Speech | 2016 Law Society of Upper Canada Recipient of Doctorate of Laws (LL.D.) honoris causa

Convocation, June 17th, 2016, London, Ontario |
Remarks by Mark M. Persaud, J.D., LL.M. Recipient of Doctorate of Laws (LL.D.) honoris causa

Treasurer Minor, distinguished guests, new colleagues being called to the Bar today and very importantly the family and friends here today whom have supported you over the years. 

Firstly, I wish to thank the Law Society of Upper Canada for this great honour being bestowed upon me today. I was completely overwhelmed when I spoke to the Treasurer about being the recipient of today’s Doctorate of Laws. Hearing the good news from a colleague whom I greatly admire and respect made it even more special. Madame Treasurer, I am sure that my colleagues are also filled with admiration and gratitude for the outstanding work and leadership you have provided to our profession. You assumed many difficult and often delicate tasks while at the helm of probably the most diverse group of benchers in the history of the Law Society of Upper Canada. Our profession and the public are left in a much better position as a result of your dedication and tireless efforts. Thank you very much Treasurer. 

I also ask my newest colleagues at the Bar to please accept my congratulations and best wishes as you commence a new and exciting phase of your career and life, one that will, no doubt, be filled with many interesting avenues and exciting possibilities. Your background and education make each and every one of you very special. You have the ability not only to be great lawyers but also effective leaders and agents of change on a wide spectrum of issues. Be guided by your ideas, ideals and passion. Don’t be afraid to be brave and tough as lawyers, but remember to always be fair and reasonable.

Today, I would like to talk a bit about my journey to and through the legal profession; a profession that I dearly love. I hope my story will challenge you to reflect and think carefully about your future role in the profession and your future contributions to society. 

Let me begin by revealing that I have a special shirt. It is the most significant and valuable possession I have. It does not fit me anymore as I am now twice the man I used to be. It is not even aesthetically pleasing to look at. Indeed, it looks very ordinary, unimpressive and has no monetary value. I will tell you more about this shirt later, and why it is so important to me. 

I was born in British Guiana (now Guyana after independence), in South America and grew up fairly privileged as the second child in a family of five children. My father had a successful career as an economist and banker and taught at the national university. My mother was a homemaker who cared for us. My siblings and I attended the best schools and enjoyed a good life. But, politics intervened. Instead of living a normal, care free, teenage life I was drawn to politics and eventually to challenging the undemocratic and repressive government of the day. My family lived in fear of reprisals because of my activities. Being idealistic and stubborn, I foolishly ignored the threat my activism posed to my family and friends. When told by my father that I may get my family members killed, my response was, “It is better to die with dignity than live the life of a coward under this repressive government.”

The leader of the political party I supported, an academic and well known historian, was eventually killed in a bomb blast and thousands of us fled the civil and political unrest. My family members determined it was time to leave the country. We were awaiting US Visas but they thought it prudent to send me to Canada for safety and that I would subsequently join them in the United States. Everyone was restricted to leaving with $200 of local currency each so I arrived alone in Canada as a youth with only eighty dollars and fifty nine cents ($80.59) in Canadian currency and my suitcase with some personal belongings. I was not allowed to work or receive any government assistance until my immigration status was resolved, so invariably I ended up on the streets of Toronto as a homeless youth in the winter. I refused to stay at a shelter or go to soup kitchens to eat. I also did not panhandle. I was proud and desperately tried to preserve my pride and dignity. Often, I stayed up all night in coffee shops or slept creatively in various places. I would nap during the day in a public place where I felt safe. I did not have much to eat, usually subsisting on samples from fast food restaurants in malls. I recall on one occasion getting six bruised and discarded apples from a fruit and vegetable store which was my food for an entire week. Fortunately, it was easy to get free drinking water.

One very cold day when I was visibly freezing not having winter clothing or proper shoes, I was told to go to the Scott Mission — a Christian charity that assists the poor and vulnerable — to get a winter coat. I swallowed my pride and did so as I was afraid I would freeze to death or get very sick.  There I met, Eileen Brown, a staffer who took a personal interest in me. She rescued me from the streets and found me a place to live. I now had shelter and food. Suddenly, my life improved exponentially with the assistance of a stranger who became a second mother to me. For me, the most difficult part of being homeless in the winter was not the cold or hunger, but the loneliness.

Prevented by law from working legally in Canada because of immigration regulations at the time which have since been changed, I began to spend most of my time volunteering with various organisations, including Amnesty International, telephone counselling at a distress centre, and volunteering to assist refugees.  I also eventually volunteered full time at the Refugee Desk at the National Office of the United Church of Canada where I was given the opportunity to create an organisation to assist others like myself.

In a volunteer capacity I was able to create the Toronto United Church Emergency Refugee Relief organisation. When I eventually received my permanent resident status and was allowed to work, I was officially hired as the full time coordinator. One of the projects that was very important to me and from which I take great pride, was the creation of the Jean C. Watt Residence for refugees to prevent others like me from ending up on the streets. The emergency transition home was named in honour of Jean Watt, a prominent United Church woman who was an early Director of the Ontario Nurses Association. Jean Watt also worked as a nurse with refugees abroad.

As an advocate for refugees and immigrants, I was largely inspired by the female lawyers that worked in the legal aid clinics. They were my heroes. I was able to assist thousands of refugees during these years. My work was having a noticeable impact. Three years after I arrived in Canada, I was selected and shortlisted in the Toronto Star newspaper for the Toronto Man of The Year Award for my work with refugees. Yet, I was in my early 20’s and still had no permanent immigration status in Canada.  

As an executive member of the Toronto Refugee Affairs Council, an umbrella organisation for refugee and immigrant organisations, I had many opportunities to develop my advocacy skills, including dealing with the media and even appearing as a witness before an all-party parliamentary committee with two of my colleagues to make submissions on changes to immigration legislation. While working with refugees, I attended university studying political science. I finally found my calling. I was not destined to be a medical doctor as my father wanted me to be or a professor of political science, as I thought I wanted. I was meant to be an advocate and lawyer. I eventually applied for law school and was accepted. I knew it would irrevocably change my life, and it did. 

After my call to the Bar, I worked with the Department of Justice. I started out in the Civil Litigation section mainly arguing judicial reviews in the Federal Court of Canada then moved to the prosecution section. But things did not unfold as I had anticipated. I experienced an environment in which supervisors and managers condoned racism and discrimination. I was appointed to the Deputy Minister’s Advisory Committee on Visible Minorities and took my responsibilities seriously. I spoke out against discriminatory practises in promotions and advancement and paid a heavy price personally and professionally.

 I returned to the not-for-profit sector and created an organisation that worked on issues of domestic and international peace security and development. We initiated several ground-breaking projects, including collaborative projects between the Jewish and Muslim communities and a unique project in Afghanistan highlighting Canadian pluralism.  

I eventually realised that my challenges were a test of my character and integrity. My own experiences with homelessness, coupled with discrimination as a lawyer at the Department of Justice and the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, as it is now known, have made me more resilient, determined and committed to doing my part in ensuring that everyone is treated with respect, fairness and dignity regardless of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or other attributes.

As members of the legal profession, in a diverse society, we have a very special obligation to expose and address all forms of discrimination. We are fortunate to have the leadership of Treasurer Minor and her bencher colleagues who take these issues very seriously, but they also need our assistance. As a profession, we are uniquely trained and suited for advancing fairness and equality. Indeed this is expected of us. I exhort each of you to discharge this very crucial duty.

I grew up in a family of strong women in which we embraced gender equality. The issue of continuing gender challenges for women in our profession is of great concern to me. I remember the optimism we shared as law students over two decades ago when equal numbers of women were entering law schools. At the time, we thought it was only a matter of time that the composition our of profession would reflect the society we live in. There is a troubling trend that we must arrest. We need to immediately address the serious issue of women leaving the profession in large numbers. The motherhood penalty still exists for women in many quarters. Regrettably, it also exists in our profession.  

We must acknowledge that we have made progress on equality on a number of fronts such as gender, race, sexual orientation and disabilities. Indeed, the overt racism that I experienced in my early years in Canada such as being called racist names on the bus or being spat at, simply because of the colour of my skin while walking in public, are largely things of the past.

However, today we are faced with complex and insidious forms of discrimination. We cannot shy away from addressing these. No one should be humiliated, dehumanised or discriminated against because of their race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or disability, especially in our profession.

As lawyers we should never be afraid to speak out against unfairness and injustices. We should never be reluctant to be constructively critical.

We all have an important obligation to contribute to the eradication of unfairness and discrimination especially in our profession. If we cannot get it right as lawyers then how can we expect or demand it of others?

If I am to leave a few brief prescriptions and thoughts with you, it would be the following:

Have fun and enjoy what our profession offers whether it is in the traditional practise of law or otherwise. If you are unfulfilled in your work then look for another job which will bring you pleasure and satisfaction even if it means earning less.

Be mindful of your health as our profession can at times be very demanding and it is easy to neglect your health and well-being.  Maintain a good sense of humour. You will need it.

Find good mentors. Build a good support structure and network effectively among colleagues and outside the legal profession. I have met many legal colleagues outside of the law context such as in politics and community advocacy. Indeed, my dear friend, mentor, and equally bad golf partner, The Honourable Justice Todd Archibald who is here today, started our friendship in our neighbourhood church that our two families attended.

Reach out to your colleagues in need. Look out for each other. I feel very fortunate to have been in a position to be able to assist legal colleagues and their family members with personal legal matters.

Never comprise your core principles and values. Your integrity and respect are more valuable and important than any client or amount of legal fees. Do not ever risk your reputation. You only have one reputation. Protect it and treat it as sacred.

Act with humility and compassion. Help others when you can. Consider doing a certain amount of pro bono or “low bono” work for those who cannot afford legal services. 

Use your skills to advance causes that are important or that you are passionate about, including in politics or social causes. I was twice elected to the national executive of a federal political party and have chaired and advised on political campaigns at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. These were eye opening and valuable experiences in terms of understanding how political parties and government work, and have made me a better advocate and lawyer. Today, I am currently not a member of any political party, preferring independence at this time. As a proud and patriotic Canadian and a member of the legal profession, it is my duty to speak out on important issues in a fair, objective and non-partisan manner and put public interest ahead of political partisanship.

You are trained to be skillful advocates and politics would be a natural fit for many of you as would leadership roles in the business, non-governmental and social justice sectors. Explore careers outside the traditional practice of law.

Write and publish articles of importance to the profession and public. Share your skills and talents. Continuing legal education is very important. As lawyers we become perpetual students of the law.

Vigourously defend the administration of justice, the judiciary, the profession, and your colleagues against unfair criticisms. The highly inappropriate criticisms by the previous government on our Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada remind us that we have a crucial role as lawyers, individually and collectively, to defend our judiciary when unfairly criticised, particularly given the constraints of defending itself. The Canadian Bar Association did a commendable job of holding the government responsible for its inappropriate conduct. Support your law associations that engage in advocacy roles for the profession.

Actively support and come to the defence of our colleagues when unfairly criticised simply for being effective lawyers. As lawyers, we have legal and professional responsibilities to our clients which must not be influenced by public perceptions or criticisms. A recent highly publicised sexual assault trial should remind us of this obligation. However, we should correspondingly work on addressing the shortcomings in our legal system that deter complainants from coming forward and ensure that they are appropriately supported and treated appropriately.

Notwithstanding any imperfections, we have a very solid and credible legal system and Bars in Canada, second to none in the world. It must be respected, cherished and improved upon as needed but never be allowed to be unfairly criticised especially in the context of partisan politics.

You all have the ability and capacity to make invaluable and significant contributions to the profession, to the administration of justice and beyond. By virtue of your education, work ethic, intelligence and training you are well suited to assume leadership roles in our society with the attention, seriousness and responsibility that comes with such roles.

Now as I complete my address, I would like to return to my very important shirt. My very special blue shirt is the first thing I see every morning when I open my closet to get dressed. It is the only physical possession that I still have from my life in Guyana and the inauspicious start of my life in Canada.  It is in many essentials a shrine for me. I look at it every morning as a symbol and reminder of how fortunate I am, not only to have the comfort and security of a place to live, food and other necessities of life, but also the great privilege of being a lawyer, having the luxury of working with smart and talented legal colleagues on a daily basis and, most importantly, being able to serve the public. 

My best wishes to all of you as you embark on your professional journeys. Continue to build the legacies and important contributions from members of our profession, past and present, that have helped make our profession and country great. 

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