Op-ed: The Black Future Lawyers program promotes Black representation in the legal field

A program assistant weighs in on the BFL’s equity-based initiatives

Op-ed: The Black Future Lawyers program promotes Black representation in the legal field

On January 15, the University of Toronto Faculty of Law launched its Black Future Lawyers (BFL) program. The main goal of this program is to increase and support Black representation in law schools and the legal profession, and in turn better represent the diversity of the communities in which law is practiced. 

This program supports Black undergraduate students who aspire to go to law school and become lawyers through various engagement opportunities. Already, current undergraduate BFL members have had the opportunity to attend a speed mentoring session with Black lawyers working in both public and private practice and attend numerous workshops hosted by U of T Law — including ones with Constitutional Law expert Professor Richard Albert and Crown Counsel Kandia Aird. Other integral activities to the undergraduate BFL program include mentorship opportunities and job shadowing with Black lawyers, judges, and articling students. 

Black undergraduates can also look forward to admissions and financial aid information sessions and the second annual Black Future Lawyers Conference to be held on Saturday, February 29. 

Black undergraduates wishing to apply to U of T Law should also take note of the law school’s Black Student Application Stream (BSAS) opening in 2021. Inspired by the U of T Faculty of Medicine’s Black Student Application Program (BSAP), this stream will allow Black students to submit a personal essay centred on diversity and have their admission file reviewed by members of the Black legal community in addition to regular admission criteria. This will guarantee that the diverse experiences of Black students will be accurately assessed in their applications. 

As a BFL program assistant, I have had the opportunity to be an active participant in the launch of this program. I have helped coordinate events at the law school, developed content for the BFL social media pages, provided piano accompaniment for the BFL Launch Party, and most importantly, I’ve assured myself a position on the BFL working group committee. 

The primary concern of the working group committee is to bring the issue of Black underrepresentation in law school to the forefront of legal discourse and U of T Law’s admissions strategy. In attending workshops hosted by U of T Law, last year’s BFL conference, and meetings with the BFL working group committee, it is evident that the law school has a strong desire to rectify the issue of potential discrimination against Black students on law school applications. By ensuring that all applications are assessed in an impartial and unbiased manner, U of T Law believes that the number of Black students entering their law school will increase. As a result, the number of Black lawyers in society will increase as well.

Why does society need more Black lawyers anyway? Well, an increase in Black lawyers would mean better legal representation for Black people in the criminal system. This is important because traditionally and recently, there has been a disproportionate overrepresentation of Black people in the criminal system without adequate legal representation from lawyers who understand their needs and situation. With more Black lawyers in society, it is possible that more Black people would be kept out of the prison system. 

In addition, more well-educated Black lawyers will inspire young Black people to believe that they too have the capacity to become successful lawyers. For a marginalized group that has consistently felt the burden of ‘not being enough,’ this will truly uplift Black youths. This is one of the core values of the BFL program. It would also challenge the idea that law schools are reserved for the elite in society, as they have been for some time.

Breaking down racial barriers is necessary to make previously exclusive institutions accessible to talented students from a wide array of backgrounds. Further, an increase in the number of Black people practicing law would mean the chance for them to offer their unique perspectives leading to new innovations in the law. 

In addition to U of T Law, other departments at U of T have been increasing awareness around Black underrepresentation in academia and other pressing issues facing the Black community. For example, early on in 2017, the U of T Faculty of Medicine launched its BSAP which increased its number of Black students from one to 14 in its first year. Also, the Toronto Black Policy Conference hosted by the City of Toronto’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit, and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy’s Urban Policy Lab have both been crucial elements in “fostering conversation about local policy initiatives that affect Toronto’s diverse Black communities.” 

Outside of U of T, Black Owned Unity has aimed to support Black businesses and young Black entrepreneurs through their Black Owned Holiday Market in Toronto. The City of Toronto has even come on board to tackle anti-Black racism through the Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism. The various initiatives throughout the community to raise awareness of the issues Black people face show that U of T Law is not alone in attempting to create a legal profession that is more inclusive and accessible for tomorrow’s Black lawyers. This program is the start of something new and exciting.

For more information on the BFL program, visit us at bfl.law.utoronto.ca, blackfuturelawyers on Facebook and Instagram, and BlackFutureLawr on Twitter. 

Stephane Martin Demers is a third-year Classical Piano student at the Faculty of Music. He was elected onto Governing Council as an undergraduate student representative for the professional faculties for the 2020–2021 academic year. He serves as a Black Future Lawyers program assistant.

“A springboard for Black success”: Faculty of Law launches new Black Future Lawyers program

Black law applicant stream to open in 2021, aims to tackle underrepresentation in the field

“A springboard for Black success”:  Faculty of Law launches new Black Future Lawyers program

“Black Future Lawyers should be a springboard for Black success and increase the confidence of Black undergraduates to pursue a career in Law,” Rebecca Barclay Nguinambaye told The Varsity.

Nguinambaye is a law student and the president of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) U of T, which has been instrumental in the launch of the new Black Future Lawyers (BFL) program.

The program aims to support and increase the number of Black undergraduate students who are able to enter U of T’s law school and ultimately join the legal profession. In doing so, it hopes to tackle Black underrepresentation in the field.

BFL offers a wide range of opportunities for aspiring Black law students, including mentoring and job shadowing with Black legal professionals; lunches and exclusive workshops; lectures at the faculty; information sessions about accessing law school; and an annual BFL conference.

In the 2021 U of T Law application cycle, BFL will also inaugurate its Black Student Application Process (BSAP). Black-identifying applicants, both domestic and international, may choose to apply to U of T Law through this stream.

BFL is funded by an outreach grant from the Provost’s Office, the Access Program University Fund, with in-kind support from the faculty. The faculty describes the program as a “collaboration between UofT Law, our Black Law Students Association, members of our Black alumni community, and the broader legal profession.”

Tackling underrepresentation

Dean and James M. Tory Professor of Law at the Faculty of Law, Edward Iacobucci announced the launch of BFL in a press release on November 25.

However, Nguinambaye explained to The Varsity that BFL has been in the making for two years. “In late 2017, BLSA communicated with Black Alumni to prompt an alumni letter to the Faculty requesting action on the under representation of Black students at the law school,” she wrote. “The faculty was very responsive.”

According to the faculty’s own data on its first-year class profile, only one per cent of students, at most, identified as Black in the cohorts of each of the last five years. This sharply contrasts with the wider city’s demographics — according to Canada’s 2016 census, nine per cent of Torontonians identify as Black.

Nguinambaye noted that by late 2017, the Faculty of Medicine had already launched its own BSAP, which aims to make the application process more inclusive and increase Black representation at the faculty. This informed discussions between the faculty, the BLSA, and alumni, and  informed their decision to establish a similar program for U of T Law.

Assistant Dean, JD Program Alexis Archbold detailed the goals of the program in an email to The Varsity.

“The Faculty of Law believes that legal education should be accessible to talented students from all parts of Canadian society,” she noted. “True access to justice in Canada cannot be achieved unless the legal profession represents the diversity of Canadian society.”

Accordingly, BFL strives to reduce barriers that underrepresented parts of the population, such as Black people, may experience in accessing legal education and employment.

“We know that the stories, challenges, and wisdom that [come] from different communities can only come out through individuals who embody those experiences,” Nguinambaye added. “To maintain the legitimacy of the law, it is important to prove that law is accessible to all and there are no [identity-based] barriers.”

A collaborative process

The BLSA at U of T Law is part of the national BLSA network, which was created in 1991 to tackle barriers that Black people in law school and the legal profession face. The organization’s purpose, noted Nguinambaye, is to “celebrate Blackness and nurture community at the law school,” especially through outreach.

According to Nguinambaye, the plans for the program had been laid out by early 2019, and it hosted its first BFL conference in March. The annual conference is open to Black undergraduate students from all universities, and serves to inform them about pathways to accessing law school and becoming lawyers.

Archbold stressed the collaborative process of BFL. She described the program as “deeply informed by the experiences and input” of Black law students, alumni, and undergraduates at U of T, especially through the work of the BFL Working Group. “It has been a democratic process where everyone’s views [are] heard and respected,” affirmed Nguinambaye.

The next major BFL event will be held on February 29, when the law school will host its second BFL conference with the help of the BLSA and Black alumni. Black undergraduate students are able to register online for free until February 24.

“We want to see community created by the many Black undergraduate students joining as BFL members and Black legal professionals joining as volunteers and mentors,” Nguinambaye noted on expectations for the program.

She added that she hopes that the BFL will serve as an outreach model for other law schools.

The Black Student Application Process

The Faculty of Medicine’s Communities of Support initiative, which provides support and mentorship to underrepresented students, and the BSAP together served as a model for BFL.

There is evidence of the model’s success. In the fall of 2018, the Faculty of Medicine’s first BSAP cohort included 14 Black students. Just two years prior, there was only one Black student in the first-year class, reflecting how Black medical students and professionals tend to be underrepresented relative to the Black population in the GTA and Ontario.

With its own BSAP, the Faculty of Law hopes to “break down some of the barriers and perceptions that might prevent Black students from applying to, and accepting offers from, UofT Law.”

Similar to that of the Faculty of Medicine, the Faculty of Law’s BSAP applicants will be reviewed by members of the Black legal community. According to Iacobucci’s news release, students who apply through the BSAP will receive assistance throughout their application process, and their applications will be reviewed “by at least three staff, students, and alumni who identify with the Black community.” 

BSAP seeks to tackle the challenges that Black students face in accessing U of T Law. Notably, there is no admission quota designated to BSAP applicants, and the BSAP will not disadvantage non-Black applicants. All applicants, regardless of whether they apply through the general stream or the BSAP, will be assessed by the same standards. Rather, BSAP will take into consideration the applicant’s holistic experiences, which is  exemplified by the requirement of a personal essay from students to explain why they are applying to BSAP.

Building community: past efforts, future prospects

BFL follows existing outreach efforts at U of T Law to engage with students from Black and other underrepresented communities on accessing law school and the legal profession.

For undergraduate students, aside from the upcoming BSAP, the faculty also provides special mentorship, networking, and programming opportunities, such as the annual BFL conference.

For Black students who attend U of T Law, the BLSA works to provide programming, mentorship, and social and networking opportunities.

At a high school level of outreach, there is the See Yourself Here initiative, which was launched by the BLSA in 2008; the Law in Action Within Schools program, which was launched by the faculty in 2005; and the faculty’s partnership with Leadership by Design, which is specifically for Black high school students, and continues to support them during their undergraduate career.

“We are proud of these initiatives, but we know that there is a lot of work to be done, and that work is continuous and ongoing,” noted Archbold.

On this question of what can be further achieved at U of T Law for Black students, Nguinambaye listed opportunities for touring law firms, internships, academic advising,  and financial assistance, which disproportionately concerns underrepresented communities, including Black folks.

Nguinambaye also called on non-Black members of the U of T legal community to support the BFL. “We have and will increase opportunities for non-Black-identifying students, faculty, lawyers and other professionals to be involved with BFL and welcome the support of the larger community,” she added.

“BFL is for Black students, but requires the commitment and encouragement of many to be successful!”

Opinion: Increase Indigenous awareness training in U of T’s faculty of law

Critiques of stereotyping reveal from gaps in Indigenous awareness training

Opinion: Increase Indigenous awareness training in U of T’s faculty of law

Last month, first-year U of T law students criticized a final assignment for using “racial stereotypes” of Indigenous peoples.

The assignment featured a hypothetical situation where Indigenous children were taken out of the care of parents with substance use disorder and placed in foster care with a non-Indigenous family. After two years, the father, who had overcome alcohol use disorder, requested to see the children. The students were asked to write a memo on the situation, and take into consideration a 2017 Ontario law that prioritizes the maintenance of familial and cultural ties for Indigenous children.

Edward Iacobucci, Dean of the U of T law school, responded with an apology a week later. “I apologize whole-heartedly for the offence this assignment has understandably caused, especially to our First Nations and Métis students” wrote Iacobucci. “The faculty will consider means that we can adopt going forward to seek to ensure that something like this does not happen again.”

Looking closer at the assignment and the criticisms that it evoked, the initial problem wasn’t that the assignment was inherently stereotypical but that it was presented with a general lack of Indigenous awareness. Moving forward from this incident, U of T must incorporate more Indigenous awareness training for faculty and students.

There have been varying responses to this incident, from initial student complaints to the dean’s apology. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, shared her view, saying that there was nothing wrong with the assignment at its “face value,” because it was based on the fact that more than half of the children in foster care are Indigenous.

However, others argue that there should have been more engagement with experts in Indigenous law beforehand in order to avoid engaging with “troubling stereotypes,” as Iacobucci called them.

Indigenous voices are important in these situations, however, respecting Indigenous responses to this incident doesn’t necessarily ensure that something like this won’t happen again. Instead, there must be a concentrated effort toward increasing the base of Indigenous knowledge and awareness in the curriculum. By doing so, U of T would demonstrate a dedicated effort not only in reforming its own curriculum, but also in training a future generation of students whose actions will continue to remedy the gaps in our legal systems.

In an interview with, Iehnhotonkwas Bonnie Jane Maracle, a learning strategist at U of T’s First Nations House, expressed that she agreed with Blackstock’s initial impression, seeing this assignment as something necessary to educate students on the historical and ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

“This is [a] fact… that’s the language of our lives, and if you’re going to be in law, you definitely have to be conditioned to what you’re going to be dealing with,” Maracle said.

However, as other students voiced in interviews with Law Times, the assignment came with a general lack of context, and should have considered the other harsher realities of the “whole story,” like “residential schools, the sixties scoop, [and] discrimination enabled by the Indian Act.”

Ironically, as Maracle also pointed out, the whole response to the article created an issue in itself, as the avoidance of issues related to Indig- enous peoples creates stereotypes.

In order to properly address reconciliation, we must train students, educators, and legal workers on the unique historical conditions which have shaped and reinforced the continued neglect of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The need for integration of Indigenous content in our curriculum is made evident in a 2015 report, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) implored the Federation of Law Societies of Canada to provide “appropriate cultural competency training,” highlighting the “history and legacy of residential schools,” “treaties and Indigenous rights, Indigenous law and Indigenous-Crown relations,” and “training in conflict resolution and anti-racism,” as areas of concern.

In British Columbia, all lawyers will be required to take a six-hour course covering these areas starting in 2021. All other Canadian provinces should make a similar effort in order to provide competency and awareness training to law students, and other faculties of study. U of T must join this effort, and increase its own Indigenous awareness training.

Maracle noted that the response to the assignment exemplified the continued stereotyping of Indigenous peoples as the result of a direct lack of implementation of the TRC recommendations.

Ironically, as Maracle also pointed out, the whole response to the article created an issue in itself, as the avoidance of issues related to Indigenous peoples creates stereotypes.

“All they could see,” Maracle said, “was the stereotypical aspect of it, not the fact that this was a learning experience. A lot of people are now aware and treading very lightly on what they see… It prevents people from actually looking closer. And especially lawyers, but you have a job to do, to look beyond that and at the facts.”

This assignment was an opportunity for law students to fully immerse themselves in a case that affects numerous Indigenous families each year in Canada. Rather than focusing on the reality that is the disproportionate amount of Indigenous children in the foster care system, reactions have centred on criticizing this assignment as stereotypical and offensive. This hypersensitive reaction distracts from the reality of this systemic inequality. While it is important to reflect upon the way we talk about Indigenous issues, we must not forget that these issues persist regardless of the way we phrase them.

Instead of being quick to label things as stereotypical — and consequently silence debate and discussion altogether — we must focus on reforming our institutions and curriculums so that there is an increased quality and quantity of Indigenous awareness training within our faculty and society.

Toryanse Blanchard is a second-year English, Environmental Biology, and Book and Media Studies student at New College.

“Now is the time to act”: Faculty of Law students sign open letter against rising tuition

Petition garners 400 signatures from students, alumni

“Now is the time to act”: Faculty of Law students sign open letter against rising tuition

India Annamanthadoo came to the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law in the hopes of pursuing a career in public interest law, and working in areas such as international human rights law and legal aid work.

Since arriving, however, Annamanthadoo has become increasingly worried about being able to go into those fields given concerns over the high cost of tuition and increasing student debt. She also noticed that many of her friends in the faculty forgo those fields, which tend to be on the lower end of the pay scale, in favour of careers in the higher paying field of corporate law.

“Many of my peers and I came to U of T Law because we were enticed by the prospect of working in these areas,” she wrote. “But what I’ve come to realize is that those options are only viable if you don’t have debt from your undergrad and your parents are paying for your law degree.”

She added, “The situation is only getting worse, with tuition set to pass $40,000 next year. It was clear to me that now is the time to act.”

This academic year, Annamanthadoo and 14 other students and alumni helped launch Barriers to Excellence, an initiative to persuade the faculty to “implement a moratorium on tuition increases past $40,000 per year” until certain conditions outlined in an open letter addressed to Dean Edward Iacobucci are met.

These demands include a comprehensive financial review of the faculty with publicly accessible results. Based on the review, Barriers to Excellence demands that the faculty commit to specific initiatives to control costs and protect the allocation of financial aid, such as guaranteeing assistance to low-income applicants upon admission offers and a long-term plan for affordable tuition.

The name is modelled after the faculty’s Campaign for Excellence without Barriers, a project launched this year aiming to raise $20 million for financial aid.

To date, the open letter has over 400 signatures from current students, alumni since the class of 1971, and several organizations, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union and the Law Students’ Society of Ontario.

“Obviously this is not a campaign for current students,” wrote Annamanthadoo. “We’re already here, paying six [figures] for a law degree. This is a campaign for future students.”

In a statement to The Varsity, the faculty noted that Iacobucci has had two in-depth discussions of the budget, tuition, and financial aid at Faculty Council, the governing body of the Faculty of Law.

The council is composed of the dean, full-time faculty members, the Chief Law Librarian, the Assistant Dean of the Juris Doctor Program, elected student representatives from each year of the program, and two graduate students.

The statement continued that, subject to U of T approval, Iacobucci will aim for a four per cent increase in tuition next year, rather than five per cent, the maximum allowable amount.

In response, Alexandra H. Robertson, a third-year law student also involved with the campaign, wrote that the move was an “important first step.”

“It will be the first time since 2006 that the faculty has not increased tuition by the maximum allowable amount,” she wrote. “Students have been advocating on this issue since the early 2000s and feel like their efforts have been in vain. We believe this development means that the Faculty is hearing student and alumni concerns about tuition, financial aid, and law school accessibility.”

Robertson added, “Obviously our goal is for the demands in our letter to be met by the Faculty, which hasn’t happened yet, but we’re heartened that the Faculty is clearly listening to what we’re saying.”