By RON FANFAIR
The celebration may have been small, but the occasion was significant for the 16 African-Canadians who graduated from York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in 1995. At no time in the history of Canada’s law school graduations had so many Blacks secured their Bachelor of Laws from a university class in the same year.
Last Saturday night, a few of the graduates and other Class of ’95 members assembled at a 15-year reunion cocktail reception to reminisce and share a few special moments.
Ontario’s Health Promotion & Sports Minister Margarett Best cared for her three children and juggled two jobs to put herself through Osgoode.
“It wasn’t easy back then because I had an 8 a.m. class and I had to leave my Pickering home early to drop my daughter off to school,” recalled Best. “In fact, I applied just to Osgoode and the University of Toronto because those were the only two law schools that I could commute to.”
She was called to the Bar in 1997.
“Osgoode was a great experience because I established relationships with people who are now my friends and I got the opportunity to travel outside the province for the first time and meet some of the country’s prominent Black judges like Corrine Sparks through my association with the Black Law Society of Canada and their conventions,” she said.
Best, who developed a successful practice before entering politics, is the only Black provincial minister in the107-seat parliament.
Verlyn Francis said she chose Osgoode because of its international reputation as one of the top law schools with the most extensive law library in the Commonwealth.
“I wanted to incorporate research and writing into my law school experience and I wanted the best facilities available to me,” said Antiguan-born Francis, who was appointed to the Ontario Arts Council board of directors last June. “Osgoode also has the reputation of being a dynamic learning environment and I wanted to do more than learn ‘black letter law’. I wanted to attend a school that would challenge me to think outside the box. As a mature student, I also wanted to attend a school that would not treat me like a blank slate.”
While at Osgoode, Francis served as the Student Caucus chair, representing students on the law school’s governing body and she won first prize in a national essay competition.
“The absolute highlight for me, though, was the opportunity to learn from the many outstanding and caring professors, to have my ideas challenged by faculty and students and to meet such interesting people, many of whom are still friends,” she added.
A sole practitioner in downtown Toronto specializing in real estate, family law and estates, Francis conceived the idea for the establishment of the annual Gold Key award in 2001 to honour outstanding alumni who have made valuable contributions to the law school and the legal community.
Terrie-Lynne Devonish is one of Canada’s sparkling legal stars. Two years ago, she made the country’s pre-eminent Top 40 Under-40 list of distinguished business leaders.
“I selected Osgoode because I did my first degree at Glendon College and I thoroughly enjoyed the interdisciplinary arts,” said Devonish who graduated with a Political Science degree. “I was not disappointed because I was exposed to a high level of learning and excellent quality of professors.”
She singled out her assignment at Parkdale Legal Aid Clinic as an intake worker during the last term as the highlight of her Osgoode journey.
“I worked in the landlord area and I was given the opportunity to put my legal knowledge to work,” she said.
The middle of three daughters of Guyanese immigrants, Devonish began her career as an associate at Fraser Milner in 1997 before joining HSBC Securities (Canada) three years later as legal counsel. She also served as chief compliance officer, general counsel and corporate secretary prior to relocating to Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc. in 2004 as general counsel and corporate secretary.
The 38-year-old Devonish has been with Aon Canada Inc. for the past three years as chief counsel.
Christopher Wilson said he was drawn to Osgoode by its reputation and one of its professors.
“I researched some of the professors and found that Toni Williams had written a number of publications that very much appealed to me,” said Wilson, regional coordinator of the Public Service Alliance of Canada-Ontario. “I liked the idea of studying with her and she taught property law in my first year. One of her courses dealt with the legal history of slavery and I will never forget some of the White students asking her why she was talking about slavery in law school. Her response was that slaves were property in the eyes of the law.”
In his three years at the law school, Wilson wrote a paper on the constitutional history of slavery in Canada and contributed articles to the student journal during Black History Month.
“The Black students’ voices were not usually captured in the student newspapers, so we made the most of the opportunities we were given every February to express ourselves,” he added.
Recognized for its solid reputation of providing relevant practical courses and a mentoring program attracted Jamaican-born Sandra Levy to York University.
“Osgoode provides a strong mentoring program for students matched with alumni,” said the former Canadian field hockey player and a director of the Pan/Parapan American Games 2015. “The mentoring program helped me to appreciate the importance and value of networking in my work life. Gaining and maintaining good contacts has proven to be fruitful in both law and business.”
A former director of human resources (North America & Asia) with Magna International for nine years, Levy joined the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) last February as vice president, human resources and chief people officer.
Audrea Golding, who moved to California two years after she graduated to join her husband, was disappointed she was unable to attend the reunion.
Born in Ohio, she came to the Greater Toronto Area in 1984 to complete high school in Markham and attend McGill University before going to law school.
“Being born in the U.S., I had made a conscious decision that I was not going to return there and that was in part because of Osgoode,” said the Los Angeles-based Golding, who has been with Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy – one of the leading global corporate immigration law firms – since 2000.
“I went to Osgoode because it had really promoted itself as an institution that was focused not just on academics, but on the diverse experience and student body and that was at a time when not a lot of law schools were emphasising the importance of diversity.”
She said her Osgoode highlights included the camaraderie that existed between the Black students and her exposure to an Immigration & Refugee law course.
“That was an intensive program and not many law schools were offering it at the time,” said Golding who served as president of the Black Law Students Association of Canada (Osgoode Chapter) in her final year. “My involvement in that course led me to practice immigration law.”
Golding, whose parents and brother reside in the GTA, has extensive experience with a myriad of employment-based temporary and permanent visa categories and immigration compliance matters and she represents multinational corporations in the professional services, aerospace, engineering and information technology sectors.
Suzanne Bruce, Lesley King-L’Heureux and Roslyn Mounsey are Justice Canada counsels; Shalene Curtis-Micallef is based in Ottawa as the acting head and general counsel with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Legal Services; Sheryl Beckford is a legal counsel with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs in Guelph; Miriam Henry is an assistant crown attorney in Ontario; Lloyd (J.R.) Richards is an arbitrator with the Financial Services Commission of Ontario; Peter Gakiri and Oswald James practice in London, Ontario and Jamaica respectively and Mark Yearwood is a freelance writer and community worker.