Montreal, QC
March 28, 2019

Check against delivery

Introduction

Thank you so much Mtre Boctor for your kind introduction and thank you everyone for that warm welcome. 

I would like to acknowledge that we are on land that has long served as a meeting place amongst Indigenous peoples, including the Haudensosaunee and Anishinabeg nations.

I would like to thank the Quebec Branch of the Canadian Bar Association for the opportunity to join you today and say a few words on this important occasion, as we celebrate and take stock of what the Touchstones Report has helped achieve in its 25 years of existence.

The Canadian Bar Association plays a critical role in supporting Canada’s legal community and driving the change that is needed in our profession to meet the diverse needs of our society.

25 years ago, the CBA released a report on equality in the legal profession.

The Touchstones Report was the result of years of hard work by a task force chaired by Bertha Wilson, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court.

The task force’s primary role was to examine the role of women in the legal profession and the impacts of discriminatory practices. It made valuable recommendations about what changes were required across the country to achieve gender equality in the legal profession, the judiciary, law societies and the CBA itself.

And while the task force was mandated to focus largely on gender issues, it also examined the impacts of racism and discrimination based on disability and sexual orientation as barriers to equality: issues that we are beginning to address with the greater attention that they deserve.

All of us working in the legal profession have seen how things have changed since Touchstones was published. In my two decades as a professor in the faculty of law at McGill, I saw the evolution first-hand: women and men in equal numbers in my classes, the students I was teaching better reflecting Canada’s diversity. I was seeing the future of our profession changing one class at time. You could say that this was Touchstones in action.

But this is only part of the story. I stay in touch with my students. I am proud that many of them have assumed important roles in the legal profession. I also know that there is work still to do. The faces in the graduation photos in our law schools show one thing. The faces in our law firms and on the bench show another. The work of Touchstones very much represents a significant achievement, but it remains very much a work in progress.

I know the CBA understands this. I am familiar with some of the CBA’s exemplary common interest groups, such as Aboriginal Lawyers, Young Lawyers, French Speaking Members and the Women Lawyers Forum.

Other CBA initiatives stand as examples in how to drive change throughout an organization, such as requiring diversity on the national board and on professional development panels. I am also encouraged by your commitment to initiatives aimed at capturing and examining the many different experiences of lawyers from various backgrounds, which is invaluable information to share in the genuine pursuit of equality.

Justice Canada shares this commitment. While work remains, I am proud of what the Department has done to improve diversity in the judiciary and our support of initiatives and laws aimed at promoting equality, protecting rights for all, and embracing Canada’s rich diversity.

These values are my values as well. You could say that equality and diversity are personal. I am the son of parents who immigrated to Canada. My mother and father taught me the importance of hard work, getting an education, the values of inclusion and kindness which instilled in me the conviction that there is no contradiction between being a good person and being a successful one.

You could also say I am a child of the Charter. I came of age intellectually as the constitutional debates of the early 1980s unfolded. As a student in my early 20s, I was witness to the pivot point in Canadian constitutional and legal history and it was thrilling.

For me, the Charter was an affirmation of many of the values I held and grew up with. Here was a document that affirmed that Canada was a place where each individual would have the right to pursue his or her version of the good life.

No matter where you come from, or who you are, our collective aspiration is that you should have the right to the Charter’s protections, including the right to make your voice heard. And these rights should never be taken for granted.

And as a lawyer, there is no doubt in my mind of the unique place that legal professionals play in protecting those rights.

These values of inclusion and respect are precisely the kinds of values and principles that our Government has fought for. We have provided progressive, forward-looking legislation and policies that have embraced transformational change.

Let me share a few examples of initiatives and legislation that I believe demonstrate our Government’s commitment to diversity and upholding rights for all Canadians.

Perhaps the most concrete example I can point to is the bench.

We modernized the judicial appointment process in October 2016. One of the goals of that change was to make the process more welcoming to all applicants. The result has been a significant increase in the number of women applying to be judges. This only makes sense.

As I was mentioning earlier, the face of the legal profession is changing. Women have out-numbered men in most of our law schools for two decades. While gender parity has been slower to arrive in our law firms, it is definitely the case that more women are now applying to be judges. And we are appointing those women to the bench, 56 per cent of our appointments or elevations are women.

Gender equality is one piece of the puzzle, true diversity on the bench is another.

Creating a bench which truly reflects the country it serves requires commitment from all players in the system.

It begins in our schools. It must work its way up into our law firms. It requires mentorship and encouragement in the legal profession and a commitment to merit that does not exclude. That is what Touchstones demands from all of us.

Our Government has spoken to the importance of diversity through our laws as well. With the passage of Bill C-16, transgender and gender-diverse people received new protections from discrimination, harassment and violence. In June 2017, the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended to add the grounds of “gender identity or expression” to protect against discrimination in federal workplaces and services in the public and private sectors. The Criminal Code was also amended to better protect transgender and gender-diverse people from hate crimes.

Reconciliation

I would also like to highlight the Directive on Civil Litigation Involving Indigenous Peoples that was issued in January by my predecessor, the Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould. 

As many of you know, this Directive reflects the Government’s commitment to change Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, and fulfill the promise of section 35 of the Constitution.

The Directive is there to guide the Government of Canada’s legal approaches, positions and decisions taken in civil litigation involving Aboriginal and treaty rights, and the Crown’s obligation towards Indigenous peoples.

The Directive further speaks to our Government’s commitment to fundamentally transform its relationship with Indigenous peoples.

We have also taken other important steps to contribute to renewed Crown-Indigenous relationships.

These steps include releasing the Principles Respecting the Government of Canada’s Relationship with Indigenous Peoples, in addition to legislative changes aimed at reducing Indigenous people’s interactions with the criminal justice system.

Supporting equality also means investing in women and girls.

Our Government addressing the gender wage gap by moving forward with pay equity.

We have launched a new parental sharing benefit to support more equitable distribution of child-care within the home. 

We are investing in women-led businesses to help women entrepreneurs gain access to financing, talent, networks and expertise.

During its 2018 G7 Presidency, Canada made history by focusing on advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment and integrating these issues into all G7 themes, commitments and initiatives. This June, a major conference will build on what we started at the G7, both in Canada and internationally.

Canada will be hosting the Women Deliver 2019 conference in Vancouver from June 3 to 6.

The Women Deliver conference is the world’s largest gathering on the health, rights and well-being of women and girls. It will bring together more than 7,000 world leaders, advocates, academics, activists and journalists from more than 160 countries with an additional 100,000 people joining virtually.

These are just some of the initiatives my department and our Government are championing. I know there are more that the CBA is committed to as well.

As I was mentioning earlier, attaining greater diversity and equality throughout the legal profession and throughout the country requires our constant attention

The Touchstones Report marked an important moment, its influence has been felt across the decades, its lessons are still being learned and absorbed.

The CBA deserves our gratitude for building on the work of Touchstones. It is our collective responsibility to ensure its calls to action are never forgotten. Thank you once again for allowing me to speak with you today, and for your dedication to equality.

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