As an Indigenous woman lawyer, I like to see other successful women who represent me. I follow some amazing women lawyers on Twitter, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and am constantly impressed at the calibre and quality of their legal skills.
But while I see that, I know that so many of my colleagues do not see lawyers who look like them or who represent them in the courthouses. And so that is why I am now starting my campaign for representation in BC Courthouses. Because Representation Matters.
Take as an example the BC Supreme Court in Vancouver. Outside Courtroom 31, the busiest courtroom in the province, there are portraits of judges who served on the Court of Appeal. The wall is lined with photographs of old white man after old white man. Only one face stands out in the crowd: Beverley McLachlin. She is the only woman on the wall outside Courtroom 31. This is despite the fact that numerous women have served and are actively serving on the Court of Appeal.
No one on the wall is Indigenous, at least not visibly. No one on the wall appears to be a person of colour, despite the fact that BC has had judges from radicalized backgrounds. With the single exception of McLachlin, there is no representation of people who have helped shape the legal history of this province, and who have contributed in innumerable ways to increasing representation for their communities.
Other courthouses are just as bad. While some may have portraits of women or people of colour on the walls, they are still drowning in seas of old, white men. The reality in British Columbia and in the legal community generally is that women and people of colour have historically been underrepresented on the bench and in the public eye as lawyers and judges. There is no commentary to view the disproportionate representation critically, or to explain it, or to celebrate the women, Indigenous people, and people of colour who have paved the way.
And there should be.
In addition to these, there are some problematic representations of former judges that are harmful to Indigenous communities. At the New Westminster courthouse, for example, there is a large statue of Judge Begbie. While many people liked Judge Begbie, he is famous for having hanged a number of Chilcotin First Nations people who were attempting to assert their traditional rights.
At the Vancouver Supreme Court, there is a bust of Justice Alan McEachern. He was a much-loved and long-serving Chief Justice of the BC Supreme Court who is celebrated for his numerous legal decisions, sharp mind, and contribution to the profession. And while he earned that celebration, he also wrote the original decision in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia which refused to recognize Indigenous traditions in court, on the basis that Indigenous peoples lived lives that were “nasty, brutish, and short.”
That context is not provided in the courthouse. That context is not written next to the bust of him or the statue of Begbie so that the whole of their history is properly told.
I don’t think we need to remove the statues, necessarily. But reconciliation requires that we recognize the reality of the history in this country, including the way that celebrated members of our legal community contributed to a colonial framework that kept women and people of colour out of the law for years.
Women, people of colour, and Indigenous individuals who have contributed to the legal profession and the law in a significant way should be represented and celebrated in our courthouses in the same way that our male colleagues are. We have, in British Columbia, a female Chief Judge of the BC Provincial Court. We have a female Associate Chief Justice. Despite that, it is difficult to find representation of them in the actual courthouse.
Even in smaller courthouses and smaller communities we should see representations of women, Indigenous people, and people of colour. On recent trips abroad I have toured local courthouses. British Columbia is lacking sorely behind the United States. Many US courthouses have representations of the first female lawyers and the first lawyers of colour on the walls. They are celebrated for how they made things just a little bit easier for those who came after them.
Even the Supreme Court of Canada has a prominent display celebrating female justices on the Supreme Court, and literature in the building to point out how long it took for women to be represented on the court.
Every small town in British Columbia has a story of the first female lawyer in town, or the first Indigenous lawyer. Or a prominent female or Indigenous lawyer that contributed to the profession locally. Look at the lawyer practicing in Victoria who is in her nineties. Or the Indigenous woman who recently passed in Whitehorse and who made valuable contributions to the profession.
They deserve to be represented and celebrated.
That way, when students tour the courthouses as part of their school programs, or people come by to file documents or dispute a traffic ticket, or access any court services, they can see that there are amazing members of the bar and the bench who have come before them, who represent them, and who help them belong to this great profession.
Watch this space for further information on how you can assist in the Representation Matters campaign, and what steps we are taking to address the inequality of representation in our courthouses.
Vancouver Criminal Lawyer with a focus on impaired driving, cannabis legalization and related issues, and immediate roadside prohibition defence.