Focus On

Black lawyers group starts coastal chapter

Thursday, August 25, 2016 @ 8:00 PM | By Donalee Moulton

A group of Nova Scotia lawyers has broken new legal ground. They have established the first chapter of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (CABL) on the East Coast and only the third in the entire country.

The formation of the new chapter builds on work already under way in the province, CABL-NS president Alicia Arana-Stirling told The Lawyers Weekly. “Nova Scotia has an active black legal community that has always informally sought to promote diversity in the legal profession, support one another and give back to the community. This chapter is a way to formalize the work that individuals have always done here.”

When CABL was launched in 1997, it set seven objectives for the national organization. These include addressing the needs of black legal professionals and law students; fostering a greater awareness of and commitment to the needs of the black community among black lawyers and law students; and procuring increased access for black students to law schools. “Our chapter seeks to promote these objectives within a Nova Scotian context,” said Arana-Stirling, a solicitor with the Nova Scotia Department of Justice in Halifax.

That context is both reflective of the Canadian legal landscape and unique in its own right. Under-representation of racialized lawyers in the profession, a national issue, led in Nova Scotia to the establishment of the country’s first formal program to attract black and Aboriginal students to the law and assist them as they completed their degrees. The Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq Initiative was started at Dalhousie University law school in 1989 and continues today.

The program and a myriad of other factors, including a recommendation in the report prepared by the Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall, Jr., prosecution for the government to continue providing financial support for the Dalhousie initiative, has had an impact on the legal profession in Nova Scotia. The first in-depth analysis of demographic trends for the province’s legal profession was conducted in 2014 by the law society. It concluded that employment equity is improving overall in the province’s legal profession and found that the number of African Nova Scotians called to the bar since 2000 has risen by more than 61 per cent.

But more work is required, and that is part of the impetus for the formation of CABL-NS. The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society (NSBS) report, Employment Equity within the NSBS Membership, found that 1.9 per cent of members are black. (The percentage of the province’s population that is black is 2.3 per cent according to the 2011 census.) Drilling down into those numbers paints an uneven portrait of legal practice in the province, however. Just over 9 per cent of black lawyers are partners in a law firm compared with slightly more than 20 per cent for the profession as a whole.

“The under-representation of black lawyers in Nova Scotia’s legal community is a significant challenge,” said Arana-Stirling, who is also co-chair of the NSBS Racial Equity Committee. “This challenge can be effectively addressed by continuing to increase the number of black lawyers entering the profession and increasing retention rates once they are there.”

According to a consultation paper released by the Law Society of Upper Canada in 2014, the challenges facing black and other racialized lawyers include getting a job after graduation. “Forty percent of racialized licensees identified their ethnic/racial identity as a barrier to entry into practice, while only 3 per cent of non-racialized licensees identified ethnic/racial identity as a barrier,” said the authors of the consultation paper, Developing Strategies for Change: Addressing Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees.

The 46-page report also noted that many racialized licensees stated they “lack a strong network of legal professionals, mentors or sponsors who can provide guidance and advocate for them in the workplace, and this can remain a barrier throughout their careers.”

The first CABL chapter was launched in Ontario in 2004, and a B.C. chapter was formed in 2010. Other provinces, including Quebec where formal discussions are under way, have expressed interested in setting up their own chapters.

“The Canadian Association of Black Lawyers has always sought to become a truly national organization,” noted Arana-Stirling.

Creating awareness is a primary objective for the Nova Scotia chapter, she added. “This is our first year so we are focusing on letting the broader legal community know we are here, providing networking opportunities for lawyers and law students and supporting and mentoring law students.

“Our ongoing goals are to partner with other equity seeking organizations in initiatives of mutual interest, promote diversity in the legal profession and the judiciary and support black law students,” she added.