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Children and youth rights advocate Birdsell to receive 2018 Guthrie Award

Monday, October 01, 2018 @ 11:26 AM | By John Chunn


The Law Foundation of Ontario announced that the 2018 Guthrie Award recipient is Mary Birdsell. The Guthrie Award is the foundation’s signature award to recognize exceptional access to justice champions.

Birdsell is the executive director of Justice for Children and Youth (JFCY), a legal aid clinic dedicated to protecting and advancing the legal rights and dignity of children and youth.

Mary Birdsell

Mary Birdsell, executive director of Justice for Children and Youth

“Mary epitomizes the passionate and dynamic leader of a specialty legal clinic,” said Linda Rothstein, the foundation’s board chair. “She has taken the mandate of justice for children and youth and fashioned services that respond directly to needs identified by youth and delivers them in the ways and places that are most appropriate, whether that’s a direct phone line, at youth groups, or literally on the streets.”

Birdsell has devoted her career to providing legal services, justice advocacy, community development and research and education on behalf of the most vulnerable children and youth.  

“[Mary] has distinguished herself from the beginning through creative endeavours that expanded the work of the legal clinic and provided legal advocacy for more and more disadvantaged youth,” said Cheryl Milne, executive director of the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights at the University of Toronto, who nominated Birdsell for the Guthrie Award. “I have long admired the compassionate approach that Mary has taken to legal practice and her young clients. Her work with everyone, including colleagues, has been marked by kindness and caring — qualities … that humanize and facilitate interactions that bring justice for vulnerable individuals. She is the best of what the legal profession has to offer, particularly for young clients facing difficult life circumstances.”

Prior to her tenure as executive director, Birdsell was a community development lawyer and staff lawyer at JFCY. During that time she created Street Youth Legal Services (SYLS), one of the only programs of its kind in the world. Addressing a service gap that Birdsell identified, SYLS provides legal information, advice, referrals and representation to homeless youth meeting those young people where they are, including in-person at various youth-serving organizations across the city.

Birdsell has appeared at all levels of courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, on questions related to justice issues for children and youth across a range of legal subjects, the rights of children in criminal justice, rights of child witnesses, rights of children in immigration detention, rights of transgender youth and on behalf of homeless youth impacted by the Safe Streets Act. She has also appeared at inquests, including the Ashley Smith inquest.

Throughout her career, Birdsell has dedicated many hours to public legal education and training for children and youth and community and legal professionals.

“Mary has helped address the mistrust and fear that many youth have toward those who work within the legal system,” said Jessica Reekie, executive director of Ontario Justice Education Network. “She listens to the youth in marginalized communities and provides support that is sensitive to the realities of their lived experiences. No matter how busy the clinic is, she always finds a way to get us access to a child rights expert, even if that means attending after hours in a volunteer capacity herself.”

“I had the pleasure to work with Mary when I was the Children’s Lawyer. Mary’s commitment to access to justice for children and youth is demonstrated by her patience and compassion for the youth she represents and her understanding that their interaction with the justice system is deeply personal,” said Justice Lucy McSweeney of the Superior Court of Justice. “While working hard as a clinic leader advocating for systemic change, Mary will stop everything to take a call from a particular individual client in need. Most people lead change in the poverty and clinic law area at either the policy level or the client level; Mary has always done both.”

The Guthrie Award will be formally presented at a reception later this year.