UBC law school launches groundbreaking $225K fund to assist Black students
Donors include B.C.'s first Black judge, sitting provincial court judge and prominent defence lawyer
The University of British Columbia has announced the establishment of one of Canada's largest funds set up to support 15 Black students with their tuition and fees in attending UBC's law school over the next five years.
The $225,000 fund is financed by contributions from two of the province's most prominent Black judges — retired Supreme Court Justice Selwyn Romilly and current Provincial Court Judge David St. Pierre — along with Matthew Nathanson, a high-profile Vancouver defence lawyer.
The university is also contributing money along with two anonymous donors.
St. Pierre told the CBC the fund is intended to remove the kind of financial barriers an outsize proportion of Black students face in attending law school — the kind of challenges he faced on his own journey into the profession.
"Other folks can rely on family and things like that but there's many, many people within this particular segment — and I was one of them — that didn't have the extra money. I had to do it all myself," he said.
"I want to help be a part of that team that we have going here to remove some of that barrier. And really, if that's the only barrier, you're going to see a lot of amazingly talented kids get into law school that couldn't have that chance before."
'Time for some action'
The fund is the first of its kind in British Columbia and is also the Peter A. Allard law school's first ever student award dedicated solely to assisting Black Canadian students.
The donors said their goal is to increase representation of Black lawyers and judges in Canada's legal profession. They are hoping that other lawyers and law firms will match their contributions.
"Recently there has been a lot of talk about addressing racial inequality in policing and the justice system," said Nathanson, who has been involved in a series of precedent-setting cases in the B.C. courts.
"Time for some action. That is what this award is about."
St. Pierre said that he has been a judge for 12 years and has only come across two or three Black lawyers in that time.
"I think it would be amazing for people to come to the courthouse and walk around the various court rooms and be able to see that the actors in the justice system, the people that are deciding their fates are representative of the community that they live in," he said.
"Whether that's Indigenous, Black, Asian — whatever. We need to have a representative justice system."
'Not a recipe for success'
Raphael Tachie, president of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, told the CBC the fund will make a "massive difference" on many levels.
Tachie, who is from Vancouver, said like many Black students, he had trouble getting a loan when he wanted to start university.
He said the initial financial barriers keep Black students out of law school, and the effects of those difficulties follow them both through their education and into the workplace.
Tachie said Black law students often have to work part-time to support themselves while attending law school, which means their grades suffer in the early part of their legal education — which is crucial in getting a job later.
He said Black lawyers are also under-represented at large firms that pay the kind of salaries needed to pay off debts accrued during a legal education that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
"I sold my car, I got some money from my mum and I worked. But that means while other people are studying and getting the grades, you are focused on paying your rent next month and what's the fewest amount of hours you have to work, to still meet your obligations and go to class and do the work that you're supposed to do," Tachie said.
"That's not a recipe for success for a lot of people."
'He's paved the way for a lot of us'
Tachie said he is particularly excited about the involvement of Romilly and St. Pierre, who have been role models.
Romilly, 81, recently made headlines after Vancouver police officers handcuffed him on the seawall while looking for a suspect half his age. The Office of the Police Complaints Commission has since asked the Vancouver Police Board to review the incident.
Tachie's organization wrote an open letter to the police department expressing outrage at Romilly's treatment and calling for change to combat anti-Black racism in law enforcement.
Romilly graduated from UBC's law school in 1966. He was the fourth Black student to attend the law school and he became a judge in 1974. He was also a mentor to St. Pierre.
Tachie recalled being invited to Romilly's house during his first year in law school.
"I show up and it was a house full of Black lawyers," Tachie said. "He was hosting everybody and he invited the students that he was aware of to come."
Tachie said that evening gave him a sense that he belonged in the legal profession. He said there are few Black lawyers in Canada who don't know of Selwyn Romilly and his rich legacy in Canada's legal profession.
"I had no idea what the journey and the path was for somebody like me in the profession. Justice Romilly did that for us and he's done a ton of that for a lot of the black lawyers in B.C," he said.
"It was angering to see what he had gone through because he's paved the way for a lot of us, and he's given his time to us in a way that most people wouldn't do."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.