, but it is also an endorsement of research on family law, legal ethics and family violence, which is extremely encouraging.”

“There is a serious need for family law and legal ethics research in Canada”, she added. “I am grateful to have this opportunity to focus exclusively on my research and hopefully continue to contribute meaningfully to the study and practice of family law in Canada.”

Osgoode has provided the support, the expertise, and the inspiration for her to thrive as a doctoral student, said Sowter, who paid particular tribute to her PhD adviser, Professor Trevor Farrow.

“Osgoode is very fortunate to have a diligent and accomplished scholar like Deanne as part of its outstanding graduate program,” said Farrow, who serves as Osgoode’s Associate Dean, Research. “Her work in the areas of legal ethics, family law and domestic violence is well-regarded and widely cited, and her PhD research is challenging and reimagining professional responsibility in the context of family law.”

Sowter’s doctoral research is based on her argument that the prevailing understanding of a lawyer’s role in Canada fails to capture the realities of family law and does not respond effectively to non-adversarial advocacy, family violence and issues involving a client’s child.

“My dissertation relies on legal theory, doctrinal, and social science research to explain the impacts of those inadequacies for family law clients,” she explained, “and to offer a reformulation of family lawyers’ duties in order to support legal and regulatory change.”

Like many mature students, it took Sowter a little time to find her true calling. She first earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in film and video from York University in 2000, and then went on to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles for a master of fine arts degree in 2002. She later worked for producer Kathleen Kennedy (Seabiscuit, Munich). But she was missing something, she noted in her application for the Vanier scholarship.

“The truth is, as much as I loved making movies, and still miss the comradery and creativity of that life, I was never quite fulfilled,” she confided. “I wanted to contribute to this life in a more meaningful way. I grew envious of people who worked with real people – my life seemed very superficial in comparison.”

She calls her choice to attend Osgoode Hall Law School for both her JD and PhD programs one of the best decisions of her life. Since earning her JD in 2013, she has earned an LLM from the University of Toronto, worked as a family lawyer with a Toronto firm, as an instructor at the University of Calgary, as an adjunct professor at Western University’s Faculty of Law, and is currently a Research Fellow at the Winkler Institute for Dispute Resolution at Osgoode Hall Law School.

The Vanier CGS program plays an important role in fulfilling the Government of Canada’s Science and Technology strategy to promote the development and application of leading-edge knowledge. It is also intended to support the development of a world-class workforce and attract and retain the world’s top graduate students. To be selected, students must demonstrate strong leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in graduate studies in the social sciences and humanities, natural sciences and engineering or health.

Osgoode professor’s book project will examine an Indigenous community’s battle against powerful mining interests in Northern Ontario

Dayna scott standing at entrance to osgoode hall law school

Osgoode Hall Law School Associate Professor Dayna Scott is chronicling a small Indigenous community’s existential battle to protect its culture, land and resources in the face of an overwhelming push to mine minerals for electric vehicles from deep below the ecologically sensitive peatlands of Ontario’s far north.

Scott, who has visited Neskantaga First Nation numerous times over the past seven years, discussed her book project during one of Osgoode’s ongoing Faculty Research Series events on Oct. 25. Performing what is known as community-based participatory research (CBPR), she said she has observed many interactions between Neskantaga leaders, politicians and mining companies and aims to document the shifting dynamics through successive chapters.

Faculty members, research fellows and students at the hybrid event peppered her with questions and offered suggestions on how to approach the project.

Neskantaga First Nation is one of several First Nations most profoundly impacted by the Ring of Fire, a massive, proposed nickel mining development in the mineral-rich James Bay Lowlands of Northern Ontario. The area is also believed to hold vast deposits of chromite, copper and platinum. But the wetlands are a massive carbon store that have been referred to as “the world’s lungs.” The project would include the construction of an estimated $1.6 billion, 450-kilometre, all-season road through First Nations territory, including boreal forest and muskeg.

“Various governments have hitched their hopes to the Ring of Fire as a potential driver of Ontario’s economy,” said Scott, who also holds the York Research Chair in Environmental Law & Justice in the Green Economy. “But it’s clear now that however green the gloss, major mineral proposals will have to deal with Indigenous governing authorities.

“The struggle for jurisdiction,” she told her audience, “is a high-stakes struggle.”

The recent passage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which promises to invest $369 billion U.S. in energy security and climate change programs over the next 10 years, could ratchet up the pressure to develop the Ring of Fire even more.

Neskantaga First Nation has taken Ontario to court looking for “ground rules” on how the province should consult and accommodate Indigenous communities that are in a state of crisis. Among other challenges, the First Nation has been rocked by numerous suicides and has been under a drinking water advisory since 1995.

“In Canadian law, Indigenous people don’t have the right to say no to extractive processes on their territory – though so many will try to,” she said. “What would they decide if they actually had the right to informed consent on their territory?”

During the Q&A session, Osgoode Associate Professor Saptarishi Bandopadhyay asked if the Ring of Fire resources could be considered “conflict minerals,” akin to those mined in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which have been used to fund civil conflicts.

“I don’t think it’s my call,” said Scott. “If the people of Neskantaga want to call them that, I’ll back them up.”

But Scott pointed out that mining hasn’t yet begun in the Ring of Fire. And while there is certainly the potential for conflict and serious environmental justice questions, including risks of sexual violence against Indigenous women and girls that often accompanies roads and work-camps in remote areas, the kinds of human rights abuses taking place in the DRC, such as child labour, are not present in this situation.

As a researcher, Scott said she feels some tension at times between scholarship and activism. “But I do believe,” she added, “that good scholarship starts with genuine questions.”

Scott’s book aligns closely with one of her key research initiatives, titled Jurisdiction Back: Infrastructure Beyond Extractivism, for which she serves as co-principal investigator with Professor Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark of the University of Victoria’s Centre for Indigenous Research and Community-led Engagement (CIRCLE).

That project brings together 14 academics and land defenders from across the country, including the Yellowhead Institute and the University of Toronto, to investigate how a “just transition” to sustainable economies can be achieved while restoring Indigenous jurisdiction, laws and governance systems. Earlier this year, it was awarded a $2.5 million Partnership Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Osgoode Hall Law School workshop takes an in-depth look at proposed federal benefit for Canadians with Disabilities

Jinyan Li and Hengameh Saberi

What could be Canada’s newest social program came under the microscope recently at an Osgoode Hall Law School workshop examining the proposed Canada Disability Benefit (CDB).

The event brought together experts in economics, social policy, law and tax with advocates for the rights of people with disabilities.

“This will be a huge program, so it’s important to hear from people with different perspectives,” said Osgoode Professor Jinyan Li, an expert in tax law. “A lively, open-minded exchange of ideas remains critical.”

Bill C-22, the Canada Disability Benefit Act, is currently at the committee stage after receiving unanimous support following second reading in the House of Commons. The proposed benefit is intended to reduce the higher-than-average poverty rate among working-age Canadians with disabilities.

“I don’t think these different dimensions of the issue had come into conversation with each other before, and I hope everyone went back reassessing their views,” said Osgoode Professor Hengameh Saberi, the director of the Institute for Feminist Legal Studies at Osgoode.

The Workshop, titled Women with Disabilities: Income Security and Tax Policy, was sponsored by the Institute for Feminist Legal Studies and funded in part by a Connection Grant from the Ottawa-based Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. It featured panel discussions on poverty and women with disabilities, the expectations, goals and costing of the Canada Disability Benefit, and how the new program should be designed – especially in light of lessons learned from other social programs, including  Old Age Security/Guaranteed Income Supplement (OAS/GIS), the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), and the new Quebec Basic Income Program.

The keynote speakers were Senator Brent Cotter, who will sponsor the bill when it reaches the Senate, and NDP MP Bonita Zarrillo, the party’s disability inclusion critic.

Saberi said advocates for people with disabilities have pushed hard for a dedicated national disability benefit, which already exists in some other Western, industrialized countries. But she said little thought has been given to the program’s potential impact for the disabled community and its status in society.

“Is this essential to the well-being and empowerment of people with disabilities?” she asked. “I’m not sure if the long-term consequences of this have been well thought out.”

Li said she left the workshop convinced that the current plan to combine the Canada Disability Benefit with existing provincial disability benefit programs is a significant problem. Provincial disability benefits vary from province to province, she noted, and letting provinces play a leading role in the new program will require the federal government to negotiate agreements with each province and territory – an often lengthy process. Li said the disability community may be better served with a program that is led by the federal government.

Instead of the current plan to base the design of the disability benefit on the GIS, Li said that the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) would be a much better model.  Specific design issues about eligibility and the amount of the benefit could be resolved through consultation and collaboration with the disability community, she added.

While waiting for the final design of the new benefit, she suggested that the current Disability Tax Credit could be changed to a refundable tax credit to provide rapid support to Canadians with disabilities.


Osgoode Hall Law School students make their mark at the Supreme Court of Canada

Three students from CLASP

It’s a rare experience – even for seasoned lawyers. But a select group of students at Osgoode Hall Law School can now add the Supreme Court of Canada to their resumes through their work on a case that will be heard Nov. 29.

The eight students involved are working at Osgoode’s Community & Legal Aid Services Program (CLASP), which has been granted intervenor status in Earl Mason, et al v Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, et al (SCC Case No. 39855). The significant case deals with the application of the reasonableness review to questions of statutory interpretation.

“In their entire legal career, they may never be involved in a Supreme Court of Canada case, so this is a phenomenal opportunity for our students,” said Scarlet Smith, the acting director of CLASP.

Subodh Bharati, CLASP’s supervising lawyer for the Immigration Law Division, said the students worked overtime researching the argument and preparing materials. “There was a substantive amount of work” he said. “They have to first successfully bring a motion seeking intervenor status and then prepare a concise factum. The students are now helping to develop our oral submissions, which can be no more than five minutes.

“It’s really important for our students to be involved in such high-level cases,” he added. “They were pretty excited about this opportunity.”

As a lasting memento of the experience, Owain Guinn (pictured left), a 2L student at Osgoode from Atlanta, Ga., who was involved in writing the 10-page factum, said he framed the first page and is keeping it above his desk. Students Hafsah Memon (centre) and Nathan Reeves also contributed to the writing.

“I thought it was the coolest thing ever that we could say that we worked at the Supreme Court level,” said Guinn. “I really enjoyed the process. It just felt important and it was very much a team effort.”

The case revolves around the interpretation of the inadmissibility provisions in the federal Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA). It stems from a 2012 incident in which Earl Mason, a foreign national, became involved in a dispute during a Surrey, B.C. concert and discharged a firearm eight times, injuring two people. The Crown charged him with attempted murder but, for reasons that remain unclear, the charges were stayed.

Instead of attempting to deport Mason using section 36 of IRPA, which requires a criminal conviction, the Canadian Border Services Agency attempted to deport him under section 34, which deems a person inadmissible to Canada on “security grounds.” But through increasingly higher levels of court, Mason’s lawyers have argued that section 34 was only intended to apply to cases of terrorism, war crimes and organized criminality.

In a novel argument, CLASP submits that any interpretation of section 34 that includes charges that did not result in convictions engages section 11 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Such circumstances, it argues, could allow for the imprisonment of individuals who have not been found guilty of a criminal offence on a lower standard of proof.

“It’s an interesting topic that no one else has raised,” said Bharati. “When stuff like this happens, it’s pretty shocking,” he added. “If sections 7 and 11 of the Charter are supposed to apply to everyone then why are exceptions being carved out for non-Canadians?”

CLASP is one of 17 clinical programs available to Osgoode students and exemplifies the law school’s leadership in experiential legal education in Canada. CLASP cases touch on immigration, criminal and administrative law, including human rights and tenants’ rights disputes and appeals related to employment insurance and the Ontario Disability Support Program. CLASP intervened in two other Supreme Court of Canada cases in 2018.

“One of the most important things CLASP offers students is on-the-ground experience,” said Bharati. “They work very hands-on with cases and their clients, but they also get to balance this by having the opportunity to work on these high-level arguments that they might not get in practice.”

Osgoode AI conference looks at potential impact of artificial intelligence on Canada’s legal system

Artificial intelligence (AI) will harm, not help, Canada’s legal system unless the technology is carefully regulated and lawyers and law students receive proper training, panellists said at a recent conference at Osgoode Hall Law School.

“I’m not a fan of ethical AI – I’m in favour of legal AI,” Nye Thomas, executive director of the Osgoode-based Law Commission of Ontario (LCO) said during a discussion on “AI for the Future of Legal Practice” at the annual Bracing for Impact conference Nov. 9.  “There have to be legal parameters that govern AI,” he added.

The event – held for the first time in person since 2019 – was organized by IP Osgoode, part of Osgoode’s intellectual property and technology program. The panel discussion was moderated by Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Jonathon Penney and included Thomas, Osgoode Professor Pina D’Agostino, the founder and director of IP Osgoode and the IP Innovation Clinic, Professor Sari Graben, Associate Dean Research and Graduate Studies at the Lincoln Alexander School of Law at Toronto Metropolitan University, and Ryan Wong, an associate with the law firm Smart & Biggar.

The non-profit Law Commission of Ontario, which describes itself as Ontario’s leading law reform agency, is engaged in extensive research into AI and the law and is currently working on preparing Canada’s first human rights impact assessment of AI with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Internationally, Thomas said, AI is more pervasive in the legal world than many people realize, used in areas as diverse as bail sentencing, securities regulation and biometric facial recognition in policing. “It’s not all in Canada, but it’s coming,” he noted.

The design of such AI applications is typically opaque and can cause problems related to human rights, privacy and due process. Even so, Thomas said he’s optimistic AI will benefit the legal system and even improve access to justice “because there’s an extraordinary amount of work being done on the concept of trustworthy AI.”

The process of creating curriculum to prepare law students for the new AI landscape has been challenging, said D’Agostino and Graben. “The training of the generation to come to engage with this is critical, and yet we haven’t really thought about what shape that will take,” said Graben.

“AI and legal pedagogy keeps me up at night,” confided D’Agostino. “These are complex questions and we really need the technology expertise with the legal experts and the scientists all coming together.”

That was one of the key findings of a 2021 York University task force report on AI co-chaired by D’Agostino. That interdisciplinary approach should apply not only to research but to curriculum development, she said.

At Osgoode, she noted, one of the most successful student projects involving AI has been the creation of the Innovation Clinic Chatbot by students in the IP Innovation Clinic.

Wong, who was involved with the project as an Osgoode student, said it involved three main steps: building a question bank, sourcing answers through the Internet and testing the chatbot.

“The great thing about a chatbot is it will continue to grow,” he said. “The more data we put in, the more the chatbot will learn and develop.”

The full-day conference, which was co-sponsored by Israel’s Reichmann University and Microsoft, also included hour-long panels on AI for the future of urban development and the impact of AI on health care.

It also included a special ceremony officially launching the York University Centre for AI & Society, which included York University Vice-President, Research & Innovation Amir Asif, as well as D’Agostino and Professor James Elder of York’s Lassonde School of Engineering and the York University Faculty of Health. Both D’Agostino and Elder will serve as inaugural co-directors of the Centre for AI & Society.

A special lunchtime keynote address featured former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Marshall Rothstein and Lior Zemer, dean of the Harry Radzyner Law School at Reichman University. Their presentation on “ghetto copyright” looked at the failure of today’s legal apparatus to protect and advance the property rights of Jewish prisoners who directly documented the horrors of the Holocaust.

SPOT, an AI robot dog from Boston Dynamics, provided some lighter moments, meeting and greeting attendees during the intermissions and lunch break.

Osgoode symposium marks 60th anniversary of Ontario Human Rights Code with celebration of Anti-Discrimination Intensive Program

For students in Osgoode Hall Law School’s Anti-Discrimination Intensive Program (ADIP), it was an important lesson in front-line lawyering.

In the fall of 2021, as the worldwide battle against COVID-19 raged on, Osgoode students covering the intake telephone lines were working from home and frequently receiving calls from citizens claiming they were being discriminated against because they refused to wear masks.

“That was a space where you’re kind of pushing yourself to think about human rights,” Osgoode Professor Sonia Lawrence told the audience at a recent symposium on human rights experiential learning organized to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Ontario Human Rights Code.

The event, titled From Classroom to Case Law, was held Nov. 1 at Osgoode Professional Development, Osgoode’s professional education division. It was co-sponsored by Osgoode and the Toronto-based Human Rights Legal Support Centre (HRLSC), which mentors students in ADIP.

“How do we understand our negative reactions to some of these claims?” Lawrence asked. “How do you talk to people that you disagree with? This was an interesting experience to see the students walking through on their own.”

Osgoode students participating in ADIP do a full-time, full-term placement with HRLSC, participating in its summary advice and legal information service and conducting detailed legal interviews on files that are referred from intake. Among their duties, they field about 24,000 phone calls annually from potential human rights claimants. The students, who are assigned a personal lawyer mentor from HRLSC, also draft legal documents and partner with HRLSC lawyers at mediation and on files scheduled for hearing by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. Since its inception in 2011, ADIP has provided 130 Osgoode students with intensive training in anti-discrimination and administrative law.

At the Nov. 1 symposium, the speakers included Osgoode professors who have been involved with ADIP, ADIP alumni, prominent Ontario human rights lawyers and Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey, who is an Osgoode graduate. The keynote address was given by Osgoode graduate Kimberly Murray, who currently serves as the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites.

“My time with ADIP equipped me with the confidence and the tools to embark on a career in human rights law,” said ADIP alumna Ania Kwadrans, who now serves as principal policy advisor for the University of Ottawa Refugee Hub. “My time at the HRLSC has continued to influence my career in so many ways.”

Osgoode Associate Professor Faisal Bhabha said ADIP was a “win-win” in both its design and implementation because it provides quality experiential education and prioritizes access to justice. “One of the things I love about the program,” he told the audience, “is it provides a front-row view of the future of human rights.”’

During a panel discussion on human rights law practice, prominent human rights lawyer Raj Anand, a partner with Toronto-based WeirFoulds LLP, noted that Osgoode was an early leader in providing experiential legal education. The law school continues to offer unparalleled depth in experiential education with its 17 clinical programs.

“That’s particularly important in the area of human rights because there’s a serious gap in access to justice for human rights claimants,” said Anand.

“It’s a truism in human rights law that the challenge is not knowing what you don’t know,” he added. “This is a void that ADIP is starting to fill.”

ADIP alumna Njeri Damali Sojourner-Campbell, who now serves as an employment, labour and human rights lawyer with Toronto-based law firm Hicks Morley, said one of the most important lessons she learned from the program was to never lose sight of the people who are at the centre of human rights law.

“I don’t believe people file human rights claims for fun,” she said. “I don’t believe in frequent fliers. These are people who are taking a risk.”

Keynote speaker Kimberly Murray emphasized that, for decades, Ontario’s Human Rights Code failed many disenfranchised groups – and especially the Indigenous children who were effectively held as prisoners in the Indian residential school system. While the Ontario Human Rights Code was enacted in 1962, she noted, the last residential school in Ontario did not close until 1991.

Despite that failure, she added, progress has been made, especially with a major legislative reform in 2008 that created the so-called three pillars of Ontario’s human rights system: the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.

In his short remarks, Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey underlined the provincial government’s commitment to increasing diversity in the judiciary. “You will start to see the face of the bench changing as fast as we can,” he said. “It’s actually the people of Ontario who own the system and we need to make it bend to their will.”

The afternoon event ended with a networking reception sponsored by the Toronto chapter of the South Asian Bar Association (SABA).

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Osgoode PhD grad who helped draft proposed Chilean constitution reflects on her historic experience

Amaya Alvez

An Osgoode Hall Law School graduate who was involved in Chile’s historic effort to create a new, progressive constitution said she’s still saddened that voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal in a referendum in September.

“I was optimistic until the very end,” Amaya Alvez, a 2011 Osgoode PhD graduate and a professor of law at University of Concepción in Concepción, Chile told a group of Osgoode students during a Oct. 24 talk at the law school.

“But then we voted on Sept. 4 and we lost 60-40,” she added. “It was a huge gap and I don’t know exactly why.”

Alvez was one of 155 members of the Chilean Constitutional Convention elected in May 2021 to draft the proposed law, which was intended to replace the constitution established by the military dictatorship of former president Augusto Pinochet in 1980. The Constitutional Convention met from July 2021 to July 2022.

The initiative was prompted by violent protests against inequality in 2019 and a national plebiscite in October of that year in which 78 per cent of voters called for a new constitution.

But when Chileans were asked to pass judgment on the final draft in September under a new system of mandatory voting, 62 per cent said no and only 38 per cent endorsed it.

Alvez said the convention’s goal was to produce a “transformative constitution” that, if passed, would have been one of the most progressive in the world, with key provisions supporting direct democracy, gender parity, Indigenous rights and protections for the environment.

As a legal scholar, she said, the result will provide her with years of research material. But it leaves many – including herself – feeling bitterly disappointed and despondent.

“I’m sad, but also concerned,” she told her Osgoode audience. “It was an interesting academic exercise, but we haven’t solved anything.”

Alvez attributed the yes side’s defeat in part to a well-funded disinformation campaign paid for largely by “powerful economic agents.” According to some reports, the campaign involved some 8,000 unique Twitter accounts that spread a steady stream of criticism for the convention members and their proposed constitution. Critics called the convention’s proposal “radical” and “fiscally irresponsible.”

“Because I’ve never been a politician, I have to say I was naïve about how lobbying happens,” said Alvez. “We needed a communications strategy from the beginning.”

But in retrospect, she added, the approval process in some ways was flawed. “It was wrong to put an everything or nothing question up for debate,” she argued.

At the same time, the many changes proposed in the draft constitution may have made people fearful, she speculated. “Sometimes I think law is a cultural product,” she observed, “and maybe we were not prepared for it.”

Alvez, who traces her maternal ancestry to South America’s Mapuche Indigenous group, said she was shocked that even the majority of Chile’s Mapuche citizens voted against the proposed constitution, despite its Indigenous protections.

In the aftermath of the defeat, Chilean President Gabriel Boric has publicly stated that he will work with the National Congress of Chile and civil society to develop a new process for constitutional reform. But Alvez said the new process will depend more heavily on established experts and, in some ways, will not be as democratic.

In retrospect, Alvez said the experience was one of the most challenging times in her life – even harder than doing her PhD. But she still urged the law students to seize opportunities for public service.

“We need to do public service – all of us, in different ways at different times,” she said.