In September, it will be 20 years since PBSC law students began delivering legal services to Canadians in need. What started initially as a handful of law students at one school working with just a few community partners, over the years turned into the largest pro bono organization in Canada, operating in 21 law schools from coast to coast.
Recently, to mark this momentous occasion, the Law Society of Upper Canada hosted a celebration dinner. Members of the bench, the bar, legal academics and PBSC students from across the country gathered in Convocation Hall to reflect on the past, present and future of the organization. The dinner took place during PBSC’s annual National Training Conference, providing PBSC student leaders from across Canada with an opportunity to learn about the history of the organization and celebrate its many achievements.
The evening began with a reception that was full of chatter and laughter, as law students met and mingled with over 70 special guests, including judges, lawyers, academics and other leading members of the profession, all of whom had supported the organization in many different ways over the last two decades. Three special PBSC partners helped to cap off the reception with toasts to PBSC: John McCamus, Chair of Legal Aid Ontario, Gordon Baird, a Partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP and Barbara Conway, Vice President of Human Resources at Thomson Reuters.
Dinner began with opening remarks from the master of ceremonies, Dean Edward Iacobucci of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, who spoke about the law school’s longstanding commitment to PBSC as its founder.
Janet Minor, Treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada welcomed guests and applauded PBSC students, PBSC staff, partners and funders “Your efforts and sponsorship are playing an important role in helping to promote access to justice throughout the country – providing much-need legal assistance to low-income and vulnerable people.” Paul Schabas, Chair of the Law Foundation of Ontario also brought greetings on behalf of PBSC’s founding and primary provincial funder.
Dean Sossin, Osgoode Hall Law School, had the pleasure of presenting the PBSC Supporter award to the Honourable Justice Harvey Brownstone. In his remarks, Dean Sossin spoke of Justice Brownstone’s commitment to PBSC including a speech he made that inspired the creation of the PBSC Family Law Project. Paying tribute to Justice Brownstone, a member of the bench who has worked tirelessly to raise public awareness about access to justice issues was a fitting way to mark PBSC’s 20th anniversary.
Upon receiving the PBSC Supporter Award Justice Brownstone addressed guests in both official languages and thanked the organization for presenting him with the honour and congratulating PBSC on 2 decades of work that has positively impacted some of the most marginalized individuals living in Canada. Justice Brownstone shared inspirational and emotional words as he accepted the award, speaking of his mother’s recent passing and how proud she was of him in her final days, knowing that he would be receiving this honour. Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella, who was unable to attend, surprised Justice Brownstone with a bouquet of balloons.
Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Renu Mandhane, delivered the keynote address and described the national organization as “an innovative program that addresses serious access to justice issues – and does so by providing enriching experiential learning opportunities that inculcate the pro bono spirit in in future members of our profession.”
As Commissioner Mandhane reflected on her experience as a PBSC volunteer working with METRAC during her first year of law school, just a few years before the organization was established in the fall of 1996, she reflected “I have never known a legal landscape where PBSC wasn’t a major player, and I honestly can’t imagine what Canadian legal education would look like without it.”
The huge impact that PBSC continues to have on the Canadian legal landscape was reflected upon during Commissioner Mandhane’s speech. “Pro Bono students are the allies of vulnerable people who may otherwise have no means of accessing life-changing legal information.”
The evening concluded with remarks from Nikki Gershbain, PBSC National Director, who reflected on the history of PBSC, leveraging law students to address the access to justice crisis, challenges faced by the organization and the way forward. Nikki took the time to thank the people and groups who have helped shape the past 20 years of PBSC “The reality is, none of what we’ve accomplished would have been possible without the shared commitment and efforts of so many individuals here with us this evening, representing for many institutions.” Nikki ended the night with thoughts about the future of PBSC “What we need is a cultural shift in the profession that starts with the law students and that recognizes that those students should not simply be an afterthought in access to justice conversations, but at the very core.”
The night ended on a celebratory note as a birthday cake lit up with 20 candles was wheeled into Convocation Hall and the entire room sang Happy Birthday to PBSC!