The Law Society of Ontario’s April elections have burst into mainstream view because they have revolved around a “statement of principles” about diversity and inclusion that has been the source of discord for years.
- Candidates against the statement of principles candidates argue that the imposition of it was a radical departure from the role of the law society and that it demanded action.
- The fight over the law society’s statement of principles may be a microcosm of the fractious political clashes happening across our society, but it’s also a battle that raises a fundamental question: is there anywhere left in society that remains free of the culture war?
The fight for control of the Law Society of Ontario fits neatly into the culture war discourse of our times.
It’s woke versus anti-woke. It’s about cancel culture. It’s about fixing bloated institutions versus good governance. Jordan Peterson is, of course, tangentially involved.
The law society’s April elections have burst into mainstream view because they have, once again, revolved around a “statement of principles” about diversity and inclusion.
The statement was introduced in 2018 and would have required lawyers to promote equality, diversity, and inclusion both in their professional and personal lives, but a strong showing by a group of candidates calling themselves the StopSOP coalition1 in the 2019 law society election meant the statement was repealed before it could be implemented. This year’s election is a rerun of that 2019 campaign, with the new FullStop slate fearing that anything less than a strong showing by their side will allow the statement to be re-imposed.
The battle for the soul of the law society mirrors the ongoing strife at a variety of institutions that were once proudly non-political. The Ontario College of Psychiatrists has engaged in a highly-publicized war with Peterson, one of its members. Culture wars have simmered, and occasionally boiled over, at prestigious media outlets like The New York Times for years. Some tech firms have even banned political discussions at work to stop these clashes from erupting.
The fight over the law society’s statement of principles may be a microcosm of the fractious political clashes happening across our society, but it’s also a battle that raises a fundamental question: is there anywhere left in society that remains free of the culture war?
In response to the surprise StopSOP victory in 2019, an opposition coalition was formed to make sure that kind of surprise doesn’t happen again.
The Good Governance coalition argues that it will bring competence and experience to the law society, while valuing “diversity over division.” The coalition is temperamentally opposed to the idea of running slates of candidates but, with the FullStop pushing enough candidates to possibly get a majority, the stakes were raised high enough to make it happen.
“The Law Society’s responsibilities are too great to risk that happening again,” the coalition argues.
The two groups are vying for 40 spots reserved for lawyers on the law society’s board of governors, which are known as “benchers.” There are also spots on the board for eight members of the public and five paralegals.
The board meets about once a month to iron out matters of policy and form panels that, among other things, make disciplinary decisions about Ontario’s lawyers.
The Good Governance argues that the stakes are literally existential. A victory by the FullStop coalition could put the regulator itself at risk, the group argues.
“Nothing less than our continued ability to self-regulate is at stake,” the group argues in its vision statement. “It has already been lost in Britain and Australia. We cannot let the same happen here.”
Perhaps forgotten in the law society’s fractious election are the lawyers who would prefer not to sign a statement of principles but don’t want to wage an “anti-woke” campaign against it. Or, put another way, the lawyers who just want to be lawyers.
One of the great accomplishments of modern liberal democracy is that we can live in peace while holding different ideas about how to structure our society, said Brian Dijkema, the vice president of external affairs at the Cardus think tank. A big part of that accomplishment is the creation of spaces in our lives that remain free of politics.
“One of the gifts of democracy is that you should not actually have to have a political opinion all the time,” said Dijkema. “The space to not have an opinion is actually something that I’m most worried about in our political culture.”
The question of what amounts to a political opinion, though, is in the eye of the beholder. Both campaigns in the law society election argue that the other side is politicizing the law society.
The FullStop candidates argue that the imposition of the statement of principles was a radical departure from the role of the law society and that it demanded action.
“We are in a political battle to de-politicize the law society,” said Bruce Pardy, the executive director of Rights Probe and professor of law at Queen’s University. “That may sound like a contradiction, but it really isn’t. It was only because the law society became politicized and insisted that lawyers express their concurrence with a specific ideological view that the StopSOP and FullStop campaigns arose.”
The activism within the law society is a distraction from its role, argued Ryan Alford, a professor at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.
Some FullStop candidates admit that the public relations undertaking is a difficult one because their position could look less like it’s about the role of the regulator and more about opposition to popular ideas like diversity and inclusion.
“They pitch themselves as adhering to these superficially unobjectionable ideas. Who is against diversity, equity, and inclusion? No one is against it,” said Stéphane Sérafin, a FullStop candidate. “So the tough sell part is that you have to explain to people that it’s not the ideas themselves that are the problem.”
The simplest objection to the statement of principles is simply that it’s not the law society’s job to tell lawyers what to think, argued Ryan Alford, a professor at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.
“If the law society said, on pain of losing my license, that I had to affirm that I love my mother, I’m not going to do it, because what I’m doing is acknowledging that they have the power to do that,” said Alford.
The FullStop candidates have a sense that the secret ballots of the law society will benefit them because they’ve heard privately from people who support them but aren’t inclined to say so publicly.
“Our message has been enthusiastically received by lots of people—but again, many of them wish to say so only privately. That reflects the scary place we have reached in this country, where people are afraid to say what they think, even what it is shared by many others,” said Pardy.
Sérafin describes himself as someone who would traditionally identify as a leftist, but his discomfort with “identity politics” has alienated him in recent years. As a law professor, he endured professional upheaval after first-year students complained to the university because he wouldn’t declare certain decisions racist and colonialist.
Sérafin describes this increasing tendency in universities and the strife in professional regulators and white-collar employers as a pathology of the “professional-managerial class.” The term was coined by leftist writers in the 20th century to describe the white-collar workers who found themselves somewhere between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.
In recent years, though, the phrase has been co-opted by conservatives and disaffected liberals like Sérafin to describe the burgeoning class of knowledge workers who are infusing social justice into their work lives.
Dijkema agrees that it is primarily a white-collar phenomenon.
“I would say it’s a university-educated issue. And I want to make clear here, there are real issues of injustice, right? On anything from Indigenous Affairs to racial issues, you just have to look at Canadian history and the injustice is real,” said Dijkema.
A common thread running through the institutions that have been paralyzed by these fights is a workplace that revolves around WhatsApp groups and Slack channels.
“I think this mode of talking about (injustice) is very much a laptop class thing,” said Dijkema.
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