Incredible human rights lawyers celebrated
December 21, 2017
Asked by her English literature teacher in Jamaica what career she would like to pursue, Yola Grant perked up and confidently stated she wanted to be a lawyer.
The teacher’s response was, ‘What a Waste of a Good Mind’.
“This was a White woman from England who I had a lot of respect for,” said Grant who went on to study math and science before entering law school in Canada at age 24.
The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) associate chair along with Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) executive director and chief legal counsel Dianne Carter and Human Rights Legal Support Centre (HRLSC) executive director Sharmaine Hall were honoured last week at an event at A Different Booklist Cultural Centre to mark International Human Rights Day observed annually on December 10.
Grant’s interest in law was, however, sparked about 14 years earlier while attending secondary school in Jamaica.
“I heard of this murder trial and I was drawn to it because it was unusual to also hear criticisms about the usual suspects being called in by the police,” she said. “It typically wasn’t that open a society to criticisms of the police and it was just fine to pick up any random Black man and pin a crime on them.”
Grant, who has undergraduate and graduate science degrees from the University of Toronto, went to the court on the day that sentence was pronounced.
“I went down in my school uniform and I wasn’t stopped,” she noted. “I was treated to the sound of women screaming and wailing and falling to the floor and the prisoner being dragged out in chains. I was moved by that and I got to thinking about whether or not that prisoner would have been given a very harsh sentence if he was from a different class and he’d had access to a good legal defence.”
While working with IBM as a systems engineer in the early 1980s, Grant used her lunch hour to join an anti-apartheid protest in downtown Toronto.
“I remember some of my work colleagues passing by and asking what I was doing there,” recalled Grant who was a member of the province’s anti-apartheid movement. “It was also a time when the Employment Standards Act didn’t protect cleaners, so I also spent lunch hours with Portuguese women protesting the lack of protection. Then is when it occurred to me that I needed to go to law school.”
Called to the Bar in 1989 after graduating from Osgoode Hall Law School two years earlier, Grant started a solo practice restricted to labour and human rights law and charter litigation and held a number of policy and legal positions in the public sector, including labour policy analyst, occupational health and safety prosecutor and counsel to the Pay Equity Tribunal and the Human Rights Board of Inquiry.
There was one case that stood out about 25 years ago when she was an occupational health and safety crown and she had to upbraid a female police officer for presenting a drug case without evidence.
“I went to the hearing and met the officer, who was a small, blonde woman about 5’ 2”, about an hour in advance,” recounted Grant. “When I asked where the evidence is, she looked at me and said, ‘Well, he was a big Black guy’. I thought she was going to elaborate. What she wanted to convey to me was that she felt intimidated and she had to slap a charge on him. She couldn’t tell me about anything he said or did. I told her to leave and come back with her ‘A’ game. She did exactly that, saying we need to withdraw the charge.”
Grant also represented various equity-seeking organizations in appellate charter litigation, including the Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), the Coalition of Visible Minority Women (Ontario) Inc. and the African Canadian Legal Clinic. Her most notable contributions to cases before the Supreme Court of Canada is R.D.S., the leading case on judicial bias, and ‘Seaboyer and Gayme’, where her academic publication in defence of the ‘rape shield’ was cited by the court in a decision that held that the restrictions on inquiries into an assault survivor’s past sexual history were constitutional.
Hall grew up thinking she would become a lawyer.
Once enrolled in law school, she hated the profession.
Assigned to Parkdale Community Legal Services Clinic, Canada’s first student-staffed community services legal clinic that offers Osgoode students with the opportunity to provide legal assistance to those most advantaged which receiving an academic credit, was enlightening for Hall.
“That sort of saved me,” she said. “Parkdale was a place where the little people, and not the intensive competition of law school, mattered. It was about the people and I felt at home.”
After graduating from law school, she did an internship in a small rural town in South Africa.
“That solidified where I wanted to be,” said Hall.
On her return to the Greater Toronto Area, she spent 11 years at Hamilton’s Dundurn Community Legal Services where she was the executive director before joining the HRLSC on July 1, 2016.
“I got a call from someone who said, ‘Why don’t you consider coming to the Human Rights Legal Support Centre?’ she recounted. “I did and I think it is one of the best decisions I have ever made. The work matters and that’s what keeps me going.”
Since joining the HRLSC, Hall has led the successful implementation of the centre’s partnership with Osgoode Hall Law School’s Anti-Discrimination Intensive Program.
She was also the lawyer for Paul DiSalvo who last December won his long battle to be able to enter his own front door. The condominium corporation insisted that DiSalvo, who has degenerative multiple sclerosis and had been unable to negotiate the front steps to his home, bear the full cost of installing a ramp to his door and making modifications.
The HRTO ordered the Halton Condominium Corporation to install an accessible ramp and train its members about discrimination, disability and the province’s human rights code. The Tribunal also ordered the board to pay $12,000 in general damages to DiSalvo for injury to his indignity.
Every year, the HRLSC receives almost 25,000 telephone inquiries.
“It is always a little bit jarring to hear and to know that in 2017, a Black woman can’t go into a store and not be followed,” said Hall. “In the last year, we have had someone come to our office and greet the receptionist by saying, ‘I want to see a lawyer, but not a Muslim one’. It feels like the filter is off since Donald Trump became president of the United States. We are seeing, I feel, more open racism and more discrimination based on creed. The onslaught of that is definitely a challenge. On the other side of the coin, when you are in mediation or at the end of a hearing and someone says, ‘I couldn’t have done this without you and if you weren’t here, it would have been so much worse for me’. Those are the things that keep me going and are really satisfying.”
Raised in a home which was a meeting place for community members to strategize about how to address racism and discrimination impacted Carter who was the Environment & Land Tribunal of Ontario legal services manager for 27 months before joining the OHRC.
Her mother – Violet Carter -- was a registered nurse and co-founder of the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) 55 years ago while her father, Bryon Carter, was a long-time JCA member. Her mom passed away in 2005 and her dad died in August 2015.
“I sat in on a lot of those meetings and learnt a lot,” she said.
Carter completed a Master’s in social work and worked in low-income communities in the city before going to law school.
“I started out doing various things not connected to human rights and when the opportunity came to go the OHRC, I jumped at it,” she said. I thought finally things are coming full circle and I know my parents, if they were here, would be very proud.”
Last month, the OHRC announced it is launching a public interest inquiry into racial profiling and discrimination within the Toronto Police Service.
“I have been at the commission for four years and that has been the highlight of my time there,” said Carter. “I don’t know what is going to happen at the end, but for me, it’s full of possibilities. In order to see the benefits of systemic change, it takes years. It’s incremental and slow and it’s one step forward and two steps backwards.”
Earlier this month, the OHRC released a report, ‘Taking the Pulse: People’s Opinions on Human Rights in Ontario’, that examined the results of a public opinion survey of 1,501 people aged 18 years and older. It gauged human rights awareness, people’s attitudes about groups protected under the Human Rights Code and experiences of discrimination.
Two-thirds of the respondents – 66 per cent -- thought that discrimination was a problem in the province.
“Not surprisingly, we are finding that attitudes to human rights aren’t good,” said Carter who graduated from the University of Ottawa law school. “One of the interesting things that we found was that some of the most negative views that survey respondents identified were views towards people experiencing poverty. What we didn’t do because of limited resources was an intersectional analysis of the data, but we are making the data available to the public and academics. I am sure that once it’s analyzed, we will see that there are significant intersections with poverty and race.”
OHRC chief commissioner Ranu Mandhane, assistant deputy ministers Denise Dwyer and Pat Case, former Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) Zanana Akande, Trinity-Spadina MPP Han Dong, Canadian Association of Black Lawyers president Shawn Richard and former HRTO vice-chair Patricia DeGuire attended the event.
“These are three incredible women we are honouring,” said DeGuire.