This year, Queen’s Law has celebrated the career of Cecil Fraser, the Faculty’s first Black graduate, by establishing the Cecil Allan Fraser Bursary for Black students.This occasion for celebration, as important as it is, also gives rise to a concern—the concern that, 60 years after Mr. Fraser graduated, the number of Black law students at Queen’s Law remains disproportionately low. Why is this still the case?
The answers to this question are complicated. That race still creates obstacles for people wishing to fulfil their dreams and ambitions is a tragic reality that our society has somehow failed to address. I don’t mean to suggest that racism has been unnoticed and unchecked. The year before Cecil Fraser graduated the enactment of the Canadian Bill of Rights, 1960 was a ringing endorsement of human rights, including equality, by the federal Parliament, soon followed by provincial human rights legislation aimed at ending discrimination in all walks of life. And beyond law reform, Canadian society has changed. In the 1960s, images of Canada were still dominated by the relationship between its French and English communities; the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was established in 1963 to enquire into the relationship between these two “founding races”. The years since have seen dramatic demographic and social changes, and images of a multicultural and multinational Canada have now firmly taken hold.
These changes have been reflected at Queen’s Law. In recent years, 35-39% of incoming Queen’s Law students have self-identified as members of a racialized group. Over the years, a number of Black graduates have joined Cecil Fraser in making significant contributions to the legal profession and Canadian society (see, for example, https://law.queensu.ca/news/A-grand-idea-whose-time-had-come). Yet the numbers of students from certain groups—including Black and Indigenous students— remain disproportionality low, and members of racial, ethnic, and national minorities continue to experience subtle and not-so-subtle forms of discrimination at Queen’s and as they take the next steps in their careers.
Formal equality before the law is one thing. The lived experience of racialized groups confirms, however, that racism persists in our society’s practices and attitudes, is deeply embedded in cultural norms and assumptions, and infects institutions at a structural level. We have known this for some time, and we should have acted before. That it has taken the tragic events that ignited the Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks for institutions to be jolted from their position of relative complacency on these matters is a failing of those institutions—including the University and its law school.
Recent events have re-affirmed that racism infects law and the administration of justice. University law schools have a special responsibility to ensure their students are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to recognize and combat racism within the legal system. How are we performing in this respect, and what steps do we need to take in order to do better?
Next Steps: a Working Group on Racism
The senior administration of Queen’s University, including the Deans of each of its faculties, has recently declared its commitment to addressing the persistence of systemic racism in all of its forms within the University: see https://www.queensu.ca/gazette/stories/declaration-commitment-address-systemic-racism. Several months ago, I announced that the Faculty of Law would form an Anti-Racism Working Group to enquire into the issues of race and racism within legal education at Queen’s, with a special focus on anti-Black racism. The group has now been formed, and I have been working with its members to develop its terms of reference.
We are very pleased to launch the Anti-Racism Working Group. Its Terms of Reference, which includes a list of the Group’s members, may be found here.
Although the work of this group will address racism in all its forms, it will pay particular attention to anti-Black racism. I have advised the community that a separate process will be initiated to enquire into the distinctive questions that arise in relation to Indigenous communities and issues surrounding Indigeneity in legal education, prompted in part by the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015). I will announce the formation of this TRC working group soon. The work of these groups will overlap to a certain extent, and I hope their work will be complementary. Together with the Advisory Committee on the Building Name, these groups will inform the development of the law school’s longer term mission which is being developed by the Queen’s Law Strategic Planning Committee.
I thank the students, staff, faculty, and alumni who have agreed to serve as members of the Anti-Racism Working Group. We should all be grateful to them for their willingness to invest time and energy in addressing topics that are complex and difficult yet integral to the well-being of our academic community and our academic mission.
Dean of Law
14 September 2020