Colour-coded Justice: What's a Black lawyer to do?

September 3, 2019

Like many Black children who grew up in Canada in the mid-80s and early 90s, I was raised with the idea that making your parents proudest meant becoming a doctor or a lawyer. It didn’t matter if your family descended from 18th century Black Loyalists or 19th century African American Refugees, or if your parents had recently immigrated from the Caribbean or Africa to serve as working class labourers or foreign-trained professionals, or to find greater safety and security. For “bright” Black children, the best way to make your family and community proud was to gain entry into the legal profession.

Whether or not we welcomed, actualized, resented or resisted this family pressure, it was generally understood to come from a good place. Black families typically want their Black babies to grow up to escape poverty and, if possible, even achieve the highest ranks of Canadian social acceptance and respectability. This is not unique to Black families in Canada. But it is especially common due to Canadian anti-Blackness, which perpetually impales the prospects, well-being and sense of belonging of Black Canadians as equals in this country.

It’s on this backdrop of my parents’ and community’s Jamaican immigrant dreams that I became a lawyer. But it doesn’t explain how I became a Black lawyer, or why.

I was born in Toronto and raised in racialized and working-class neighbourhoods in the Greater Toronto Area. As proudly Afro-Jamaican as my family and community encouraged me to be, we equally claimed “Canadian” as an inextricable part of social identity. As a result, I developed a deep sense of power and pride in the interconnected complexities of my African heritage, Jamaican parentage, and Canadian social inheritance.

So when I decided in high school that I wanted to become a lawyer, it was far more than an expression of acquiescence to my family’s and my community’s projections of Canadian immigrant dreams. I deeply wanted to play an active part in helping Canada fully realize its democratic ideals of multiculturalism, fairness and equality. Years before Black Lives Matter became the clarion call of a global generation of justice-seeking Black advocates and communities, I chose the law as the avenue by which I would pursue social change for the betterment of Black life in Canada.

Though mostly motivated by books I read about American icons of the Black Power Movement, such as Huey Newton and Black Panther Party for Self-Defence, I drew much inspiration from Canada’s own histories of struggle for Black freedom—organizations like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Black Action Defence Committee, and the African Canadian Legal Clinic, for example, and individuals such as Charles Roach, Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré and M. NourbeSe Philip. I chose to become a lawyer so I could carry on the tradition set by these leaders of the Canadian Black liberation movement. That is what makes me a Black lawyer.

Using a critical race or race-conscious frame of analysis to ground and guide my work, I have served Canada and its Black communities as a policy and research lawyer, a civil litigator, and now as a public servant. Public thinking, writing and speaking with this lens has been an integral aspect of my commitment to racial justice lawyering. At every step of my professional career, a focus on addressing anti-Black racism in Canada has been central.

I plan on sticking to that tradition in this column. “Colour-coded Justice” will be a space for exploring racial justice issues in Canadian law, policy and society—issues like racial profiling, gun violence, Black community development, Black politics and leadership, Black and Indigenous relations, reparations in Canada, and other questions and challenges facing Black life in this country. Obviously, there’s a lot to get to here, much but not all of it with implications for policy.

In early 2018, for example, the current federal government announced with great fanfare that it would officially recognize the United Nations–declared International Decade for People of African Descent. In support of that declaration, the 2019 budget committed $25 million over five years “for projects and capital assistance to celebrate, share knowledge and build capacity in our vibrant Black Canadian communities." On August 27 this year, the Trudeau government announced its support for the establishment of a Canadian Institute for People of African Descent that will be tasked with distributing these funds.  

What these commitments (and their future) mean during in an election year; whether they provide enough funds to truly support Black communities' needs; the governance, oversight and idependence of this newly announced institute; decisions about which Black communities are best served by these new endeavours; and whether the government identified the right priorities to fund. These are the kinds of questions this column will explore and provoke, on this issue and others.

I hope you enjoy it, learn something useful, and perhaps gain new perspectives, insights and even inspiration on how to equitably think through law and policy as they impact Black communities in Canada. But if it does nothing else, my humblest hope is that this column will simply make my parents proud. :-)

Anthony Morgan bio picture

Anthony N. Morgan is a Toronto-based human rights lawyer, policy consultant and community educator. His new column, Colour-coded Justice, will appear regularly in the Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyNMorgan.