YWCA Woman of Distinction honour for outstanding lawyer and mentor
April 8, 2017
At an age when she should have been hanging out with friends having some fun, Denise Dwyer was confined to the family’s living room watching the Watergate and John Ehrlichman hearings in the early 1970s.
A participant in the Watergate cover-up, Ehrlichman – who died in 1999 -- and three other high-ranking officials were convicted in 1975 of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury.
He spent two years in prison.
“My dad (Stanley Dwyer) wanted me to watch those hearings because he felt it was important,” recounted Dwyer who is an assistant deputy minister in the Ministry of Education leadership & learning environment division. “I was about 10 years old at the time and wanted to go out and play, but my dad kept telling me the hearings are important and I have to look at them. He even told me that Ehrlichman was a bad lawyer and I could be much better than him.”
Dwyer credits dad with inspiring her to pursue legal studies.
“I am the first lawyer in my family, but not the first legal mind,” the University of Windsor Law School graduate said. “That distinction belongs to my father who has a history as a strong union representative and a personal advocate for worker and human rights.”
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms adorned the family room wall.
“The message was very clear,” noted Dwyer who is one of seven women being honoured this year with YWCA Women of Distinction Awards. “It was educate yourself and you can achieve anything. When you are educated, no one can hold you back because of the colour of your skin.”
Born in England and raised the first four years of her life close to Old Trafford, the home of top English soccer club Manchester United, Dwyer said her Jamaican-born parents were her first role models.
“High school in England was private and it cost money,” she said. “Coming to Canada where education was free at that level, what could there possibly be that you couldn’t achieve. That was certainly a message that they constantly reinforced with all of us and I ended up living that.”
The family matriarch, Janet (Sister Helen) Dwyer, passed away in February 2014.
The youngest of four female siblings, Dwyer said their mother possessed a calming presence and a wealth of compassion.
“She was amazing at really being able to support and imbue in us that you could do whatever you want,” said Dwyer who is one of three Black female assistant deputy ministers in the province. “That was always her mantra.”
Starting out in transitional housing in Rexdale, the family relocated to Streetsville where her dad worked for an auto company. She attended Streetsville Secondary School, completed high school education at Thomas L. Kennedy Secondary in Mississauga and graduated from McGill University with a degree in political science & economics before entering law school.
“I always tell people I am a child of the recession,” she said. “I went to McGill during the recession. I came out of law school and after articling, 60 per cent of my class wasn’t hired back. Some people didn’t work for a while until the market got better. I went to work in Kitchener because that was where I could find employment. I was a crown prosecutor which was not in my plans. I however had amazing mentoring out of that Kitchener crown office and I fell in love with it. As a result, I dismissed plans to write the New York Bar because I really enjoyed being part of this justice system. I really believed in it. I felt that as a Black person, we bring a different perspective to that as well because there weren’t many of us in the prosecutorial and policing roles when I began.”
It was that paucity of Black women in the legal profession that led Dwyer – who also has a Master’s in adult education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education -- to start the Black Female Lawyers Network (BFLN) widely known as ‘Sistahs-in-Law’. It started in her home in 2006 as a gathering for female Black lawyers to promote mentorship and professional development and foster dialogue on the dynamics of being a woman in diversity in the legal profession.
Under Dwyer’s leadership and with the investment of significant sweat equity by a group of talented visionary Black women, the BFLN has evolved to present an annual fundraiser and retreat every November 11 (Remembrance Day) to provide a private space for female students and practitioners to convene, share and learn from each other through workshops, networking and mentorship opportunities.
Most of the proceeds from the event go to the Judge Corrine Sparks Award established by the Dalhousie Black Law Students Association.
Appointed to the Nova Scotia Family Court in 1987, Sparks was the first Black Nova Scotian appointed to the bench and the first Black Canadian female to serve on the judiciary in Canada.
“She’s a pioneer and that award also focusses on supporting First Nations and Indigenous students,” said Dwyer who was the first Black female deputy director and the first Black female legal director at the Ministry of the Attorney General. “That is really significant because we didn’t always have a pathway to the profession.”
The high esteem in which Dwyer is held by young female lawyers inspired them to successfully nominate her for the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award.
“It’s a privilege and honour to join some amazing women who have won this award,” she said. “But what makes it even more special for me is who nominated me. In the normal course when you are receiving such a prestigious award, you talk about how you are standing on the shoulders of those who came before you which is true. But I am also standing on the shoulders of those who are coming after me which is a powerful dynamic. It makes me feel great because it means they feel supported and they feel they are empowered enough to even nominate somebody and expect them to get the award.”
While it was a BFLN board decision to nominate Dwyer, only one name could be forwarded as a nominator and that was Shaneka Taylor who is the vice-president & treasurer.
“Denise is a door opener as she not only offers mentorship to many young female and aspiring lawyers, but she also provides connections and opportunities for her mentees to become involved in community initiatives themselves,” said Taylor, an associate at Boghosian + Allen LLP. “She empowers young girls and women to excel in all their endeavours and, through her actions and guidance, has impacted many women, including myself. A short coffee break with Denise is all that’s needed to feel empowered and reinvigorated.”
Nicole Myers, a past BFLN director who met Dwyer 10 years ago, said her legal brilliance and grace stand out.
“I count her as both a mentor and friend,” added Myers who is a crown attorney with the Ministry of Community & Social Services and the Ministry of Children & Youth Services. “Her commitment to improving the lives of women and girls is demonstrated through her work as a mentor, leader and public servant…I still remember the first time I attended ‘Sistahs-in-Law’ and the joy, awe and affirmation I felt that I too could be a lawyer. Her support was fundamental to my success.”
The rest of the BFLN board comprises Dentons associate Jenelle Ambrose; Deloitte Canada associate Ingrid Minott; Cassels Brock & Blackwell partner and Osgoode Certificate in Mining Law recipient Patience Omokhodion; Hicks Morley employment, labour & human rights lawyer Njeri Campbell; Bennett Law Chambers partner and Mississauga Law Chambers co-owner Dawn Bennett and Ontario Public Service Employees Union grievance officer Natalie DeHaney-Stewart.
Prior to joining the Ministry of Education in January 2016, Dwyer was the assistant deputy minister in the Ministry of Community Safety & Correctional Services (MCSCS) public safety training division where she was responsible for a blended portfolio of policy and operations relating to public safety law and policy, adult education and training and corporate leadership.
She led the development of the public safety learning system, a model under which learning at the three levels in the MCSCS will be enhanced by shared common courses and supported by an integrated learning management system that allows for a central data base and repository for cross-training, registration and enrollment and a robust e-learning platform.
Her career trajectory with the Ontario Public Service began in 1991 as an assistant crown attorney in the Ministry of the Attorney General and later expanded to conducting drug prosecutions for the federal department of justice. In 2006, she was appointed the MCSCS counsel and three years later was promoted to legal director.
In her current role at the Ministry of Education, she’s responsible for the development and implementation of policies and programs that support equity and inclusive education, leadership capacity of board administrators, effective school board governance structures, parent and community engagement, teachers and the promotion of safe, accepting and healthy schools and student and staff well-being.
This year’s YWCA Women of Distinction Awards ceremony takes place on May 18 at The Carlu, 444 Yonge St.