On March 26, 2021, PBSC held our first-ever National Volunteer Appreciation Event, hosted virtually by our National Law Firm Partner, McCarthy Tétrault. Attended by student volunteers, staff, lawyer supervisors, funders, and our community partner organizations from across the country, the event celebrated the hard work and perseverance of our volunteers and partners in the wake of a tremendously difficult year. At PBSC National we were awed by our students’ and partners’ dedication to maintaining - and in some cases, improving - our organization’s impact on access to justice in Canada.
PBSC’s Chief Justice Richard Wagner Awards were launched two years ago to celebrate remarkable student volunteers who embody PBSC’s three core values of dignity, equity, and humility. Our second annual Awards were presented at the Volunteer Appreciation Event on March 26, recognizing volunteers from each PBSC Chapter for their extraordinary contributions in taking #actionforjustice.
We were honoured to have The Right Honourable Richard Wagner, P.C., Chief Justice of Canada, in attendance. A staunch advocate for access to justice, the Chief Justice’s ongoing support of PBSC speaks to his passion for accessible legal services and an equitable legal profession in Canada. He shared moving remarks about the impact of the pandemic on the legal sector and the profession’s need to embrace pro bono in order to move toward a more accessible and just legal system.
“Pro Bono Students Canada has been – and remains – on the legal front lines of this pandemic [...] Together, your volunteers and community partners have continued to provide high-quality, relevant legal services for free.”
- Chief Justice Richard Wagner, addressing attendees at PBSC’s National Volunteer Appreciation Event (March 2021)
The Chief Justice also commented on the profession’s ability to adjust and pivot in response to restrictions posed by the pandemic: “Along with the easy-peeling red tape I mentioned earlier, it turns out that our justice system has more flexibility than many would have guessed. It is possible to modernize our justice system and make it more accessible. It would be irresponsible to miss this unique opportunity, born of a pandemic, to make longer-term structural reforms. Again – this will require action for justice.”
Joining us for the second half of our National Volunteer Appreciation Event – a fireside chat – was El Jones, spoken word poet, educator, journalist and community activist; Maggie Wente, member of Serpent River First Nation and Indigenous rights lawyer at OKT Law; and moderator Nikki Gershbain, Chief Inclusion Officer and leader of the InclusionNow program at McCarthy Tétrault. El and Maggie discussed their professional journeys, particularly how commitment to their communities has informed their advocacy and activism, coping and finding hope during the pandemic, and what it means to practice law from a place of humility.
“Joy. Hope. Resistance. Survival. Giving.”
- Nikki Gershbain, summing up the themes of El Jones & Maggie Wente’s fireside chat
El Jones reminded us that these fights are fought from the ground up - that people are at the root of this work, and those people “may not be lawyers, academics; may not label themselves as abolitionists or justice workers, but they do the work every single day.” She also remarked on the importance of pro bono legal work in achieving justice, and the integral part lawyers play in providing this service.
Maggie Wente pointed out, “there’s no right way to contribute to your community”, but “if that’s something that drives you, you’ll find a way to do it.” She emphasized that for anyone, but especially for lawyers, the best way to serve your community and your clients is to take care of your own mental and physical health.
The event ended with a powerful spoken word poem on access to justice, written and performed by El Jones. In case you missed the event, below are several powerful takeaways that were shared by our esteemed speakers.
Calls to action on the journey to pro bono:
Legal issues don’t always require a lawyer. As evidenced by PBSC’s operational model - in which law students work with community organizations to provide legal services with lawyer supervision or oversight - there are some aspects of legal service provision that do not require the expensive time of a licensed lawyer. The passage of the Access to Justice Act in 2006 made Ontario the first jurisdiction in North America to license paralegals, or non-lawyer legal professionals. Providing unbundled legal services at lower cost to clients, the Chief Justice likened this to how nurse practitioners revolutionized the delivery of medical services: “I think that is a good metaphor. You don’t always need to see a doctor for an earache. Just as some legal issues don’t always require a lawyer.”
A little pro bono goes a long way. At PBSC we strive to foster a pro bono ethic in the next generation of lawyers, and believe that all lawyers, regardless of their area of practice or sector, have something to contribute. Chief Justice Wagner took note of this and reflected on recent and positive trends in pro bono: “I am encouraged to see that pro bono representation is increasing. Law firms are building more pro bono projects into their business models and into the fibre of the legal profession. I am confident that anyone who has volunteered with Pro Bono Students Canada will remain strong advocates for expanding these programs." The Chief Justice went further, raising the concept of a mandatory pro bono requirement for lawyers in Canada - a topic that has been hotly debated for 40 years. He advocated that we consider, “treating pro bono work as an essential part of ongoing bar membership, much like continuing legal education. At the time [three years prior], I suggested that 10 hours per year, for most lawyers across Canada, would add up to one million free hours. Imagine the difference that could make!”
Just because things have been this way, doesn’t mean they have to be this way. Summed up by Nikki Gershbain, this takeaway references the pieces of hope that Maggie Wente and El Jones found in the midst of a global pandemic. For El, this was demonstrated in 41% of Nova Scotia’s provincial prisoners being released as a result of proximal safety concerns during COVID-19: “It costs 271 dollars a day to keep a person in provincial jail, it costs 125 dollars a day to keep them in supportive housing with groceries, with access to social work [...] that exploded the myth forever that we need to jail people, that we need to have these people in remand or communities just won’t be safe.” For Maggie, the self-governance ability that COVID-19 restrictions presented in some First Nations was an example of possibilities taken away from Indigenous peoples by the government: “[There were] all kinds of manifestations of self-determination that I thought was really, really heartening. And I thought it was really great that they were able to demonstrate their ability to govern themselves and take care of their kin in the ways that they wanted to do, and have been trying to fight for the right to do, for a really long time.”
More humility. One of our core values, humility, is integral to PBSC’s work and something we are constantly striving to embody and instill. As Maggie Wente remarked, “humility is something I think a lot of law students and lawyers struggle with - and I include myself in that!” She went on to share a personal anecdote and learning moment in her career, recommending that we ground ourselves in an experience that acts as a reminder to be humble. El Jones made the distinction between humility of service and ‘diminishing humility’, a type of devaluation that is often feminized. She shared that it is possible to be strong in your convictions and still humble, and reminded us that even when we find ourselves in positions of power (or as ‘teachers’), we must remember that we are still learners at all times: “When we are able to do that and put ourselves aside, that’s when our work really grows.”
In the midst of a difficult year, PBSC was grateful for the opportunity to bring together our nationwide team of students, lawyers, partners and funders for the first time ever to celebrate our amazing volunteers and reinvigorate our journey in advancing access to justice.
Special thanks to McCarthy Tétrault for sponsoring PBSC’s Chief Justice Richard Wagner Awards, to El Jones, Maggie Wente, and Nikki Gershbain for their thoughtful and honest contributions to our fireside chat, and to Chief Justice Wagner for championing PBSC’s mission and work.