another day, another racism survey

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Photo from the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society webpage illustrating diversity.

We can only hope that former provincial ombudsman Doug Ruck’s internal review of allegations of systemic discrimination at the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society will be completed before the last person left in the office turns off the light and close the door.

The latest turmoil – hard to follow – comes amid reports of even more departures and a decision to downsize the company’s offices in downtown Halifax, presumably, in part, to accommodate account of all empty desks.

At its virtual annual general meeting last month, the company carried out what was once a ritual change of its executive guard.

Melanie Petrunia, tax litigator at Nijhawan McMillan Petrunia, who had served her time as the company’s senior vice president, assumed the chair.

As is also traditional, the new president took the opportunity to talk about “The year to come”.

This is where, it seems, things got derailed. Still.

After Petrunia’s speech, Linda Wood – a lawyer for Burchell MacDougal and a member of the board’s Racial Equity Committee, as well as chair of its subcommittee on “Consultation Policy and Respectful Conduct Policy,” sent a frustrated email to other committee members.

Petrunia, she wrote, had described the company’s equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policy as “the elephant in the room…and likened EDI to a “raz tidal wave” (implying that said tidal wave can destroy NSBS)…

The NSBS is currently facing serious challenges; that’s a fact. The best-case scenario I could have heard at our new President’s AGM was a clear identification of these challenges and the steps being taken to address them. I didn’t expect the best scenario; I expected to hear platitudes, vague generalizations and promises like, “we face significant challenges and we are taking action to address them”. However, I was shocked when the new NSBS President pointed to EDI as the “elephant in the room” and the “tidal wave” that could wipe out the NSBS.

While acknowledging that Petrunia’s word choice was “probably unintentional”, Wood said describing the situation this way “…diverts attention from the source of the problem and instead blames[es] those who try to identify the problem and work to solve it.

Wood offered her own sample of what she described as some of the “real elephants” hanging around the NSBS room:

  • Board and staff have become such toxic dysfunctional environments that it has become extremely difficult (impossible?) to recruit and retain the qualified people needed. For example: cannot fill all the seats on the Board, cannot recruit a competent Executive Director and cannot retain a good Director of Professional Responsibility.
  • The NSBS has gone 15 months without an executive director, it is arguably the primary job of the board to hire and oversee the ED, and it has failed to accomplish this.
  • Legal self-regulation relies on the pro bono work of lawyers…However, the current professional and personal overload has reduced the pro bono capacity of lawyers to the point where the current model of self-regulation may no longer be viable.
  • The NSBS Director of Professional Responsibility hired in 2020 (“following an open competition and a rigorous selection process”, according to the NSBS press release), which is arguably the most important position in matter of self-regulation, lasted only one year. Their replacement was hired without going through said “open and rigorous selection process…”

There are also many other raging elephants that wreak havoc on this room. If you want to know more about the context of the current situation, here is my latest update on the May 16 situation.

In April 2021 – after finally formally acknowledging systemic racism within its own organization – the company appointed Doug Ruck, the respected attorney and former ombudsman, to review “our regulatory policies and processes to identify and address all areas of systemic discrimination that exist within the Company.” At the time, he had 10 months to make findings and recommendations on “solutions and changes needed to eliminate or mitigate systemic discrimination within the Company and encourage a bias-free organizational culture”.

It was 14 months ago.

Its report is now expected in the coming “months”.

In the months since his appointment, there have been more resignations, firings, controversies over disciplinary hearing panel decisions, threats of lawsuits, the appointment of a headhunting firm to find a replacement for Executive Director Tilly Pillay (the first person of color to hold that position), and at least one other “overhaul”.

Paula Minnikin, a consultant and volunteer member of the company’s governance committee, found — surprised — that the company’s governance practices left something to be desired.

Now it looks like there will be one more investigation.

On June 29, Jacqueline Mullenger, the company’s (still) acting executive director, sent an email to members of the company’s board of directors with the subject line: “Allegations of direct and systemic discrimination and harassment.” .

Hello,

I am sending this email on behalf of Melanie Petrunia and [Vice President] Mark Scott:

This follows Josie McKinney of November 13, 2021, resignation of the Council and [the racial equity committee’s] follow-up note to the Board on March 1, 2022.

Josie’s resignation and REC memo indicate that Josie and REC members experienced direct and systemic discrimination while she served on the Board. The REC memo of March 1, 2022 suggests that REC members have experienced harassment and discrimination.

The Board has authorized the hiring of an investigator to look into the allegations set out in Josie’s resignation, and now repeated in your committee’s March 1, 2022 memo.

The Toronto-based firm the council hired — Rubin Thomlinson — is the same one the University of King’s College hired last year to conduct an independent review of its handling of sexual assault allegations against Wayne Hankey, a former teacher who had faced criminal charges at the time of his death earlier this year.

So… Doug Ruck completes his investigation into general issues of systemic discrimination. And Rubin Thomlinson begins his investigation into specific allegations of “direct and systemic discrimination and harassment”.

The company can only hope that one of these reports will find a roadmap out of its current mess.

Otherwise, it may that it is finally time – past the time – so that society ceases to be the self-regulatory body for the legal profession in Nova Scotia.


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