Alberta lawyers will soon vote whether to get rid of a law society rule used to mandate Indigenous cultural competency training for members of the legal profession.
Fifty lawyers have signed a petition demanding the repeal of the Law Society of Alberta’s rule 67.4, which allows members of the law society board to require lawyers to undergo “specific continuing professional development requirements” or face suspension.
The law society used the rule to introduce The Path, a mandatory five-hour online learning course designed to help lawyers “increase their Indigenous cultural understanding in a Canadian context.” Lawyers were given until Oct. 20, 2022, to finish the program.
Roger Song, a Calgary commercial lawyer who organized the petition, said he was neither opposed to lawyers learning about Indigenous issues nor continuing education in general.
He is, however, opposed to what he sees as the ability of the law society to mandate certain programs, comparing it to the “indoctrination” of professionals in his native China.
“I believe First Nations people are important — their culture, their history, their painful suffering are important for society to understand,” he said. “I have no problem with that. The only problem is that I have to take a prescribed education program, within the prescribed deadline. And if I do not complete the program within the deadline, I will be suspended with no notice automatically.”
The song eventually completed the course “under protest.” Twenty-six out of 9,769 Alberta lawyers were suspended for failing to complete The Path, eight of whom remained suspended.
The petition is proving controversial in a profession grappling with its role in injustices toward Indigenous people, including continued over-representation in the criminal justice, corrections and child welfare systems.
Continuing legal education was among the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, with commissioners recommending lawyers receive training on issues including residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, treaties and Indigenous law.
In response to the recommendation, the 24 benchers who make up the law society’s board — most of whom are elected by members — opted to introduce mandatory Indigenous cultural competency training in October 2020. (In 2020, the society suspended a separate, self-guided professional development reporting requirements, which is scheduled to resume this year.)
The law society eventually decided to use The Path, a course developed by Ottawa-based Indigenous consulting firm NVision Insight Group. Law society members were given 18 months to complete the free course beginning in April 2021.
Exemptions were provided for those with “prior education and experiences in Indigenous cultural competency.”
In a FAQ on its decision to mandate The Path, the law society said that while it believes lawyers should have control over their own professional development, “there are some competencies where it is appropriate that the law society mandate education. Indigenous cultural competency is one of those unique areas where mandatory education is important.”
Some pushed back, including petition signatory Glenn Blackett, a Calgary lawyer who wrote an op-ed in the Dorchester Review, calling The Path part of “the radical, activist and authoritarian movement known as ‘wokeness.’”
“The Path represents politicized regulatory overreach and, while ostensibly intended to promote reconciliation, is likely to do far more harm than good,” wrote Blackett, part of the Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms, whose president has been charged with attempting to obstruct justice after admitting he hired a private investigator to follow a Manitoba judge hearing a COVID-19 case.
Sarah Kriekle, a Red Deer lawyer who describes herself as Métis/settler, supports continuing education like The Path, noting the Supreme Court of Canada has recognized law societies as having a role in protecting the public interest and can make decisions for the profession.
While stressing she couldn’t speak to the motivations of all the petition’s signatures, Kriekle said some of the public comments “certainly suggest that the underlying motive here is a culture war, specifically against having to learn about Indigenous history in Canada.”
Lawyers who wish to attend a special Feb. 6 Zoom meeting on the petition have been given until Friday to register.
In a statement, law society CEO Elizabeth Osler said the society “is dedicated to protecting the public interest by promoting and enforcing standards of professional and ethical conduct by Alberta lawyers.”
“We are committed to ensuring a fair and transparent special meeting format.”