Black law students have an obligation to be mentors and help others along the way as they climb the legal profession ladder, provincial court judge Donald McLeod said at a Black History Month celebration last week at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School.
“Don’t think that because you have passed through here and you make six-figure salaries that your life has taken a new trajectory,” he remarked at the event organized by the Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA). “If you come to law school, it’s incumbent on you to mentor and make sure that somebody else gets a leg up just because of where you are. If not, then you really shouldn’t have come here because you did so under fall pretence. You came here saying you are someone from the community and a person that’s willing to stand up for the community. But then you lied the moment that the doors opened.”
A mentor to many young people and lawyers, including Royland Moriah who worked with the McLeod Group for just over five years before leaving to become a defence counsel, McLeod said mentors are expected to genuinely care about their mentees and deliver knowledge and guidance that will enhance the young person’s career and personal growth.
“Sometimes mentors think they have arrived when someone asks them to be a mentor,” he said. “The expectation is excellence. You are asked because you are excellent and your expectation of those persons who are going to be under your tutelage is that they will become more excellent than you. That’s the purpose of mentoring. The reality is that just because you sit here in law school and people tell us that only two per cent of the population make it here doesn’t mean we have arrived. It just means that we have got here and there is a whole lot more left to be done.”
Emerging from Toronto Community Housing projects to become an accomplished litigator with a keen interest in community and social justice issues, McLeod was appointed to the Bench last October, making him Canada’s 29th Black judge since the late Maurice Charles broke the colour barrier in 1969.
McLeod reminded young people from the community aspiring to enter law school that they don’t have to act and behave differently to gain acceptance by their peers.
“I see far too many law students going that route and I don’t know how they eat oxtail because their mouths are so tight,” said McLeod who is of Jamaican heritage. “I don’t know that way because I didn’t grow up that way. When people get into law school, they change and become different. They become acclimatized to an environment that’s not their own. What happens is that inside of law school, those of us from the community start to lose ourselves and then what happens is that we become somebody different.”
Called to the Bar in 1998, McLeod was the second recipient of the Lincoln Alexander Memorial Award presented during the celebration.
A 1953 Osgoode graduate, Alexander, who passed away in October 2012, was Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament and federal minister and the province’s first Black Lieutenant Governor.
York University president and vice-chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri said McLeod deserves the honour.
“Throughout his career, Justice McLeod has demonstrated leadership, advocacy and a powerful commitment to the Black community,” he said. “He’s an outstanding role model for all of our students and richly deserving of this award.”
A McMaster University political science graduate, McLeod received his law degree from Queen’s University in 1995. He began practicing criminal law at Hinkson, Sachak in Toronto and was a sole practitioner in FMH Legal and the senior managing partner of the McLeod Group, Barristers & Solicitors that focused on criminal law trials and appeals as well as administrative law.
Intervening for the African Canadian Legal Clinic, McLeod successfully argued the R v Golden case in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999 that addressed the constitutionality of police strip searches and the landmark 2009 R v Douse case that revolutionized the traditionally used racial vetting process that now takes into consideration non-conscious racism.
McLeod was part of the Hinkson, Sachak team that conducted a survey of Air Canada flights from Jamaica to Toronto that revealed that Black passengers are far more likely than their White counterparts to be searched by Canada customs. A total of 408 passengers were interviewed as they emerged from customs.
Though very busy in the legal profession, McLeod still finds time to give back to the community.
He founded and chairs 100 Strong, an initiative to fund a summer school program for 12- and 13-year-old Black boys and co-chairs Stand-up which is a mentorship program for Grade Seven and Eight boys, the majority of whom reside in designated priority neighbourhoods.
In addition, he makes frequent motivation speeches and hosts Black Robes, a professional development project aimed at mentoring new lawyers and law students of African-Canadian heritage.
The theme of the celebration was “The Dream is Now: Building Tomorrow on Yesterday’s Foundation.”
“I truly admire your commitment to promoting diversity in the legal profession by working towards the removal of barriers facing African and Black candidates and more importantly we support your efforts in helping all students to excel in both law school and the legal profession through mentoring and networking opportunities,” Shoukri told the BLSA executive. “One important way to build for the future is through mentorship which involves creating opportunities for a mutually rewarding experience for those who are mentors and those who are mentees.”
Over the past few years, the BLSA has held fundraisers for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) bursary program aimed at increasing the representation of Blacks in the legal profession.
The inaugural recipients who will receive full tuition towards an LSAT prep course with HarvardReady were announced at the Black History Month event. They are Nada Johnson, Kyle Bailey, Jinephar Koduah and Mechelle Waite.
A single mother of a five-year-old son, Johnson came to Canada as a 16-year-old refugee after her father was killed in Liberia’s ruinous civil war which separated her family.
After attending Birchmount Collegiate Institute and Eastern Commerce where she graduated, Johnson successfully enrolled in the University of Toronto’s sociology and women’s gender studies program. She graduates this year and plans to become a family lawyer.
“I feel law is a powerful tool that can transform lives,” she said. “That’s why I am so happy for this opportunity.”
Koduah migrated from Ghana in 1993 and is a fourth-year communications student at York University.
She was a volunteer at Rexdale Community Legal Clinic for nearly six months until last April.
“Working with the clinic’s youth justice coordinator Cameika Woodhouse opened a door and allowed me to see the kinds of services available that can help young people stay out of court,” said Koduah who graduated from West Humber Collegiate Institute. “I also worked alongside the manager of the Ontario Disabilities Support Program. Disability law appeals to me because I have an autistic brother.”
A fourth-year York University student, Bailey is interested in pursuing immigration or entertainment law while Waite is a Ryerson University sociology & criminology graduate.
“My career goal is to become not just a lawyer but one who is in the profession not only for money,” said the North Park Worship Centre youth leader and Bramalea Secondary School graduate.