Interview with CBA President Brad Regehr
The new CBA president discusses his priorities for the year ahead, the impact of the pandemic on the legal profession, and the CBA's role in advancing reconciliation.
CBA National: It must be an unusual challenge for you to assume the presidency during this period, with limited travel and in-person meetings moving online. How do you plan on communicating with members during your mandate?
Brad Regehr: I've resigned myself to the fact that I won't be travelling between now and the end of the year, and we'll have to see what happens during the winter and spring in terms of what's possible. In the meantime, we're looking at several ways we can reach members. I'll be speaking at the Nova Scotia branch AGM, virtually, and the same way at the Yukon AGM. I'm hoping that things get better at some point toward the end of my presidency, allowing me to do some visits and interact with our members in person. I'll also be working on a podcast series focusing on the Truth and Reconciliation report and the CBA's initiatives to help support its calls to action. This is near and dear to me, with my grandfather having gone to residential schools.
N: The racial protests that have swept across the world have also involved Indigenous people here in Canada. Do you see that as an opportunity to reengage the legal profession on reconciliation?
BR: I see it as a huge opportunity. The Federation [of Law Societies of Canada] has done a lot of work on this over the years and has recently adopted recommendations to advance reconciliation. At the CBA, we too have been involved in work to implement the recommendations contained in Justice Sinclair’s Report. Recently, we developed an educational program, The Path, in collaboration with an Indigenous partner, NVision Insight. The uptake from members has been massive. We've had inquiries from partner firms that are looking to us to help them customize the program. Provincial Law societies have approached us about using the program as well. But we still face a huge challenge. One only needs to read the TRC report and the numerous reports before it to understand why. Indigenous people make up a disproportionate number of people in the criminal justice system and in the child welfare system. It is clear that there is a significant problem. It has to be fixed. And the legal system can't do alone.
N: So how can we improve the Canadian legal system for Indigenous people?
BR: That's a hugely complicated question. And the mindset can’t be that the legal system itself, will fix things for Indigenous people. Making improvements has to involve and engage Indigenous people. Certainly you also have to engage the member of the Bar, and the Canadian Bar Association, can play an important role in that process. It is critical, however, to engage Indigenous people to truly understand and appreciate the problems they face with the justice system: the discrimination they face; and, the unfair playing field they face. Indigenous people must be involved in resolving these problems.
N: What kind of mindset do non-Indigenous lawyers and legal professionals need to have to approach this task?
BR: They need to educate themselves, starting with a program like The Path, or get involved in situations or circumstances where they can learn first-hand about these issues. Meeting, getting to know and interacting with Indigenous people is important. It's easy to take an online course, but it's better to hear it from the people who are and have been, directly affected. I hate to say it, but many people just don't believe these problems exist because they don't see them or just don't want to believe they still exist in Canada, today.
N: What are the other significant challenges that you see facing the legal profession in Canada today?
BR: Access to justice remains the challenge. There is an increasing number of self-represented litigants and it's overwhelming the court system. In some jurisdictions, there are reports that up to 70 per cent of litigants are appearing without legal counsel. This results in serious, consequential delays. In family matters, the absence of sufficient legal aid funding is a significant problem. The pandemic has been a huge wake-up call for the entire profession —for lawyers, judges, courts’ administrators, and land and corporate registries. The legal system's entire operations and level of efficiency has become a focus of attention. That said, I have been impressed by the way in which the courts and registries, at almost every level, adapted in fairly short order quickly. Hopefully, some of the changes that have been implemented will become permanent. One thing to watch out for on this issue is the work of the CBA's Task Force on Justice Issues Arising from COVID-19, with the federal courts and other stakeholders' involvement. Its report will be coming out just after the New Year.
N: Any other priorities?
BR: I certainly wanted to continue Vivene Salmon’s excellent work in keeping our association going in the right direction and showing people there is great value to being a CBA member. In light of the pandemic, continuing the CBA's programming work in wellness will definitely be a priority. Also, it's important to remember that young lawyers are a priority in our strategic direction. They are and will continue to be a priority for me during my presidency, as they were during Vivene's term. Moving many of our activities online presents an opportunity to engage more young lawyers. We know they’re comfortable with technology and are looking for mentorship and networking opportunities. And, as with all lawyers, they're looking to gather knowledge that can assist them in developing and growing their practice. Fortunately, the CBA offers top-notch CPD, virtually.
N: Tell us about the CBA's advocacy efforts.
BR: For decades, great, effective advocacy has been a fundamental benefit that the CBA offers its membership, and that will continue. Going forward, we are sharpening our focus it a little more, and concentrating on the access to justice issue. However, despite that increased focus, we will continue to work on substantive legal issues as we always have in the past. We understand that we can't do everything, and we need to be more selective in terms of the issues we target.
This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.