Women in the Ontario Legal Profession: Black Women Lawyers

by Mary Jane Mossman

 

My current research project focuses on women who were called to the bar in Ontario between 1897 and 1957.[1] As the Law Society’s 1993 exhibition about the history of women lawyers pointed out:

Not surprisingly, most women who pursued legal training [in the early decades of the twentieth century] came from middle-class, white, Anglo-Saxon, Canadian backgrounds. A majority of women lawyers were Protestant, with a scattering of Catholics and a few Jewish women. Their fathers were often professionals, small businessmen, or civil servants.[2]

When my research confirmed this lack of diversity among women who were admitted to the Ontario bar up to 1957, I resolved to try to address the challenges of gender and ‘male exclusivity’ in the legal profession for women in diverse communities. While this Blog focuses on Black women lawyers, subsequent Blogs will address Indigenous women lawyers, and women from immigrant and ‘Other’ communities. Although I write as a white woman law academic, I hope to ‘open up’ space for recognizing the accomplishments, and ongoing challenges, for these women lawyers, and to encourage further research.

As will become evident, there is a pattern of male lawyers from diverse communities gaining access to the bar in Ontario much earlier than women lawyers from these communities. For example, among Black male lawyers, Robert Sutherland joined the Ontario bar in 1855, and Delos Rogest Davis did so, after a long and protracted battle for admission, in 1884. Lionel Cross was called to the Ontario bar in 1924, and his articling student, BJ Spencer Pitt, was admitted to the legal profession in 1928.[3] Pitt is especially important because one of his articling students was Myrtle Blackwood, the first Black woman lawyer in Ontario.

Myrtle Blackwood’s name is listed as one of several women students in the first-year class at Osgoode Hall Law School in 1954-55, and she was called to the Ontario bar in 1960.[4] She was probably the second Black woman lawyer in Canada, following Violet King in Alberta who had been called to the bar there in 1954.[5] A press report about Blackwood’s call to the bar indicated that she was fulfilling a lifelong ambition encouraged by her late father; the same report included a comment by her boss, a Bay Street lawyer, Philip E Band, who confirmed that she was an ‘exceptional young lady, neat, accurate and conscientious.’[6] Records indicate that Blackwood was employed as a solicitor in the provincial Department of Economics and Development from 1964 to 1966, and that she was transferred to a position as solicitor with the Ontario Housing Corporation in 1966. After her marriage, she practised at the OHC as ‘Mrs Myrtle I Smith’ for several years, and she may have been engaged in a sole practice at two different locations in the early 1970s. She apparently moved to Montreal at some point although there is no record of her practising law in Quebec.[7]

A second Black woman lawyer was not called to the bar until 1971. Marva Jemmott, whose family immigrated to Canada when she was about twelve years old, attended high school in Toronto and then completed a degree at the University of Toronto. She graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa and articled in Toronto. However, after her call to the bar, she established a sole practice in her home neighbourhood of Dufferin and Eglinton; according to Jemmott, most Black lawyers were unable to obtain employment in existing firms: ‘They didn’t seem to go into … law firms for some reason. I think you either had the ones who applied for government jobs because government would hire you, or else they seemed to open up their own practice.’[8] Jemmott provided articling places for other Black women lawyers; and other Black women joined her practice, including Marlene Philip, another Black woman who had been called to the bar in 1975 after articling at Parkdale Community Legal Services.

Jemmott was actively engaged in ‘opening doors’ for other Black lawyers in Ontario: she co-founded the Delos Davis Law Guild, and also participated in the Task Force on Policing and was coordinator of the legal section of the National Black Coalition of Canada. In 1984, she was appointed QC and she received the President’s Award from the Women’s Law Association of Ontario in 1994. Jemmott was a keynote speaker in February 1992 at a reception at Osgoode Hall that accompanied the inaugural conference of the Black Law Students’ Association (Canada). After experiencing health issues in the 1990s, Jemmott was permitted to surrender her licence to practice law in 2008.[9]

As scholars have explained, Black women lawyers experience the ‘double discrimination’ of gender and race.[10] For example, when a Black woman lawyer became ‘the first’ to be hired at a Bay Street firm in Toronto in 1988, her accomplishment merited a report on the front page of the Globe and Mail. It was not until 1992 that Michelin Rawlins became the first Black woman judge of the Ontario Court of Justice; and Juanita Westmoreland-Traore became the first Black woman Dean in a Canadian law school in 1996 at the University of Windsor. The first Black woman lawyer to become a Bencher ‘from outside Toronto’ was Joanne St Lewis in 2003; and the first Black woman lawyer ‘from Toronto,’ Tanya Walker, became a Bencher only in 2016.[11]

A number of reports have documented the experiences of Black lawyers, including women. For example, a 2010 report in Ontario concluded that ‘the systemic exclusion of racialized lawyers [was] the result of a complex filtering system beginning in law school and working through the many incremental steps in a lawyers’ career.’[12] Reports focused on Black lawyers were also undertaken in the 1990s by the Black Law Students’ Association;[13] and the Canadian Bar Association.[14] More specifically, a paper published in 2006 identified how the intersection of race and gender may lead to increased discrimination, particularly in terms of subtle (rather than overt) forms of differential treatment.[15] However, on becoming the first Black lawyer to be elected President of the Ontario Bar Association in 2020, Charlene Theodore asserted that the time for reports and debates about systemic racism in the legal profession has ended and that it is necessary to ‘make way for actual solutions.’[16]

In reflecting on the experiences of Black women lawyers in relation to Judith Bennett’s insights about whether changes for women represent continuity or transformation in status (discussed in Blog #1), it appears necessary to compare how Black women’s opportunities compare not only to Black men, but also to white men and women in the legal profession.[17]

[1] See MJ Mossman, ‘Women in the Ontario Legal Profession: Change and Continuity – or Transformation?’ (IFLS Blog #1).

[2] Law Society of Upper Canada Archives, Crossing the Bar: A Century of Women’s Experience ‘Upon the Rough and Troubled Seas of Legal Practice’ in Ontario (Toronto: Law Society of Upper Canada Archives, 1993) at 15. See also Cecilia Morgan, ‘“An Embarrassingly and Severely Masculine Atmosphere”: Women, Gender and the Legal Profession at Osgoode Hall, 1920s to 1960s’ (1996) 11:2 Canadian Journal of Law and Society 19 at 21.

[3] LC Talbot, ‘History of Blacks in the Law Society of Upper Canada’ (1990) XXIV: 1 The Law Society Gazette 65; J. Isaac, ‘ Delos Rogest Davis, KC’ (1990) XXIV: 4 The Law Society Gazette 293; I Malcolm, ‘Robert Sutherland: The First Black Lawyer in Canada?’ (1992) XXVI:2 The Law Society Gazette 183; and C. Moore, The Law Society of Upper Canada 1797-1997 (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 1997) at 177. The first Canadian-born Black lawyer in Canada was Abraham Beverley Walker, born in New Brunswick in 1851; he was called to the bar in New Brunswick in 1882: K. Bissett, ‘Canadian-Born Black Lawyer Honoured a Century after Death,’ Toronto Star, 28 Oct 2019 at A7.

[4] Although most law students obtained a university degree before entering Osgoode Hall, it is unclear whether Blackwood had a degree. At the time, Osgoode Hall required students with a degree to take two years of academic lectures, article for one year, and then a final year of combined articles and lectures. Although the practice was eliminated in the mid-1950s, Osgoode Hall had also admitted students to the law school program as ‘matriculants,’ that is high school graduates without university degrees. Since Blackwood seems to have been at the law school for five years, she may have been among the last students to enter as a ‘matriculant.’

 

[5] LSO Archives, Violet King fonds.

[6] LSO Archives, Women’s Law Association of Ontario fonds, ‘Law Grads Ceremony,’ unidentified news report, June 1960.

[7] Canadian Law Lists; and LSO Archives, E. Huckle, ‘List of Women Barristers and Solicitors in Ontario.’

[8] Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, Oral history: ‘Marva Jemmott’ at 138.

[9] LSUC, Crossing the Bar, 33; and M. Ryval, Women in Law: Ladies No Longer in Waiting,’ Canadian Lawyer, Dec 1977 at 17.

[10] See J Herbert, ‘ “Otherness” and the Black Woman’ (1989) 3 Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 269; E. Thornhill, ‘Focus on Black Women’ (1985) 1:1 Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 168; and S. Neallani, ‘Women of Colour in the Legal Profession: Facing the Familiar Barriers of Race and Sex’ (1992) 5 Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 148.

[11] H Roderique, ‘Who Belongs on Bay Street?’ Globe and Mail, 4 Nov 2017 at F1 ff; LSO, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Michelin Rawlins and Juanita Westmoreland-Traore; LSO Archives, Bencher files; and A Robinson, ‘First Black Female Bencher Elected in Toronto,’ Law Times, 11 July 2016 at 1.

[12] M Orenstein, Racialization and the Gender of Lawyers in Ontario: A Report for the Law Society of Upper Canada, April 2010 at 34-36 (and statistics at 20-25).

[13] Black Law Students’ Association and Attorney General of Ontario, Black Access to the Legal Profession: The Timeroll Report (Toronto: Attorney General of Ontario, 1996).

[14] J St Lewis and B Trevino, Racial Equality in the Canadian Legal Profession: The Challenge of Racial Equality: Putting Principles into Practice (Ottawa: Canadian Bar Association, 1999); and J St Lewis and B Trevino, Virtual Justice: Systemic Racism and the Canadian Legal Profession (Ottawa: Canadian Bar Association, 1999).

[15] F Kay, C Masuch and P Curry, ‘Growing Diversity and Emergent Change: Gender and Ethnicity in the Legal Profession’ in E Sheehy and S McIntyre, Calling for Change; Women, Law and the Legal Profession (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2006) 203 at 229.

[16] J Gallant, ‘New Bar President Wants to See Change,’ Toronto Star, 2 Sept 2020 at A11. Theodore launched ‘Not Another Decade,’ a program to reimagine workplaces.

[17] J Bennett, ‘Theoretical Issues: Confronting Continuity’ (1997) 9:3 Journal of Women’s History 73; and Blog #1.

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