It’s a day that this year’s Osgoode grads will never forget: On June 23, they will cross the stage to collect their degrees, bringing to an official close years of hard work and transformative personal growth at law school. Osgoode congratulates them on their tremendous achievement. Here are the stories of three members of the JD class of 2023: Frank Nasca, Bunisha Samuels and Justin Thompson.
Frank Nasca (2023 Gold Medal Winner)
It took a little time, but Frank Nasca finally found their calling at Osgoode.
The route wound from rural New York state, where they were born, to New Mexico and Peterborough, Ont., where Nasca earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in environmental and sustainability studies from Trent University. After working at an environmental non-profit for a few years, the decision to pursue a law career came as a revelation.
“I found that law school was the first time where I was able to find an academic program that provided the challenge that I wanted and kept me stimulated,” they said.
“I think I’ve found something,” they added, “where my set of skills and the way my mind works and the types of things that make me excited will come together in my legal practice.”
At Osgoode, Nasca’s burgeoning passion for the law was unleashed through an impressive array of achievements – culminating in the law school’s top academic prize, the Gold Medal, which is awarded annually at spring convocation to the student in the graduating class with the highest cumulative grade point average over all three years of law school.
Those accomplishments also included a Dean’s Gold Key Award last March for exceptional contributions to the law school, four trophies for outstanding mooting performances, an award for an original research project that examined decisions by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, and enthusiastic contributions to the Anti-Discrimination Intensive Program (ADIP).
But Nasca, who is transgender, said perhaps their proudest accomplishment was helping a friend, Nathaniel Le May, prepare an appeal to the Health Services Appeal and Review Board challenging a decision of the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) to refuse Nathaniel coverage for a gender-affirming surgery. Before the appeal moved forward, OHIP reversed its stance and has agreed to fund the operation.
In the course of their studies, Nasca developed a particular passion for public, constitutional and human rights law, especially as it relates to the trans community. But despite all their accomplishments, some classmates may remember them most of all for their adorable dachshund Frankfurter and his visits to Osgoode.
“When people were stressed,” they recalled, “he would bring little bursts of joy to them.”
And now there’s even more joy on the horizon. In November, Nasca and their partner will welcome their first child. And on the professional front, a clerkship with the Court of Appeal for Ontario over the next year will provide lots of additional stimulation.
To incoming students, they recommended trying to find a mentor or mentors among Osgoode’s caring faculty. Nasca attributes their success, in part, to guidance from mentors like Professor Sonia Lawrence, Emily Kidd White and Bruce Ryder. And, they added, try not to let law school completely take over your life.
Bunisha Samuels (President, Black Law Students’ Association, Osgoode Chapter)
Bunisha Samuels will always regard it as one of the proudest moments of her law school career. At a special ceremony last November, before an audience of Black high school students, the president of the Osgoode chapter of the Black Law Students’ Association stepped on to the stage to help launch Raise the Black Bar, a partnership with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) designed to break down barriers to legal education for Black students.
It was an emotional moment for Samuels, who reflected in her remarks on the challenges of her youth in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. “I wish I had had this when I was in high school,” she said.
The program, which was initiated by BLSA Osgoode, will rely on special events and small group mentorship to support Black students in Grades 10, 11 and 12 across the TDSB’s 110 secondary schools who are contemplating careers in law. It is considered the first program of its kind focusing specifically on the needs of Black high school students – and it’s at the heart of the kind of change that prompted Samuels to originally pursue her own career in law.
“Growing up, I always knew I wanted to go into law,” she reflected. “For me, it was an important avenue for change since it shapes and governs our rights and protections within society.”
While her role in launching Raise the Black Bar was a signatory achievement, it was far from her only accomplishment during her three years at Osgoode. In addition to serving in various leadership and fundraising roles with BLSA Osgoode, including president, she was a student caseworker with Parkdale Community Legal Services, associate editor at the Osgoode Hall Law Journal, a research assistant and an active mooting participant.
“My time at Osgoode was one of immense growth and learning,” she said. “It was a critical steppingstone in learning how to be an advocate on a community or systemic level.
“Osgoode,” she added, “has provided me with the key support and resources I needed to help effect broad positive change.”
She encourages incoming students to similarly embrace the many opportunities available at the law school. “Authentically pursue your passions at Osgoode,” she advised, “and know you have a place to create your own legacy.”
Samuels, who earned her undergraduate degree in political science and global development from Queen’s University in Kingston, will continue building on the expertise and experience she’s gained at Osgoode when she begins articling this summer for the Borden Ladner Gervais LLP (BLG) in Toronto. She said her hope is to eventually build a career that combines both her interests in international law and community advocacy.
“As someone passionate about social advocacy,” she added, “even if I am not always pursuing a legal career, the skills that a law career will provide at this point in my life are essential in understanding how legal regimes govern policy domestically and internationally.”
Justin Thompson (Co-Chair, Osgoode Indigenous Students’ Association)
Justin Thompson hopes his Osgoode experience will help inspire other Indigenous youth to pursue their dreams.
As a member of Nipissing First Nation near North Bay, Ont., his thirst for justice began early. As a teenager, he began developing a desire to help his community become more sovereign and to exercise its rights of self-determination, loosening the grip of the Indian Act.
This summer, he will realize his goal of becoming a lawyer when he begins articling in the Toronto office of Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP, one of Canada’s leading Aboriginal law firms.
As an aspiring Indigenous lawyer, Thompson said, Osgoode was his first choice of law school after he completed undergraduate and graduate studies at Trent University in Canadian and Indigenous studies. His graduate research there focused on the issue of Indigenous over-incarceration and the lasting impacts of the Indian Act related to the criminalization of Indigenous individuals.
“I came to Osgoode specifically for the Indigenous Intensive,” he said. “And the Indigenous faculty here have been an amazing source of support.”
The only program of its kind in North America, the Intensive Program in Indigenous Lands, Resources, and Governments (IPILRG) explores the legal issues related to Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous rights through the combination of a rigorous academic experience with challenging placements in Indigenous, Aboriginal or environmental law.
“The Intensive was my favourite aspect of law school,” said Thompson. “It was a bit disrupted by COVID, but (Professors) Amar (Bhatia) and Jeff (Hewitt) made sure we had all the support we needed.”
Another major highlight came in May, when he was named a recipient of the $10,000 John Wesley Beaver Memorial Award, offered annually by Ontario Power Generation through Indspire, a national Indigenous charity that invests in the education of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.
“Indigenous students want to see someone like themselves who is achieving things,” said Thompson. “So getting the award helps to show that anything is possible for Indigenous students and the sky is the limit.”
He said other highlights of his Osgoode years included participating in the Kawaskimhon National Aboriginal Moot and his leadership roles with the Osgoode Indigenous Students’ Association (OISA).
“We took on a lot of important initiatives,” he said, citing in his third year the association’s ReDress Week event, its Moose Hide Campaign against domestic and gender-based violence and its Orange Shirt Day, which featured guest speaker and Osgoode alumna Kimberley Murray, the federal government’s Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools.
“There’s definitely no shortage of opportunities to get involved at Osgoode,” he said. “Take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way,” he urged incoming students, “because you might find an area of interest that you didn’t know you had.”