Opinion: How lawyers can help Syrian refugees come to Canada

The photo changed everything. You saw it. Everybody saw it. The photo of the tiny, lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on the beach on September 2. It was almost too much to take — Alan’s shoes were still on. And we all seemed to think the same thing at once: he should have been playing on that beach instead of lying dead on it.

Suddenly, finally, people took notice of what was happening in Syria. The civil war has displaced millions, triggering the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. And yet, until the photo, many people were not aware of what was happening or how they could help.

Now is the time to help. That’s what we do — lawyers help people. Despite being the butt of tired jokes and having a public reputation just above that of used car salesmen, the reality is that lawyers are warriors of justice.

Our profession boasts a rich history of men and women who go out of their way to help those in need. It is woven into our DNA. There are the grand examples: Lawyers Without Borders, Canadian Lawyers Abroad and Amnesty International. But there are smaller, everyday examples too. I have witnessed some of these myself.

Since July, my law-school friend, Jerry Topolski, of Goodmans LLP, and I have been trying to sponsor a Syrian family to come to Toronto. When the photo of Alan made its way around the world, I tweeted my frustration with Canada’s cumbersome process to bring over refugee families in need. A reporter from the Globe and Mail reached out to interview us about our experience. When the article was published, a flood of offers came in from lawyers — offers to contribute to the cost of sponsorship and to provide free immigration legal services. Other colleagues asked how they too could sponsor a family to come to Canada.

Then I saw other lawyers stepping up to help. Goldblatt Partners LLP committed to sponsoring a family from Syria themselves. McCarthy Tétrault LLP raised more than $100,000 over the course of a few days to assist those in Syria. Ottawa lawyer Jennifer Bond helped create the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program, which offers free legal advice to Canadians who want to sponsor Syrian refugees.

Let’s not stop there. We can do more, on an individual level.

Volunteer at a shelter to help complete forms for refugees that have just arrived. Lend your legal expertise to the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program, which works in partnership with the Canadian Bar Association. The Christie Refugee Welcome Centre and the Red Door Family Shelter also need your help.

Donate to the children of Syria what you spend on a night out for dinner. Islamic Relief Canada, the United Nations Refugee Agency and the Canadian Red Cross can all use your cash — and the Canadian government will match your donation until December 31, 2015.

Organize your firm to do something large and impactful. Or even sponsor a family to come to Canada. Lifelinesyria.ca can help connect you.

We are uniquely equipped with the skills and tools to make a difference. We can decipher legalese on application forms. We can appear before tribunals and advocate for those who simply do not understand the process. Because of our legal education and our developed communication skills, we are often best-positioned to assist those who need to manoeuvre through the mazes of red tape and unjust decisions. Lawyers can help in many ways. The important thing is just to help. After all — it’s what we do.
















Rebecca Durcan is a partner at Steinecke Maciura LeBlanc. She and Goodmans LLP lawyer Jerry Topolski are waiting to be matched with a family.




Winter-2015-cover-smallThis story is from our Winter 2015 issue.




Illustration by Pete Ryan

The Circuit: “Rights of Spring” Cocktail Party with Canadian Lawyers Abroad

What: Canadian Lawyers Abroad’s “Rights of Spring” cocktail party
Where: SHAMBA Foundation, 48 Yonge St.
When: May 29, 2014

This past Thursday, Canadian Lawyers Abroad threw a cocktail party to mark the charity’s 10th anniversary. Held at the SHAMBA foundation in Toronto, the event attracted new and former members. Guests praised the organization for sending students, through internships and volunteer positions, to do human rights work throughout Canada and around world.

“I started law school three days after returning from rural Africa, where I’d been working to prevent violence against women and children,” Brittany Twiss, executive director of CLA, told the captivated audience of party-goers. “I spent my first year going through the motions, wondering, ‘Is this the right place for me?’ Law school felt so disconnected from the real world.”

Then, she discovered Canadian Lawyers Abroad and, in 2009, entered the group’s internship program. That year, Twiss travelled to Bangkok to help combat the sexual exploitation of children — and the experience renewed her passion for the law. Now, five years later, she oversees the charity and ensures that other students have the same opportunities.

In the end, Twiss said her time at CLA has taught her one central truth: “Even the smallest contribution can have a lasting impact.”

Invite us to your party!

News: Hitting the motherlode

Can you be a successful professional and a great mom? Lawyer-turned-author Reva Seth thinks so. The Toronto-based mother of three found major success after having kids and was pretty sure other professional women were thriving too. The trouble was, she only saw examples of CEOs and celebrities pulling it off. “Women are looking for more relatable role models,” she says. So she went looking for them. In 2009, Seth began talking to working moms across North America.

Five hundred interviews later, she’s releasing her book The MomShift (Random House), based on her conversations with working mothers who have found creative ways to navigate work-life challenges, like deciding when to have a baby, staying on the corporate ladder, balancing home life and managing money.

The 2002 call, who went to Western for law school and articled at what was then Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, interviewed over a dozen lawyers for the book and devotes a special section to working mothers in the field. “I think it’s the best time ever to be a female lawyer,” she says. (She also zeros in on academia, medicine, the tech sector and middle management.)

Seth profiles lawyers like Kristin Taylor, a partner at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP and mother of two who points out that clients don’t care whether she’s in the office or working from home, so long as she’s responsive and helpful.

Tara Piurko, a partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, kept in touch with her firm while on mat leave by using its mentor program. Her mentor, a male partner with no kids, helped her stay in the loop.

Seth admits women abandoning private practice is a problem — leaving them underrepresented in partner positions — but shows these women thriving elsewhere. That includes mother of three Catherine McKenna, who co-founded Canadian Lawyers Abroad on her first mat leave and eventually left private practice to run the organization full time.

Overall, Seth discovered that women found that parenthood galvanized their career focus and made them more time efficient. Increasingly progressive attitudes in the workforce that allow for flex time and days off for sick kids are helping too.

As for law, she thinks women are beginning to flourish in the profession. “There’s a lot of good news for women in the law. The numbers on Bay Street are still not fantastic. But I think it’s time we expanded the conversation beyond just what’s happening on Bay Street.”