In the last several days, I have been corresponding and talking with faculty, students, staff, and alumni concerning the anger that is being expressed about the persistence of systemic racism within the administration of justice. This has been a challenging time for members of racial and ethnic minorities, and for the Black community in particular.
My immediate concern was the wellbeing of our students who may have found recent events very stressful. I let them know that the law school would provide every support to them it could during this difficult time, and also that I am committed to ensuring that the law school plays a meaningful role in addressing the problems of racism within the administration of justice.
Indeed, the troubling events of recent weeks—the tragic deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police and the protests that have spread around the world in response—are not tangential or incidental to who we are or what we do as a law school. We are witnessing in real time what happens when law and the administration of justice fail communities within our society that have suffered bitter and hard histories of racism and exclusion. There are historical and cultural differences between the United States and Canada, to be sure, but this should not distract us from the truth about racism and the law in our own country. The issues are complex and the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other vulnerable groups in Canada both share commonalities yet also have their own distinctive realities.
As a law school that is dedicated to public service, the Queen’s Faculty of Law should seize this moment to reflect upon how it might better perform its duty of furthering the commitment to reconciliation and equality that is embedded within the ideal of legality. This task lies at the centre of what a university law school should strive to do.
This requires that we think about our own learning environment and ask hard questions about whether this is a welcoming place for Black students, Indigenous students, and students from other communities that have suffered marginalization. Our students are increasingly diverse. Almost forty percent identify as members of a racialized minority. But we still attract only small numbers of Black and Indigenous students.
I know that the name of our building – Macdonald Hall – is a source of deep concern for many members of the Queen’s Law community given Macdonald’s involvement in the development of the Indian residential school policy in the nineteenth century and other policies that he championed affecting Indigenous peoples and racial minorities. Although Macdonald’s role in advancing these hurtful policies is indisputable, the question of how we address his legacy today is a complex one about which people disagree. I should say that the authority to change the name of the building belongs not to me or to the faculty but to the Board of Trustees of the University. If and when the Board considers this matter, I am confident that it will make a decision that is based upon the values, principles, and policies that the University is bound to uphold. The manner in which the debate unfolds within the law school community will be important to this process – and I hope that it will be a principled discussion in which people listen to each other in good faith with a view to finding common ground.
I am dedicated to ensuring that we have more Black and Indigenous students and faculty members in the law school. The Queen's Chapter of the Black Law Students Association of Canada (BLSA) has been active in promoting a new bursary for Black students, and I am pleased to say that the Faculty of Law will make this a fund-raising priority and match funds raised from external sources for this project so that fund will be endowed. I am also grateful to those who have given generously to support the establishment in 2018 of the Douglas Cardinal Bursary for Indigenous students.
But I know that students will think about Queen’s as a place to study only if they are confident that we can provide educational opportunities that speak to their needs and aspirations. We will be forming a committee/working group with student, faculty, and alumni representation to investigate reforms necessary to ensure that we address the problem of structural racism, and especially anti-Black racism, in law and legal education. The work of this group will parallel in some respects, and overlap in other respects, a separate process aimed at fulfilling the calls to action concerning the Indigenization of legal education by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, a process that has been ongoing but that will now be supported by the Chief Don Maracle Reconciliation/Indigenous Knowledge Initiative, established by a generous donation from David Sharpe, a Queen’s Law graduate from 1995 and a member of the Tyendinaga Mohawk community, and directed by the Oneida legal scholar and former President of the First Nations University of Canada, Dr. Mark Dockstator. The work of these groups will complement and inform the work of the Queen’s Law Strategic Planning Committee, launched earlier this year, that is considering the mission and identity of the law school and a plan for the next five years, a central piece of which will be the plan regarding equity, diversity, and inclusion at Queen’s Law.
This is not merely an attempt to mollify you, and I will not pretend that quick fixes or cosmetic improvements will suffice. We’ve got lots of work to do to earn and maintain the trust of marginalized communities. But I want to say how impressed I am by members of this community who have stepped up and who are working cooperatively to make Queen’s Law the best it can be. I want to leave you with one example. Just before the University shut down in March due to the Covid pandemic, an event organized by students and faculty members was held in our largest lecture room, which was packed on this occasion, at which there was a special showing of a documentary entitled nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up about the killing of the young Indigenous man, Colten Boushie, and the subsequent acquittal of his killer. After the showing of this film, there was a panel discussion featuring Jade Brown-Tootoosis, who is Colten’s cousin and also the tireless advocate for justice for Colten. Since my first year as a law student at Queen’s in 1986, I have attended countless lectures and events in “Macdonald Hall”, including those attended by the leading scholars, politicians, and activists from Canada and beyond who have challenged orthodoxy and received views. You would be impressed by the names on this list. We have a strong and proud tradition at Queen’s of critical legal inquiry from a truly wide range of perspectives. But, I must say, the Boushie event was the most powerful event on racism and the justice system I have ever attended at Queen’s or elsewhere. This is what we should be about.
I am very conscious of the fact that upon reading this statement you may well wonder why you are reading another statement by a “white guy in a position of authority” about the impact of law and legal education upon vulnerable minorities. In the weeks and months to come, we will think hard about how to amplify the voices of members of those minorities. In the meantime, I will share with you a letter that was written to me by a JD student named Dakota Bundy (who has kindly agreed to this use of her letter). I have already shared this letter, internally, with faculty, students, and staff, and I indicated to them that they may or may not agree with everything in this letter. The important point, however, is that this letter comes from a place of genuine concern about legality and equality, and this is really the concern that should drive us all forward in making our law school relevant for the world today. I am grateful to Dakota for her willingness to share her views with you. I think that they will help us to shape a fair process going forward.
Dean of Law