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Where are the Filipino lawyers? | Warren Urquhart

Tuesday, July 14, 2020 @ 3:24 PM | By Warren Urquhart

Warren Urquhart %>
Warren Urquhart
In my first year at Osgoode law, I was the first member of my family who met a Filipino-Canadian lawyer. That same lawyer, after I shook her hand, told me that she too hadn’t met a Filipino lawyer until she came to Osgoode.

It’s not that we were new to Canada — my family had been in the country for a long time. My grandparents, mother and seven of her siblings lived in Canada for decades before my acceptance into Osgoode. We knew a couple of Filipino doctors, some Filipino business owners but no Filipino lawyers.

I, a nerdy overachiever who loved my spelling contests and elementary school science class, always saw myself in professional school. Would I be a doctor? Would I be a lawyer? Years later, after spell check killed my ability to spell and Grade 11 chemistry corroded the doctor dream, the goal of being a lawyer persisted. I was still asking myself if I would and could be a lawyer one day. I was also asking myself, “Where are the lawyers who look like me?”

During the 2006 census, Filipinos were the fourth-largest visible minority in Canada. There were plenty of us around, just virtually none in the legal community. Filipinos are used to not being represented, but things are getting better.

Still, a lot of Filipinos like me could name most mainstream North American Filipino celebrities from memory because there aren’t many to remember. Despite our size in numbers, we’ve only had one member of Parliament, Rey Pagtakhan and a handful of Pinoy members of provincial legislatures sprinkled throughout Canada.

As I researched the case of our representation during 1L (something I probably should have done much earlier), I was saddened, but not surprised, that our slice of the legal community was but a crumb.

My personal experience with our lack of representation was anecdotal; Michael Ornstein’s Racialization and Gender of Lawyers in Ontario was a comprehensive statistical source that showed the state of Filipinos in the legal community.

Ornstein found that in 2006, only 11.5 per cent of Ontario lawyers belonged to a visible minority, despite visible minorities accounting for 23 per cent of the Ontario population of that time. There were 32,000 lawyers in Ontario during 2006; 0.2 per cent of them were Filipino or a paltry one Filipino lawyer for every 2,730 Filipino people in Ontario. That measures against the rate of one lawyer for every 377 people in Ontario. During 2006, Ontario’s Filipino population was over 200,000.

Let’s leap to 2016. Filipinos are still the fourth largest immigrant group in Ontario, along with South Asian, Chinese and Black Ontarians. Yet, in the Law Society of Ontario’s Statistical Snapshot of Lawyers in its 2016 Annual Report, we are not even statistically significant enough to get our own chart row. Along with our Japanese and Korean colleagues, we were put into the “East Asian” category, where collectively we make up 1.3 per cent of lawyers.

In 2016, Ontario had 337,760 Filipinos, or made up about 2.3 per cent of the population. Even grouped with our fellow East Asians, we’re just a bit over half of our actual share of the Canadian population. As Oliver Bertin stated in a Sept. 11, 2009, Lawyers Weekly article (“Visible minority lawyers”), there are “virtually no Filipino(s)” in the legal profession. We can’t have a seat at the table if we can’t even see the table.

Why does this matter? The answer to that is a Tolstoy-sized book on its own. It can be elaborated on in quantitative and abstract terms. Ornstein succinctly hit on one important factor of representation: “Comparing the numbers of lawyers in a visible minority group to that community’s size measures the availability of legal services from a lawyer in the same community, while comparing the number of lawyers in a group to the total number in the community with an occupation and to the number of university graduates with an occupation provides a measure of access to a career in the profession.”

Visible minorities do not care about representation for representation’s sake. We care about it because representation at the top allows us to uplift our community. If we do not have lawyers who look like us in the profession, our communities are underserved, and young aspiring lawyers have a difficult climb to the summit.

Representation is but a single step, and a step that doesn’t even guarantee change. But while representation in positions of power is not sufficient for change, it is a necessity — a necessity that Filipinos have been lacking for years.

This is part one of a two-part series. Part two: Lack of Filipino lawyers: Contributing factors.

Warren Urquhart is entering his second year at Osgoode Hall Law School. He’s a freelance writer and ex-cloud consultant. You can reach him via LinkedIn and Medium.

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