By Avvy GoOpinion
Tues., July 2, 2019
I hope Attorney General Doug Downey enjoyed the Canada Day long Weekend. I didn’t. I was too distraught to learn that my colleagues at the three workers’ rights legal clinics have to lay off staff, take a voluntary pay cut, stop taking new clients, or do all three just to keep their clinics afloat.
I was too devastated to see specialty clinics advocating for tenants’ rights, social assistance reform and for a clean environment get 25 per cent to 45 per cent cuts to their funding for no reasons other than being good at what they do.
I too am worried that come October, our clinic will not have enough money to pay rent and have to let staff go. I am not the only one who is concerned. Since hearing about our financial woes, a homeless client who has been coming to our clinic for help for two decades has been calling us everyday on a pay phone, with money she does not have, just to check if we are still opened.
Worse, more cuts will be coming next year to legal aid, and the premier has ordered a review of the legal clinic system. If the current cuts are signs of things to come, the future for our system is grim.
Downey’s appointment as Attorney General gave me hope. I understand that he was bestowed with the Sam Delmar Award by the Simcoe County Law Association, an honour named after a lawyer well known for his kindness and generosity. The award is to acknowledge lawyers with outstanding personal achievement reflecting a significant personal struggle, a courageous undertaking on a client’s behalf, or outstanding community service.
Surely someone with his community involvement would appreciate the important role legal clinics play in ensuring those who live in the margin of our society have a fighting chance of accessing justice.
My hope was heightened when I heard that following the throne speech, Downey quoted former Ontario Premier Leslie Frost and talked about how he inspired Downey to devote himself to public duty and how honoured he is to be working in the Frost building.
Could it be that Downey realize it was under Premier Frost’s watch that the Ontario Human Rights Commission was created and Indigenous peoples were given the right to vote?
I also wonder if the attorney general recalled that for many years Chinese Canadians did not celebrate Canada Day because it was on this day in 1923, that Canada passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to bar all but a few Chinese from coming to Canada. For 24 years, until its repeal in 1947, fewer than 50 Chinese were allowed to enter Canada. Thanks to the 20-year long Redress movement, of which our clinic played a significant part, the former Conservative Government under Stephen Harper finally acknowledged the historical wrong and provided reparation to the community.
Perhaps Downey would remember that during the Second World War, Canada interned tens of thousands of Japanese Canadians and stripped them of their homes and businesses under the War Measures Act. It was in 1988 when Brian Mulroney was the Prime Minister — with his former law partner the Hon. Doug Lewis as his cabinet member — that Japanese Canadians received their apology and just compensation.
Cuts to legal aid mean worse health for vulnerable people.
Today we are in the midst of writing a new chapter in the history of legal aid in Ontario — a system that has served as a much-emulated model of the world, with the legal clinics having played a central role of its success. A system that is now under attack, with deliberate misinformation about its lack of efficiency as the justification for its obliteration.
While I acknowledge Minister Downey is not the one who started us on this path of destruction, I do need to ask him this: Would you rather go down in history as the politician who put the nail in the coffin of the legal clinic system, or the visionary leader who not only revived, but revitalized, the system with much needed new funding?
The decision is Downey’s, and when he is ready to make it, I hope he will bring with him the lessons we learn from history, and the spirit of Sam Delmar.
Avvy Go, Clinic Director, Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.