Veteran lawyer to receive Lincoln Alexander award
May 19, 2017
If it weren’t for Charles Roach and his sage advice, Thora Espinet might not have pursued a law career.
After completing a two-year legal office administration course at Fanshawe College in 1975 and spending some time in Marva Jemmot’s law office, Espinet approached the late lawyer and activist, who opened his own legal practice in 1968 which was 13 years after he left Trinidad & Tobago, for a job.
Before accepting his offer, she confidently asked him who would supervise her.
Roach told her nobody had ever asked that question, but what he went on to say left a lasting impression.
“As a law clerk, you might be the brightest person earth, but you will never get the prestige or you will never get the money,” Espinet, the mother of event producer and entrepreneur Ian Espinet, related.
A few months later while making a delivery to Roach at Osgoode Hall library, she realized he was the only Black person there.
“I told myself at that moment that he wouldn’t there by himself much longer as I was going to join him,” said Espinet who graduated with a law degree from the University of Windsor in 1982 and was called to the Ontario Bar a year later.
The veteran family lawyer is the recipient of the Lincoln Alexander Award to be presented at the Law Society of Upper Canada’s (LSUC) annual awards ceremony at Osgoode Hall on May 24.
Established in 2002, the award is presented annually to an Ontario lawyer who has demonstrated long-standing interest and commitment to the public and to the pursuit of community service on behalf of provincial residents.
Espinet met Alexander on two occasions before he passed away in October 2012.
“Both times, they were in social settings at community events,” she pointed out. “He achieved so much in an era when Blacks faced major hurdles. To win an award bearing his name is quite the honour.”
Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto legal counsel Rena Knox said Espinet, who she nominated for the award, is a renaissance woman.
“Thora is a committed, hardworking, warm and generous person who possesses excellent communication skills, a keen intellect and a wonderful sense of humour,” said Knox who has a PhD in history and taught at several universities. “There is, and has been nothing, that she can’t do and do well if she sets her mind to it.
“…She has shown an enduring commitment to the public and to the pursuit of community service while demonstrating extraordinary leadership in promoting positive social change and in addressing issues of racial discrimination and equality…She embodies everything for which this award stands for and has done so much for more than 30 years. She is a role model for all lawyers.”
The second of seven children (three are deceased), Espinet left Jamaica in 1953 to join her parents – they were married for 57 years – who were among the first wave of Caribbean immigrants to head to England for better opportunities.
When a friend related her exciting Canadian holiday experience, Espinet – who at the time was a reservation agent with the defunct British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) -- crossed the pond, liked what she saw and made Canada her home.
After several attempts to secure employment in the Canadian airline industry failed, Espinet vowed she was going to be her own boss.
“I made the decision that I wasn’t going to let anyone determine if I eat, what I eat, how I eat or what I do,” she said. “I was going to make that call.”
That was her impetus to attend university part-time and attain an undergraduate degree while working at the Toronto Stock Exchange, Bell Canada, Algoma Mines and Massey Ferguson.
“Massey Ferguson was starting up a new company in Toronto and there was a supervisor based in Winnipeg who always kept asking me legal questions,” the former Centennial College part-time professor and family court referee said. “I don’t know why he did, but there was this one time when he was leaving that he told me I must be a judge the next time he comes back.”
At the time, she didn’t take him seriously.
With her husband of 44 years working at the time for General Motors in London, Espinet was alone at home going through a college catalogue when she saw that Fanashwe College offered a legal administration course and decided to apply.
After being called to the Bar, Espinet spent two years as duty counsel with Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) and shared office space with Goldstein & Grubner where she mentored a young immigrant lawyer.
Weenie Lee, who went on to become a top immigration lawyer, alerted her mentor when an office became vacant in the building she was practicing in. Espinet has been in the Don Mills office for nearly 15 years.
“I am in a unique position to comment on why Thora is a deserving candidate for the Lincoln Alexander Award,” said Lee who supported the nomination. “I have known her personally and professionally for close to 30 years…Over the years, I have seen her work tirelessly to serve her clients, often beyond the call of duty…She is always obliging and encouraging, motivating the younger generation to ‘step up’ and be involved.”
As duty counsel with the LAO, a lot of Espinet’s work was centred on young offenders.
“More than working as a lawyer for them, I tried to be a role model,” she said. “When I saw them, the first thing I would ask for is their school report. If they had a low grade, I would ensure that their marks improved by the time they got to the courtroom.”
Firmly believing that prisons don’t rehabilitate most young offenders, Espinet advocated for alternative punishment.
“I would tell a judge that the kid has read four books, he or she has written essays on the books read and I would ask that individual go to a food bank to work or to a homeless shelter to experience what life was like there,” the former Delos Davis Law Guild president said. “I gave the young offenders things to do and, of course, they had to write a letter of apology to the person they aggrieved as well as their parents. That is much better than locking them away.”
Espinet, who uses her office to mentor young people, often shares stories of offenders who turned their lives around after meeting her.
“There was this young lady who was always in trouble and very aggressive who swore at me profusely the first time we met,” said Espinet who was a Humber College and Tropicana Community Services board member and Canada Pension Tribunal chair. “She was extremely hostile and there was always a security guard when she went to court. I suggested she go back to school which she did and when I saw her later and asked how she was doing, she said everything was going well. When I asked what her favourite subject was, her response was math. I told her I hated the subject and couldn’t add two and two. She burst into laughter and promised she would tell her friends that the greatest lawyer on earth couldn’t add two and two. Despite her anger, I think all she needed to know was that she could make it and there was light at the end of the tunnel.”
Sole practitioner James Tomlinson said Espinet’s extensive community service embodies the spirit of the Lincoln Alexander Award.
“She continues to be focussed on finding and implementing solutions to issues affecting the community where she works and lives,” added the University of Windsor and Osgoode Hall Law School graduate who was called to the Ontario Bar in 1995.
A deputy judge since 2008, Espinet co-founded the defunct Afro-Canadian Congress that advocated for a Scarborough school to bear the name of Mary Ann Shadd, the second Black American woman to graduate from law school in 1883, North America’s first Black female publisher and an advocate for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights.
She also played a key role in starting a Black Court Worker program in the 1000 Finch Ave. and 1911 Eglinton Ave. E courthouses and provided pro bono legal advice to the Agincourt community when she served on their Services Association board.
“During the past 17 years, I have had the privilege to know, work with and develop a deep and enduring friendship with Ms. Espinet,” said lawyer Dilshad Tavawalla. “…Apart from having a distinguished legal career, she is a positive role model to countless lawyers in Ontario and beyond.”