The number of law school grads versus the amount of available jobs remains imbalanced. PHOTO: IZABELLA BALCERZAK
Illustration: Izabella Balcerzak

Through My Eyes: Bringing diversity to Canada’s legal system continues to be a dream

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By Gabrielle Dunning

In a city that prides itself on its multiculturalism, Toronto’s legal industry is not following suit. It only takes a quick scan of any major law firm’s profile of partners or their board of directors to detect major racial disparities.  

In the four years that I’ve been a law and business student at Ryerson. I’ve had the privilege of learning in a progressive, culturally diverse environment. I have seen the advantages of diversified viewpoints. I have seen how the school has benefited from students of different backgrounds being given a platform to lead.  

This has not been the case since I have ventured into the legal world. During the six months I’ve spent as an intern at a Toronto law firm, I have noticed an obvious lack of diversity in all levels of leadership. This is the stark reality of Canada’s legal industry.

Ryerson University could have tackled this issue. In fact, they planned to, with a proposed law school that strived to enhance diversity in an overwhelmingly white profession.

When plans to open the faculty took shape in 2015, Ryerson recognized the need for a fresh take on legal education, aiming to produce career-ready graduates equipped to champion communities and small businesses across Ontario. This would be carried out through affordable tuition fees and an innovative, community-centric curriculum.

That is, until Nov. 20, when the Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities announced it would be denying approval for Ryerson’s law school, which was set to open its doors in September 2020.  

 

I’ve had the privilege of learning in a progressive, culturally diverse environment. I have seen the advantages of diversified viewpoints. I have seen how the school has benefited from students of different backgrounds being given a platform to lead

 

This rejection follows the ministry’s cancellation of a Francophone university and three satellite campuses throughout the province. Critics are accusing the Ford-led government of launching an attack on higher education.  

While this may be true, I fear this particular decision comes at a greater cost than to the world of academia.  

Toronto’s two current law schools, Osgoode Hall at York University and the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law charge annual tuition fees of about $28,000 and $38,000, respectively. Ryerson tuition was to be set at $20,000, a far more manageable investment.

Since the announcement, Ryerson has stated that plans to open the school will continue. The university will not seek new funding, but rather transfer enrolment funding and OSAP to cover the costs, which has already been approved by the government.  

It is unclear if and how tuition fees will be affected, but one can assume Ryerson will need to raise fees substantially in order to sustain the program. If so, this financial barrier will affect minorities the hardest.  

Toronto is arguably the world’s most diverse city–a fact to be celebrated. Less worthy of celebration is the reality of Toronto’s racial wealth gap. In 2016, visible minorities represented 68 per cent of our low-income neighborhoods, while white people represented 73 per cent of our high-income neighborhoods.  

With this is mind, an increase in tuition is most likely to dissuade visible minorities.   

A modern-day institution cannot limit opportunities based on economic and social background. If a system only benefits the white, upper-middle class, it must be questioned.

If there is one thing that I have learned about the law, it’s that legal knowledge is power. Law upholds society, and our ability to create change resides within its confines. Legal knowledge allows us to become representatives of our communities, to contribute to important decisions, to understand and fight for our rights and freedoms. It’s no surprise that of the 23 prime ministers Canada has had, 18 have had educational backgrounds in law (and all have been white).  

We cannot expect our communities to advance if we do not have a diverse pool of legal decision-makers. Nor can we expect a truly diverse pool of legal decision-makers if tuition for law school remains a barrier to entry.

Education is one of the Ontario government’s key mandates. Our politicians, as representatives of our province, have the responsibility of equalizing opportunities. When a program designed with accessibility in mind is denied the support it needs, our provincial government is failing us.  

The elitism of legal education has been a tool of systematic racism for too long. My hope is that Ryerson will one day have the financial support to begin the legal transformation it envisioned. It’s a transformation of our diverse city, province and country deserves.

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