‘You don’t look like a lawyer.’ Female lawyers and lawyers of colour angered by mistaken identity in court

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During the early years of her career, Lori Anne Thomas would sit near the front of the courtroom, only to be told to move by court staff as the area was reserved for lawyers.

Except she is one.

“I’ve heard more than enough times, ‘You don’t look like a lawyer.’ I know exactly what that means, which is that I’m not a tall, white man,” said Thomas, a Toronto lawyer who specializes in criminal law and who recently became president of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers.

“It hits at you and just on top of dealing with everything else, being a recent call (to the bar), trying to figure out how to do everything and navigate the legal community and also build a practice, to then also have that obstacle of being constantly reminded that you’re kind of not expected to be here.”

Thomas’s story is one shared by other female lawyers and lawyers of colour, some of whom have been mistaken in courtrooms and other legal settings for assistants, interpreters and even an accused person.

Toronto criminal defence lawyer Janani Shanmuganathan said she’s been mistaken several times for a Tamil interpreter at the Scarborough courthouse, where staff or a Crown attorney will approach her in the hallway telling her she’s needed in a courtroom.

Other times, staff will approach her in the courtroom, even though she’s seated in the reserved area for lawyers.

“I don’t think people are saying that to be mean or in a negative way, but I think the gut reaction for people is that I don’t fit the stereotype of who they think a lawyer should be,” she said.

“It’s very frustrating and sad. I’m a child of immigrants. I’m the first lawyer in my family. I worked really hard to get to where I am. It’s unfortunate that I have to constantly be demanding my space and the right to be recognized for the lawyer that I am. It’s disheartening.”

According to the Law Society of Ontario, which regulates the legal profession in the province, about 43 per cent of lawyers are women. And the final report released in 2016 from the law society’s Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees Working Group noted that the proportion of racialized lawyers in Ontario had doubled between 2001 and 2014, from 9 per cent to 18 per cent.

Ottawa lawyer Erin Durant, who specializes in civil litigation, said she’s become increasingly annoyed as the years go by, having been mistaken for a court reporter or an assistant.

“It’s tough. What I would like to say, especially if it’s an older male lawyer, is: ‘No, are you an assistant?’ But I haven’t grown the guts to say that yet,” she said. “I think it’s more of a societal change and letting the public know that not only are there female lawyers, but we’re actually pretty close to being the majority.”

Toronto lawyer Raj Anand, who co-chaired the law society’s working group, told the Star that the issue of unconscious bias, and people assuming who are lawyers and who aren’t, was something heard “loud and clear” during his group’s study.

“I think it’s part of a culture change,” he said. “One would hope that both court offices and judges would clearly recognize that we’re dealing with a changing demographic, and more than half of students graduating from law school are women, and something like 25 to 30 per cent are racialized in Ontario. That obviously plays a role in who appears in court.”

He said education and greater awareness for the judiciary and court staff could be helpful — something that his group recommended be done for lawyers.

Thomas said it’s a systemic issue, highlighting that the court staff in Brampton who told her she couldn’t sit in the lawyers’ area in the courtroom were also people of colour.

“It’s not just this perception of white or non-racialized individuals,” she said. “It is a systemic belief that is ingrained in all of us that people in certain positions look a certain way.”

The Ministry of the Attorney General, which is responsible for staffing and operating the courts, takes this issue “very seriously,” said spokesperson Brian Gray.

Staff and managers receive training on a number of topics, including “bias awareness, unconscious bias, diversity dialogues and anti-racism,” he said.

Lawyer Trevin David said he can’t even count the number of times he’s been confused for a Tamil interpreter at the Scarborough courthouse. He also recalls an incident at a Toronto courthouse where a Crown attorney confused him for an accused criminal.

“I was in the Crown’s office waiting to speak to somebody else and the Crown attorney runs in and starts yelling at me about how I’m late, and I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And it becomes very clear that he thought I was a self-represented accused person,” David said. “And he didn’t apologize. He just said he was really busy.”

David said it takes a few moments to process what is going on in such exchanges, and sometimes the conversation is over by the time he’s ready to react.

“Even when you’re confused with being the interpreter, you’re still ultimately there for your client, so sometimes it might not be in your client’s best interests to get really angry, even though that’s what your initial reaction is. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and laugh it off,” he said.

“It’s not that these are just other random members of the public. These are people that work in the courts every day. These are Crowns and clerks. If they can’t imagine that you’re a lawyer, what larger story does that tell?”

Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering legal affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant

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Go green with your Christmas wrap — and we don’t mean the colour

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All that twinkly, glittery garishness associated with Christmas wrapping makes for a flashy presentation but it’s most definitely not a gift to the environment, says Winnipeg-based Green Action Centre.

So while we’re dreaming of a white Christmas, we need to think more green, the group says.

« It’s quite crazy, actually, the statistics surrounding how how much waste we are sending to a landfill around the holidays, » said Bethany Daman, a co-ordinator at the centre, which develops and advocates for environmental policies for Manitoba communities.

« The stats that we have is approximately 550,000 tons of wrapping paper is thrown out, so it goes to the landfill, in Canada each year. »

That includes things like the shiny wrapping paper as well as the glossy gift bags and the tissue paper used to cover the gifts inside those bags, Daman said.

« All three of those items are not recyclable in Manitoba and the reason is they contain the glitter and they contain plastics, » she said.

« There’s coloured shapes in there mixed with wax, metal and clay content and some of it’s laminated, so there’s too many additives, making it difficult to recycle. »

Use plain paper that comes in rolls, like the brown kraft stuff used to wrap packages for shipping, and decorate it with string, leaves and twigs, says Environmental Defence, a Canadian environmental action organization. (Environmental Defence)

Maps are another colourful alternative for wrapping paper. (Green Action Centre)

The Green Action Centre tries to help people come up with alternatives that take the unnecessary glitz out of gift wrap.

« If you have a scarf or something, you can actually turn that into quite a beautiful wrapping piece. You can use the ends of the scarf to make a bit of a bow at the top, » Daman said.

« Or something that someone in our office is doing this year is using tea towels to wrap her gift. »

Other suggestions include using plain paper that comes in rolls, like the brown kraft stuff used to wrap packages for shipping.

Decorate it with stamps or markers or « get crafty and make your own embellishment from paper, string, leaves and twigs, » says Environmental Defence, a Canadian environmental action organization.

Or find old magazines and make a collage, Daman suggested.

« If there’s a little bit of glue, it’s going to be fine to put in the recycling after. As long as [you’re not using] glitter glue or an excessive amount of paper glue, that’s gonna be totally fine, » said Daman, and she agrees that markers and stamps are a great way to dress it up.

An excellent alternative to wrapping paper is fabric, which is reusable for years, says Anna-Marie Janzen, who runs the website Reclaim Mending. (Submitted by Anna-Marie Janzen/Reclaim Mending)

Fabric comes in many colours that can be as festive as glossy Christmas wrap, but lasts longer and is more friendly to the environment. (Submitted by Anna-Marie Janzen/Reclaim Mending)

Same with a little bit of brushwork. But only a bit.

« If you’re doing a bunch of painting on it, that’s not going to be OK to recycle, » she said.

Not only are these options better for the environment, they show the person getting the gift that there’s been a lot of thought put into it.

« I definitely think that that ends up being a more special way of presenting the gift as opposed to just going to the mall, picking something up, getting it wrapped and then just presenting it to them, » Daman said.

« It’s something that you remember for so much longer when you’re actually having that effort put in. »

Reclaimed fabrics also make for durable reusable gift bags. ( Anna-Marie Janzen/Reclaim Mending)

« If you have a scarf or something, you can actually turn that into quite a beautiful wrapping piece. You can use the ends of the scarf to make a bit of a bow at the top, » says Green Action Centre’s Bethany Daman. (Green Action Centre)

Reusing newspapers is another inexpensive, easy and green alternative. Flyers advertising Christmas sales can make a colourful substitute for traditional wrap.

If wrapping isn’t your preference, an option is to get reusable cloth Christmas bags, Daman said.

« They have holiday designs on them and a lot of them are made from reclaimed material, so you can just use that bag over and over again from year to year and you can buy them in a variety of sizes. »

Substitutes can even be found for the tissue paper, said Daman, who recently put together a gift for a friend who likes cycling.

Most coloured, glossy paper cannot be recycled because of the inks and other additives. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Like the shiny Christmas wrap, these types of gift bags cannot be recycled, but you can reuse them to extend their life and keep them out of the landfill as long as possible. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

« I took an old cycling map and I used that as tissue paper in the reusable shopping bag. It was something that was going to get recycled anyway because it was an outdated map, but I was able to use that in a creative way that also reflected something of the person, » she said.

If you happen to be on the receiving end of a glossy gift bag, the best way to contribute to the environment is to save it and get as many additional uses out of it as possible before it goes to the landfill, Daman said.

Same goes for the wrap, said Rachel Kitchin of Environmental Defence.

« If your parents and grandparents are anything like mine, they probably also save all their wrapping paper and carefully fold it up to be reused next year. This might seem old fashioned, but it’s actually a great attitude that we could all use a little more of. »

While recycling is important, reusing is better, « because an endless stream of recycling isn’t sustainable, » Daman said.

« There’s still resources going into processing that recycling, so we have to think about always reusing what we have and then finding a recyclable alternative. »‘

And in the end, that’s a present to everyone.

« A sustainable gift is a gift to future generations and if we’re thinking about the future, we’re thinking about the Earth, » said Daman.

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