Edmonton

'Here to help:' Edmonton social justice advocate launches new service at downtown law firm

In a new campaign, Mark Cherrington seeks donations to continue three decades of advocacy work helping vulnerable Edmontonians

In a new campaign Mark Cherrington seeks donations to continue decades of advocacy work helping Edmontonians

Mark Cherrington has been advocating for Edmontonians for three decades. (Mark Cherrington)

Some calls for help come in the middle of the night from girls fleeing violent johns.

"I've had experiences where girls jumped out of bathroom windows on the second floor, and I've caught them or they've jumped in the snowdrifts beside me," social justice advocate Mark Cherrington said.

"There's this one picture of this john chasing this girl as she's running into my car."

When Cherrington was laid off from Legal Aid in June, the 100 or so daily calls and texts didn't let up from vulnerable Edmontonians in crisis asking for his help.

So he kept helping on his own dime as he looked for a way to make it sustainable.

For Cherrington, the answer is a new partnership with the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, a non-profit society and registered charity he helped create. A prominent downtown law firm has provided an office where he can work. In a campaign launched this week, Cherrington is asking for donations to cover expenses and a modest salary.

"What I'm doing is unique in the city and it's completely independent of government, and I'm here to help everybody," Cherrington said in an interview Thursday, from his new office at Liberty Law.

A john chases a girl running to Mark Cherrington's car after she called him for help. (Mark Cherrington)

"I'm an insurance policy to people in Edmonton, that if they're in a crisis situation and have issues regarding advocacy, dignity, access to basic needs or human rights —  I'm here to help."

In June, Cherrington was laid off after 25 years with Legal Aid. He vowed to keep serving Edmontonians.

Running as a rookie NDP candidate in Edmonton Griesbach in October's federal election, Cherrington came second with 25 per cent of the vote.

He joked that perhaps he lost because door-knocking was often interrupted to help people he met on the doorstep — feeding hungry constituents, assisting a homeless family, fighting for a woman's disability benefits.

Bob Aloneissi, a partner at Liberty Law, said the lawyers at his firm wholeheartedly supported providing a space for Cherrington so he could continue his work.

"Mark has an excellent track record in the justice system and in the wider community," Aloneissi said in a recent interview. "He's well-respected and he's done great work over the years.

"There are a whole bunch of cracks in the justice system. And with more and more cutbacks we're seeing every day from government, I don't know how he's going to shoulder it all."

Partner Bob Aloneissi says lawyers at Liberty Law wanted to give Mark Cherrington a space to continue his amazing work. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Aloneissi said it can be challenging to meet the needs of clients whose problems go well beyond the legal realm and agencies set up to assist are already stretched. That's where Cherrington comes in.

"I mean, we're lawyers, we're not social workers, and there's so much that we cannot do — time doesn't allow it," Aloneissi said. "His services are in great demand, and I'm just glad there's a person like Mark who is able to help out."

Over the decades, Cherrington has developed unique expertise and a reputation for assisting people in crisis while challenging the systems they're up against.

He drives people to the hospital or food bank, ensures single moms have diapers and funds to go back to school, and secures housing for families on the brink of homelessness.

Cherrington has reunited families, advocated for victims of alleged police harassment, and championed the causes of Indigenous people and vulnerable youth.

He said many youth won't call 9-11 because they have warrants or are afraid of the child welfare or justice system. They call him instead.

Cherrington said his work will be subject to oversight by the board of directors at the John Humphrey Centre, which oversees the coalition. The agency will provide tax receipts to donors.

"I'm in everybody's back pocket," Cherrington said. "If their son or daughter gets expelled from school, if child welfare is knocking on the door, if the public guardian is overbearing. Those are the battles that I've been fighting for decades."

About the Author

Andrea Huncar

Reporter

Andrea Huncar reports on human rights, immigrant and Indigenous communities, youth at-risk and the justice system. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca

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