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Atrisha Lewis, LSO bencher

LSO debates need for professional name reader, mailing of certificates at call to bar ceremonies

Thursday, May 26, 2022 @ 4:23 PM | By Amanda Jerome

Last Updated: Thursday, May 26, 2022 @ 4:27 PM

The Law Society of Ontario (LSO) grappled with two motions relating to operational changes to modernize the upcoming call to the bar ceremonies by having a professional name reader call the names of new licensees and by having certificates mailed out instead of issued in person during the call.

A memo presented to Convocation noted that “while the law society has made every effort to ensure that candidates’ names are pronounced correctly, both by way of advance distribution of lists to designated readers and having candidates provide phonetic spellings of their names, the law society continues to receive complaints from candidates about name mispronunciations every year.”

The names have traditionally been called by benchers of the law society, however the memo noted that a shift to a professional name reader is “responsive to the concerns that candidates have been raising for at least a decade.”

“Our names are an incredibly important part of our identity. They carry deep personal, cultural, familial and historical connections. They also give us a sense of who we are, the communities in which we belong, and our place in the world. Mispronunciations or misuse of our preferred or common names can negatively affect and potentially hurt and impact a sense of belonging within the legal professions,” the memo explained.

Murray Klippenstein

Murray Klippenstein

Bencher John Fagan brought a motion to Convocation on May 26, seconded by Murray Klippenstein, requesting that candidate names at the call to the bar ceremony in June be “read out by benchers of the LSO, and by no other person.”

“This contemplated change is no mere matter of LSO operations but is rather a contemplated change which triggers serious considerations of policy. I submit that hiring a professional name reader to read out the names of our candidates for admission at the LSO call to the bar ceremonies would be a serious policy error,” he said in his introduction to the motion.

Fagan explained that “the Ontario legal profession should proudly project to its members old and new, the families of the newly admitted, and to the Ontario public at large, that it is pleased to pursue a course of real multiculturalism, human multiculturalism and, above all, successful and lasting multiculturalism.”

“Real multiculturalism is open-minded, open-hearted, open-faced and open-handed,” he said and it “involves people of disparate linguistic and cultural backgrounds meeting and working with each other, celebrating their increasing diversity together, and, among other things, doing the necessary good-natured, mutual work to learn, one-by-one, face-to-face, how to pronounce each other’s names.”

According to Fagan, “real multiculturalism doesn’t involve the cop-out, as it were, of hiring outside professionals to take the load off us” and “does not involve people taking offence when on early meetings of people of different linguistic backgrounds names are accidentally mispronounced.”

Speaking as seconder, Klippenstein noted that “it has been assumed until recently, both in Canada and in our profession, that the ideals and aspirations of openness, opportunity, individual equality, and non-discrimination and of our focusing on our common humanity were a good basis for all of us moving forward together as a society.”

However, he added, “increasingly, not anymore.”

“Instead, our Canadian society and our law society is increasingly being taken over by an ideology of never-ending, round-the-clock, turbocharged identity politics, which many call ‘wokism,’ or as I see it, whacky wokism, in which every mispronunciation of someone’s name is considered an egregious microaggression and grounds to write a media article or social media posting trumpeting one’s personal grievance and entitlement,” he said, asking his bencher colleagues to “pass this motion to preserve the honourable tradition of benchers personally inviting new members into our profession and recognizing that in the real world of planet earth both pronouncer and pronouncee need to make good faith effort and allowance and that that’s perhaps the best we can do.”

Robert Burd noted that “much of this is operational” and questioned why Convocation was debating this issue. However, he did speak against the motion, noting that people “don’t get a redo” if a name is mispronounced and the law society needs to “get it right.”

Atrisha Lewis

Atrisha Lewis

Atrisha Lewis read from a letter submitted by the South Asian Bar Association (SABA), which stated that the organization is “concerned” about the motion.

“Speaking for the vast majority of our members, who are first- or second-generation lawyers, having their name read at the call to the bar ceremony represents one of the most significant moments in not only their own lives, but also the lives of their often immigrant families. Families who have sacrificed and endured great hardship to hear their family names read out in hallowed places that they never thought possible,” the letter explained.

“Many studies have shown how name mispronunciation can be considered a behavioural microaggression, defined by researchers at Columbia University as brief and commonplace, daily verbal, behavioural or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of colour,” the letter added, noting that “allowing the use of professional name readers ensures that licensing candidates of all backgrounds feel equally valued and represented during their call to the bar ceremony.”

The letter further explained that certain SABA members have expressed that “the mispronunciation of their name can often illicit feelings of anger, awkwardness and shame.”

“I urge my fellow benchers to listen carefully to this submission from one of the largest equity seeking organizations in the province and support the existence of professional name readers and to vote no to this motion,” added Lewis.  

Julia Shin Doi

Julia Shin Doi

Julia Shin Doi noted that there were “a lot of good intentions,” but she stressed that “times have changed.”

“Mispronunciation of one’s name is no longer acceptable. Pronunciation of one’s name correctly is the most respectable thing we can do especially on the day that is so very important to so many licensees. They are being introduced into the profession, and we need to get it right, so the investment in a name caller is the right thing to do,” she added.

During the debate, Cecil Lyon suggested that “what seems to have been forgotten in this myriad of comments is something called forgiveness.”

“Life is messy. Bencher Shin Doi’s expectation that names should be pronounced correctly is wholly unrealistic,” he added.

“People are going to mispronounce your names. If you want to take offence, if you chose to take offence, that’s your business. That’s a decision you make,” Lyon stressed, noting that he doesn’t take offence when people mispronounce his name.

After a lengthy debate, the motion failed 29-24 with one abstention.

The memo on the call to the bar ceremony also noted “the handing out of certificates does not form a particularly significant or meaningful component of the ceremony” and removing the “certificate portion allows candidates to remain focused on their celebratory activities.”

“The mailing of certificates in hard-backed envelopes will ensure their continued integrity while in transit,” the memo added, noting that “having some benchers personally hand some candidates certificates results in a significant disparity in recognition — the fortunate few candidates who know a bencher get special recognition because they are handed their certificate by the bencher rather than LSO staff.”

“The calls are a time for all candidates to come together, in the same form and dress, to be seen as equals within the profession. Consistency in the approach to recognition at this important time, is critical for all candidates and their families and friends,” the memo explained.

Fagan brought another motion resolving that candidates be “given their relevant certificates one by one in front of those in attendance at the ceremonies, in keeping with the tradition in this connection that has been in place in recent years.”

Speaking to the motion, Lewis noted that it was “also an important equity issue.”

“I understand that it’s meaningful for benchers to give the certificate to someone that they know, but the truth is we are elites in the profession and we only know a handful of people, and we have to think of it from the perspective of all the licensees and newly called licensees who are excluded, who are left out, who do not get that special privilege of having someone they know hand them the certificate,” she explained.

“I think it’s important that we have a level playing ground for everyone, especially at something as important as the ceremony as the call to the bar, to ensure that all licensees are treated equally,” she added.

Gerard Charette

Gerard Charette

Gerard Charette, speaking as seconder of the motion, noted that it’s “only proper” to have the certificates given at the ceremony.

“What is a graduation without diplomas?” he asked.

“The certificate has got to be the most treasured item that any new call will have,” he said, noting that it represents years of “hard work” and handing them out is “part of our long-standing traditions.”

“As for benchers giving special treatment,” he added, “I would hope that we don’t think of new calls having such small-minded attitudes towards these things.”

“This level-playing field thing,” he noted, is “mind-boggling.”

“People taking offence to everything. It’s really unseemly,” Charette said.

The motion failed 29-18, with two abstentions.

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