Activist judge, Irving Andre, earns his PhD


Rarely does a judge become a doctor. Irving Andre is one of the very few exceptions as he successfully defended his PhD thesis – The Significance of Race in the Sentencing of Drug Couriers – last week at York University.

It’s an issue that Andre is very familiar with since he sits on the bench in Brampton the jurisdiction of which includes Lester B. Pearson International Airport where many drug arrests are made. He was sworn in as a provincial judge in December 2003.

“There has been significant scholarly debate as to the manner in which drug couriers are dealt with, particularly in Ontario where a disproportionate number of couriers are female single mothers primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds,” Andre told Share. “Many scholars have taken the view that they are sentenced in a very harsh fashion because of their racialized identities.

“Now, it obviously peaked my interest because most of these couriers are either persons of Caribbean heritage or Caribbean immigrants and it struck me being in the court and having to deal with the issue almost on a regular basis. I thought I should certainly focus on that as a topic of research. That is also the result of an interest I have in terms of how workers of Caribbean origin are dealt with in Canada.”

In his third year at Osgoode Law School, Andre did a study on the Caribbean Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program in Canada that was published in the law school’s journal and has been referenced in many court decisions.

The Curacao-born judge, who moved to Dominica with his parents at age three, is mandated to operate within the framework of the criminal justice system even though he could exercise flexibility in his judgments.

“I perhaps have a greater sensitivity given that I am very familiar with the history which perhaps has accounted for the disproportionate number of couriers from the Caribbean in the drug trade in Toronto,” said Andre who was called to the Bar in 1990. “It seems to me, however, that what is critical about their involvement is not so much race but economic disadvantage.

“Many people say, for example, that because many of these couriers come from Jamaica, they are sentenced harshly because of the ‘Jamaicanization’ of crime. I take the view that it is not necessarily Jamaicans per se who are involved but Jamaicans and other persons from the Caribbean of a certain socio-economic profile. That is the critical aspect of the involvement with most of the couriers we deal with.”

Andre said the majority of the drug couriers are single welfare-dependent mothers between the ages of 18 and 35.

“They grapple almost on a daily basis with difficulties of providing for themselves and their children,” he added. “They are easy prey…What we find in Brampton is that young White women, some younger than 18, are also recruited with the offer of an all-expenses paid vacation…I don’t necessarily see it essentially as a racial problem. I see it as a problem of vulnerability precipitated by economic disadvantage. The criminal law is rather limited in its scope in eliminating the problem. It’s a societal issue. The question is what is society doing to ensure that those single mothers are not attracted to the enticements of the drug overseers?”

Drug courier sentences vary according to the nature and quantum of the narcotic. Marijuana punishment ranges from incarceration to custodial sentence while individuals convicted of importing cocaine are sentenced based on the quantity of drugs they are held with. Offenders with one kilo or less could serve between 3-5 years while multi-kilo offenders’ sentence average between 4-6 years.

Andre, who made his dissertation proposal in January 2009 and completed the 375-page draft last November, estimates that between 15-25 drug couriers pass through the Brampton court each week.

A University of the West Indies Geography graduate, Andre left Dominica in 1982 to pursue post-graduate History Studies at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. He spent two years there before coming to Canada to join his wife, Kathleen, and enter law school.

He was fired two weeks into his first Canadian job on the graveyard shift at a Mississauga car parts factory. That, however, did not deter him from attaining his goal to become a lawyer.

The father of two worked as a claims adjuster with the Workers Compensation Board and delivered newspapers and flyers on weekends before enrolling in law school in 1985. A year later, he was accepted into the night court prosecutor’s program that allowed him to prosecute highway traffic infractions.

Andre graduated from Osgood in 1988, winning the Immigration Law prize. He was called to the Bar two years later and articled in the Ministry of Labour’s Legal Services branch for 11 months before becoming a Crown attorney. He served as an assistant Crown attorney prior to entering private practice.

American fugitive Patrick Critton, who pulled off the only successful airline hijacking in Canadian history, was Andre’s most high profile client. Critton, who took over an Air Canada flight from Thunder Bay to Toronto on Boxing Day 1971, was arrested in New York in 2001 and extradited to Canada to face criminal charges. He served a five-year sentence for kidnapping and extortion.

In spite of being just one of 25 Black judges in Canada since Guyanese-born Maurice Charles broke the colour barrier in 1969, Andre refuses to accept he has reached the zenith of personal and professional fulfillment.

He’s a prolific writer, having compiled several books including A Passage to Anywhere and Distant Voices, and biographies of Dominica’s first minister, Franklin Baron, the island’s first premier and first surgeon, Edward LeBlanc and Dr. Desmond McIntyre respectively, and Charles Maynard who is Dominica’s ambassador to CARICOM and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States. He has also collaborated with close friend, U.S.-based attorney Gabriel Christian on In Search of Eden which is a social and political analysis of Dominica from 1967 to the present and For King & Country: The Service and Sacrifice of the British West Indian Military.

“I think this is work that has to be done,” Andre, who was a political activist in Dominica, said. “I don’t think that we as persons from the Caribbean who are here have the luxury of resting on our laurels. I think we have to seek to inquire into the conditions in which our people and others by extension are treated within the community. I think we have to seek to educate ourselves and advance research on those aspects of our society that impact on ourselves.

“It’s also imperative to me that my children understand not only that which I say to them but what they see me doing and that the struggle for education and self-realization is an ongoing process.”

Andre, who said he developed a passion for reading and writing from his father who was a voracious reader with a collection of nearly 700 books, defended his thesis on January 13 which would have been his dad’s 84th birthday. His father passed away in September 2008.

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