Award  ‘a big honour’ for outstanding lawyer

Award ‘a big honour’ for outstanding lawyer

March 18, 2017

Becoming a Toronto Police officer was on John Huggins radar when he migrated with his family from St. Kitts in the late 1950s.

A cop in his native island, he assumed he had the physical strength and training to fulfill the role in his new environment.

What Huggins didn’t know at the time was that there were no Black uniformed officers in the Service and it would take a few more years before Larry McLarty, an immigrant from Jamaica, and Gloria Bartley (nee Roberts), who came from Trinidad & Tobago, broke the glass ceiling in 1960.

His wife, Antiguan-born Wyvonie Huggins who passed away in November 2015, aspired to be a registered nurse. But a registered nursing assistant certification was the highest accreditation she could achieve because of her skin colour.

“They just didn’t have the opportunity to accomplish the goals they had in mind,” recalled their daughter Arleen Huggins, a first generation Canadian.

The family patriarch drove a cab and was a Canadian National railway porter for many years.

“He’s what I refer to as a closet lawyer because I think that is really what he eventually wanted to do,” said Huggins. “My dad was a union activist and loyal Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) member. I feel his desire would have been to go to law school, but he just didn’t have the opportunity.”

His daughter did and she has made the most of the openings.

“I was very fortunate because I had two very strong role models,” said Huggins who was an Ontario Bar Association council member for the Toronto region. “Pursuing higher education wasn’t an option as far as my parents were concerned. It’s something they ensured that I and my siblings aspired to.”

Huggins graduated with a law degree in 1989 from the University of Toronto, was called to the bar in Ontario two years later and was on the founding board of the African Canadian Legal Clinic launched in 1994 to address anti-Black racism.

A partner since 1999 at Koskie Minsky where she heads the employment law group, Huggins expertise is in the areas of employment and human rights law and commercial litigation. She has earned the respect of clients and lawyers for her legal expertise and practical resolution of complex legal cases.

Her clients include private corporations in myriad industries, including pension and trust funds, disability plans, non-profit organizations and individual employees.

Huggins was presented last June with a Lexpert Zenith Award for demonstrating excellence, action and thought leadership that help to advance diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and society.

In January, the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (CABL) immediate past president was appointed to the federal judicial advisory committee for Ontario-Greater Toronto. The committees in each province are responsible for assessing the qualifications for appointments for lawyers who apply.

Last month, she was the recipient of yet another major accolade.

Huggins was presented the Lincoln Alexander Memorial Award at the Osgoode Hall Law School Black Law Students Association fourth annual Black History Month celebration.

A 1953 Osgoode graduate, Alexander was Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament and federal minister and the province’s first Black Lieutenant Governor.

The Order of Ontario and Canada recipient and Hamilton-Wentworth, York Regional and Toronto Police honorary chief was the longest serving chancellor of the University of Guelph, where he held the position for an unprecedented five terms, a record among Canadian universities. Three of the university’s awards bear his name.

Alexander passed away in October 2012 at age 90.

 Philip Graham presented the Lincoln Alexander Memorial Award to Arleen Huggins

Philip Graham presented the Lincoln Alexander Memorial Award to Arleen Huggins

The award – a bronze bust -- is presented to a legal professional or community member who embodies the values of leadership, professional excellence and a commitment to public service.

“This award is very significant because of the trailblazer whose name it bears,” Huggins, who was elected to CABL’s first board of directors in 1996 and was instrumental in defining and building the organization into the only national association of Black lawyers in Canada, pointed out. “He was a leader as a lawyer and politician in our community for many years. To be considered for this is a big honour.”

CABL president Donna Walwyn nominated Huggins for the award. Lawyers Rosemarie Mercury, Esi Codjoe and Philip Graham seconded the nomination.

“Arleen has been a tireless mentor and she has worked with the Black Law Students Association of Canada and other racialized law students to provide assistance and direction in overcoming barriers to a successful legal career,” said Walwyn who heads the pension & employee benefits practice group at Baker & McKenzie LLP where she is a partner. “Her efforts have contributed to a heightened dialogue on equity and access for racialized lawyers, particularly Black lawyers, at all stages and in all aspects of their legal careers. She has also helped to introduce specific initiatives used in all types of legal organizations to promote equal opportunities for racialized lawyers.”

Graham, an associate at Koskie Minsky, presented the award to Huggins who has been the CABL advocacy chair since 2008.

“I have known Arleen for the better part of 10 years and, over that time, she has been an exceptional mentor, friend and most recently colleague,” said Graham who has a Master of Laws from Brigham Young University and was called to the Ontario bar in 2009. “…She is a leader that utilizes her own successes and experiences to help uplift and guide others and she has been instrumental in leading the very public lobby for a transparent, accountable and representative federal judicial appointments process and the appointment of qualified racialized candidates.

“Arleen is often one of the first to arrive at the office and one of the last to leave. She’s constantly mentoring students and young lawyers, drafting critical submissions that advance the cause of diversity within our profession, serving on various community boards, gathering supplies for protestors and, simply put, making the time to lift those around her. She is also a bold and unapologizing community advocate.”

Previous Lincoln Alexander Memorial Award winners are Osgoode Hall graduate and Ontario Court of Appeal judge Michael Tulloch, provincial court judge Donald McLeod and Legal Aid Ontario staff lawyer Yolande Edwards.

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