Conservative cuts to Ontario’s Legal Aid system are an attack on the province’s most vulnerable communities, and will deny people in the most precarious legal circumstances access to lawyers. These are a direct attack on people’s basic human rights.
Last week, as a result of Ford’s cuts, all defence lawyers were told that Legal Aid will no longer cover lawyers to do bail hearings. This decision means that only people who can afford a lawyer will have access to proper representation after an arrest. Unless an accused can find a lawyer to work for free, hundreds of people every day will go to court without any legal support whatsoever.
Marginalized people are already over represented in the justice system. This will make a bad situation worse. In particular racialized persons, Indigenous people, and individuals not fluent in French or English will be placed in peril. The system doesn’t serve these individuals well now. It’s about to get worse.
These implications are a direct consequence of the province’s April 11, 2019 announcement, stating a 30% funding cut to Ontario’s Legal Aid Clinic System by the Conservatives. These clinics provide legal support in and out of the court system to groups facing barriers to equal treatment under the law. There are close to 90 clinics across the province whose services will be badly damaged by these reckless cuts. People will spend more time in jail, and incarceration costs will rise and exceed any proposed savings.
This is not the first time a Conservative Government has tried to destroy the clinic program funded by the province, but administered by the Law Society. Harris tried it in the mid-nineties.
I witnessed that fight first hand, both as a reporter covering Queen’s Park, but also as the son of my mother who worked for the Law Society. It was a very difficult time for many. It was incredibly hard to watch as my mother wasn’t just battling the Harris Government – she was battling cancer too.
My mother literally spent the last months of her life fighting to save Ontario’s system of Legal Aid Clinics. She had spent her career helping to build the system, because she knew that individuals can’t always protect their communities by acting alone, nor can equity seeking groups already struggling for equal rights, be expected to take on powerful interests in court or in front of Government without expert legal help.
She started her career in community law, working for the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA). CELA was one of the first legal clinics in Ontario, and they were one of the first legal teams to fight for justice alongside the people of Grassy Narrows. Seeing how important legal clinics could be for the most isolated and threatened people in Ontario, she moved to the Law Society to help start more clinics.
My mum played a role in starting and growing legal clinics for the Southeast Asian community, the African-Canadian community, the Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic, Parkdale Community Legal Services, and so many more. Her proudest work involved supporting the legal rights of women. It was the Progressive Conservative Government of Bill Davis with Attorney General Roy McMurtry that championed this rights-based approach to legal services.
By the end of my mum’s career, the system grew to almost 90 storefront and distinct legal clinics in Ontario. Her focus on women’s rights, housing rights, and Indigenous rights produced not only a network of clinics to advance civil liberties for these groups, but her life’s work is the foundation of my political career.
My mother passed away before the battle was won, and even though it’s been over 20 years since she passed, to this day I still encounter clinic staff from across the province, who remind me of just how proud I am to be her son.
One the strongest memories I have is a story she told after returning from a trip to Northern Ontario. After a long day’s work, she went for a walk in the woods with some community members on a reserve. She was in the early stages of cancer, but nothing seemed to slow her down.
I remember her telling me that she had stopped to listen to the birds at dusk. In the still of the darkness an owl feather landed on her shoulder as she breathed in the stillness of the forest. An Elder who was with her took the feather from her coat as another one landed in her hair. The next day she was presented with a gift. The Elder had used the feathers to make a dreamcatcher for her.
When she went into the hospital for the last time, she brought the dreamcatcher with her. We hung it in her hospital room until the end. The Elder who had made the dreamcatcher told her the owl feathers would add wisdom to her dreams.
Until the end, her dream was fairness for all. In her wisdom, she dedicated her life to changing the legal system to protect those who felt they had no voice. These cuts do immense dishonour to this vision, and she would have been the first to tell you the cuts will hurt vulnerable communities and crush the most marginalized in our province.
These cuts to legal aid are a nightmare. They lack wisdom and will hurt people who seek justice and need the protection of the law, as well as hurting so many communities as they fight to build a fairer and more just society.
If the Conservatives need to cut something, it’s the word Progressive from their party name.
Adam Vaughan, M.P.