The trials of minority lawyers
By Kevin Gale
University of Ottawa law professor Joanne St.Louis has had a career full of firsts.
In 1980 she was the first black student in over 20 years at the University of British Columbia's law school and the first minority woman to co-chair a government working group.
St. Louis told the audience yesterday in the Josephine Spencer Niblett Law Building that despite the firsts, she would be happy just being in the middle of the pack of the legal profession as long as she is seen as a member of the legal community and not as a minority.
She said she is often asked for input on racial issues which is the result of societal perceptions and has made her feel like a commodity that is managing and marketing what her culture stands for. "They have a rolodex and under black expert they only have Joanne St. Louis," she said.
Aspiring lawyers who are minorities will face the same situation once they become lawyers because of the status in society afforded to lawyers, she added.
St. Louis also told students about the state of racial equality in the legal profession and about the perceptions faced by racial minorities in law because there are not many practicing.
There is a perception amongst minorities they have one chance to get a job because employers through affirmative action and bridging programs are concerned about meeting certain criteria. "You don't have a chance to be mediocre," she said.
As a result, racial minorities face extra pressure to perform in jobs, St. Louis explained. "It comes with the territory of entering a non-traditional field for our community." She added an additional fear is that if one minority individual makes a mistake in the workplace, it will reflect badly on the race or culture as a whole.
However, she said they should not worry about barriers and instead focus on being a lawyer and trying to get themselves to be part of the community as a whole.
Another perception problem she said exists in the legal profession is the failure to acknowledge a problem exists, as she has found out through her work as co-chair of the Canadian Bar Association's working group on racial equality.
St. Louis said the nature of the debate in the legal profession over racial equality is flawed as it is seen as being optional, when it should be mandatory.
Debating the issue itself can also be difficult because experiences have changed. "A different experience base is a fundamental barrier to even begin a debate," she said.