It took 202 years for the first Black bencher to be elected to the Law Society of Upper Canada’s (LSUC) governing council.
The late Leonard Braithwaite, who was also the first Black elected to a Canadian parliament, broke the colour barrier in 1999. Since that time, University of Ottawa law professor, Joanne St. Lewis; civil rights lawyer, Julian Falconer and Northern Ontario attorney Jack Braithwaite; have joined the fold.
Tanya Walker, who opened her own law firm – Walker Law Professional Corporation – on Bay St. five years ago after practicing commercial and civil litigation at a downtown firm, is seeking to join the esteemed group. She’s among 97 candidates in the April 30 bencher election.
The LSUC is governed by a board of directors – they are the benchers – who meet monthly in convocation meetings to set policy and determine other matters related to the governance of Ontario’s lawyers and paralegals. Benchers also sit on panels as adjudicators to hear discipline cases concerning lawyer and paralegal conduct, licensing, competence and capacity.
“I think it’s important to have diversity on the bench,” said Walker, who graduated from McMaster University in 2002 with a business degree and Osgoode Hall Law School three years later. “I believe that my experience as an adjudicator, litigator and business owner will assist the law society resolve some of its issues relating to access to the profession, efficiencies in the judicial system, fiscal prudence and diversity.”
John Campion, a partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin for the last 35 years, encouraged Walker to run in the elections.
“He made the suggestion last year,” she said. “He’s my mentor and campaign manager.”
Former Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (CABL) president, Arleen Huggins, has thrown her support behind 36-year-old Walker, who was called to the Ontario Bar in 2006 and is an active member of CABL and the National Bar Association, which is the largest Black lawyers association in the United States.
“Tanya has always been committed, by way of her voice and her actions, to achieving a more representative legal profession,” said Huggins, who is a partner at Koskie Minsky LLP and head of the firm’s employment law group. “She is committed to making the court system more efficient and user-friendly for the public and, as a litigator, she’s aware of the challenges faced by the public in accessing justice. I know her to be a fearless advocate in the courtroom and have no doubt she will lend her talents in the same way as a bencher.”
Walker also has the backing of Christopher Bredt, a senior litigation partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP.
“Tanya is a thoughtful, hardworking and dynamic lawyer who has made significant contributions to the profession,” said Bredt, who is also a candidate in this year’s bencher election. “Her background and experience along with her practical approach are what the profession needs at the Law Society.”
This is the first time a term limit will apply to benchers who have 12 years at Convocation, meaning there are more spots open for new benchers to be elected.
Voters will elect 20 benchers from inside Toronto and 20 from outside the city. There are nearly 47,000 eligible voters.
Braithwaite and Falconer, who were elected in 2008 and 2010 respectively, are seeking to retain their seats while St. Lewis, who served as a bencher from 2001 to 2009, is attempting to regain a place at the table.
“The strength of our profession is dependent on the constant renewal brought by young lawyers,” said St. Lewis, who last year won a defamation suit against a fired University of Ottawa colleague who called her a “house Negro” on his blog. “I am very concerned about the barriers of rising costs of tuition, debt burden entering articles, the paucity of articles, the need to closely monitor the LLP, the unchecked phenomenon of free articles and the viability of establishing a successful practice today. I would like to keep our focus at Convocation on this issue and contribute to the solution.”
The first-time candidates include Toronto-based lawyer, notary public and government relations advisor, Renatta Austin, who was called to the Ontario Bar two years ago after securing her law degree from the University of Toronto in 2012. She also has a degree in political science and a Master’s in Public Policy/Public Administration.
She said she’s running because young lawyers are largely excluded from the governance table.
“Adapting the regulatory model to the needs of the 21st century public, ensuring fair and equal access to the legal profession and cultivating a legal culture where diversity and inclusion are the norm rather than challenges to be overcome are policy issues that primarily impact the next generation of lawyers,” said Austin.
“Issues of concern to many young lawyers, including understanding professional ethics and responsibilities, learning the business of law, finding mentors and professional networks, addressing discrimination and harassment in the profession and starting a career with six figures in student debt, are part of my recent lived experience.”