Fast Facts on Sharry Aiken
- Law Degrees:
- BA (York), MA (Toronto), LLB, LLM (Osgoode)
- Toronto, Ontario
- Research Areas:
- Immigration and refugee law, critical border studies, international and comparative human rights law
Professor Sharry Aiken made the jump from practising law to teaching it as a way of inspiring a generation of new legal practitioners to create positive change – though since becoming a professor, she still remains active in the courtroom and beyond. In addition to being a tenured Law faculty member at Queen’s, she is affiliated with the interdisciplinary graduate program in Cultural Studies, and she is the Academic Director of the new Graduate Diploma in Immigration and Citizenship Law.
How did you become interested in immigration and citizenship law?
Access to justice and social justice have been the animating threads of my somewhat unconventional career.
When I was younger, one of my formative influences included a very inspiring Rabbi named Gunther Plaut. Rabbi Plaut was deeply engaged in shaping Canadian refugee policy in the 1980s. Each year, over the “High Holidays,” he delivered sermons about refugees and our ethical responsibilities to others.
As a young person, those talks left a big impression on me. So did my family influences, including my mom who raised me solo. Values are shaped in our formative years and that was certainly the case for me.
What forms has that passion taken over the years?
Early on, I realized that legal training was necessary to give me the tools I needed to work for real change. So I earned a law degree, was called to the Bar of Ontario, and worked for about 15 years – approximately 10 of those years as a practising lawyer.
During that time, I developed a legal literacy program with Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario; facilitated development education programs in Pakistan, Uruguay, and Indonesia; and worked as a staff lawyer in a community legal aid clinic and the Refugee Law Office in Toronto. I also ran a private practice for a few years.
I finished my Master of Laws degree while working full-time and running an intensive program in Immigration and Refugee Law “on the side” at Osgoode. This experience ultimately helped shift my focus to research and teaching on immigration and refugee issues.
I am now working to make the difference for society’s most marginalized and vulnerable people, as non-citizens in Canada tend to have the least protections.
Was there a client, case or moment that was formative in your career journey?
I have been involved in several precedent-setting cases at the Supreme Court of Canada. However, those cases often didn’t lead to the kind of systemic change that our clients, the public interest organizations, and the legal team behind them were hoping for.
One example is Baker v Canada, a ruling that had a significant impact on administrative law doctrine. Ms. Baker had applied for permanent residence in Canada after being threatened with deportation, and her application was denied. She had been in the country for more than 10 years and had given birth to four children in Canada. The court’s ruling required the Immigration Minister to consider the “best interests” of affected children when deciding the fate of people seeking permanent residence on “humanitarian or compassionate” grounds.
But this ruling hasn’t really made a difference for migrants with precarious status in Canada. It’s even harder to obtain permanent residence on humanitarian grounds today than it was when Mavis Baker’s case was decided. These so-called victories underscored, to me, the limits of law reform in terms of leading change. What courts often do is follow the trends but they don’t necessarily create those trends. Legal advocacy, while important, has its limits.
One of the things that attracted me to full-time teaching and research versus remaining a practitioner was the opportunity to “turn the light bulbs on” for more people – to inspire young people to be the change. Law can be a powerful tool but it’s not enough. You have to work inside and outside law to effect change and engage with the larger political systems within which we live and work.
What are you working on right now?
I recently partnered with Lisa Guenther of Queen’s Philosophy & Cultural Studies and another colleague from the University of Toronto to host a workshop called “De-carceral Futures: Bridging Prison and Immigration Justice.”
The workshop was designed to, among other things, help generate a shared research agenda between prison abolitionists and migrant justice advocates. There were two full days of stimulating conversations with scholars, students, activists, practitioners, and those with lived experiences of incarceration. Many of the presentations will be informing my own work on “crimmigration” (the intersection of criminal law and immigration law). Eventually, I will be publishing a paper on detention abolition in cases involving securitized migrants.
I also recently appeared pro bono before the Federal Court of Appeal, challenging the lack of due process in Canada’s current immigration detention regime. I continue to support test case litigation, volunteer, and research to ensure my work is grounded. I miss the frontlines of legal practice sometimes, but one of the privileges of being an academic is being able to engage with the bigger picture.
I am also co-editing and co-author of Canada’s leading immigration law casebook, which is currently in production for its 3rd edition. My co-editor and co-author is incoming Queen’s faculty member Colin Grey.
Another focus at the moment is a collaborative research project with the Canadian Partnership for International Justice. The project aims to strengthen redress and accountability mechanisms for victims of international crimes. An example of this work is “Rwanda and Sri Lanka: A tale of two genocides.”
Finally, I recently took on the role of Academic Director of the new Graduate Diploma in Immigration and Citizenship Law.
Tell us about the Graduate Diploma.
The Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC) put out a request for proposals seeking a provider for this new graduate diploma, and we recently announced that Queen’s Law will be the English-language provider of the new program. Our goal is to augment the training for prospective immigration and citizenship consultants.
If approved by the Queen’s Senate and the Quality Council of Ontario, the first intake of students will be January 2021. We anticipate approximately 500 students a year, and the program will be delivered two ways – fully online, and in a blended online and in-person format.
Immigration and refugee applicants are among the most vulnerable consumers of legal services. Their first language may not be English or French and they may not be familiar with Canada’s legal system. It’s crucial that those helping them are qualified, trained, and rigorously assessed.
Ensuring immigration and citizenship consultants are properly trained and highly skilled is the first step to ensuring that immigrants to Canada are treated equitably and humanely throughout every step of their journey here. I’m excited to be at the helm of a program that will enhance the quality and reliability of professional services in this sector and increase access to justice for those who often need it most.