© 2003 Karen Selick
 "Mirror" Remark Reflects Poorly on Governor General

An edited version of this article first appeared in the March 7, 2003 issue of The Globe and Mail.  If you wish to reproduce this article,click here for copyright info.


 "Mirror" Remark Reflects Poorly on Governor General

"The Law Society should be more of a mirror of society," said Governor General Adrienne Clarkson last week, in accepting an honorary doctorate of laws from the Law Society of Upper Canada.

Her Excellency (as her website tells us to call her) seemed particularly concerned about what she perceived as the under-representation of minorities in the legal profession.  "Only 0.6 percent of lawyers are Aboriginal, compared to 1.4 percent of the population," she said, citing data from the 1996 census.

Unfortunately, Madam Clarkson’s speechwriter didn’t do his homework with the excellence one might have wished.  The 1996 census also showed that the aboriginal population is on average 10 years younger than Canadians in general.  In fact, the average age of aboriginals in 1996 was 25.5 years, with 53 percent being under age 25, compared to only 33 percent of non-aboriginals.

Since most people can’t get through high school, their pre-law undergraduate years, three years of law school, a year of articling and bar admission course before age 25 at best, it would be nothing short of miraculous if the youthful aboriginal population were proportionally represented among lawyers.

But a more troubling aspect of Her Excellency’s remarks was the implicit assumption that the proportion of lawyers in Canadian society at large is somehow the right proportion, and that by having fewer lawyers the aboriginal community is somehow suffering.  

Where would anyone get the idea that being a lawyer is such unadulterated bliss that people from all cultures should desire it in equal proportions?  Perhaps aboriginals are wiser than non-aboriginals in disdaining the legal profession, with its long working hours and high stress levels, as a road to happiness.  Perhaps the aboriginal community is better off being less litigious.  Perhaps one distant day aboriginals will look back on Her Excellency’s attempts to usher them into the legal profession as a form of cultural genocide, the way many now view the residential school experience.

Her Excellency’s speech drew headlines, however, for its remarks about women.  Although more than half of today’s law students are women, "…the legal profession has been built by men for men in a man’s world."

"[W]omen find it distinctly uncomfortable," she said.  In particular, having children reduces a woman’s advancement in the profession.

While this is probably true, it’s not news.  The same complaint was re-hashed ad nauseam within the profession more than a decade ago, culminating in the 1993 Report on Gender Equality in the Legal Profession by former Supreme Court justice Bertha Wilson.

What’s noteworthy throughout the ensuing years is that successive cohorts of women lawyers, forearmed with the knowledge that child-rearing will reduce their working hours, their prestige and their incomes, still choose to have children anyhow.

Can it be that some people find other things in life more rewarding than being the most awesome lawyer on the block and earning a gazillion dollars?  At the end of their lives, will the lawyers who billed 2,000 hours a year and never saw their children awake be the ones whose lifetime happiness quotient was greatest, or will it be those who billed half as much and got their daily dose of smiles and hugs?

The rest of her speech indicates that Her Excellency’s real concern is the money.  Bertha Wilson’s 1993 report recommended that law firms allow women to work 20 percent fewer hours but still be paid the same as men.  In other words, male lawyers who sacrifice their personal lives for greater income would subsidize female colleagues who would be spared that sacrifice.

The suggestion that lawyers who have consciously and voluntarily chosen a family-oriented lifestyle with its own set of rewards are somehow in need of the Governor General’s intervention and their colleagues’ subsidization is both patronizing and insulting to the women involved, and unjust to the men.



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March 8, 2003