In April 2014, and again in April 2015, I had the privilege of being invited as a witness to speak before Parliament’s Citizenship and Immigration Committee in Ottawa. Here is the transcript of my testimony in April 2014 with respect to strengthening the protection of women in our immigration system (specifically, changes that can be made to the sponsored spouses program). Full context and transcript can be found here.

I would first like to thank the committee for inviting me here today to speak about what can be done to better protect sponsored spouses in the immigration system.

My name is Kathryn Marshall. I’m a practising lawyer here in Vancouver. I have an honours degree with a specialization in women’s studies and feminist research. I have been a columnist with a daily newspaper here in Vancouver where I have written about women’s issues. The impact of our immigration system and women’s rights are a particular passion of mine.

Immigrating to Canada as a sponsored spouse can be a very isolating experience. In the majority of cases, sponsored spouses are women, and my comments today will focus on them.

Women coming to Canada as sponsored spouses face barriers other immigrants may not face. The sponsor, already a landed immigrant, will have a knowledge of an official language and some form of employment. These provide him with a social network and a greater ability to communicate and integrate into Canadian society. Dependent children sponsored to Canada are put through the best system invented to make friends, to learn official languages, and to integrate, and that is known as the public education system. This leaves a sponsored spouse often without a social support network outside of family and without an easy way to make friends or learn an official language.

Women sponsored as spouses are very dependent on their sponsors, which can put them in a position of vulnerability. It is much harder for women to leave a situation of abuse and neglect when they lack a support network outside of the family. This is especially true in cases where women also had children to care for. It is also much harder for women to leave the relationship when they are victims of practices that are not acceptable in Canada, including polygamy, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and honour-based violence and oppression. This is obviously not acceptable.

Action is needed now to help ensure that these women are protected and can enjoy their new lives in Canada as equal, free, and productive members of Canadian society. What we need to do is help women integrate, learn an official language, and understand their rights in Canada.

It has been discussed that language requirements should be imposed before spouses are allowed to immigrate to Canada. Critics have said that language requirements would prevent many family unification sponsorships. Perhaps the best solution would be to require spouses sponsored to Canada to take English or French lessons once they have arrived in Canada. Requiring courses once in Canada could be part of the conditions of residency for sponsored spouses, and these courses could be paid for by the sponsor.

Being able to communicate in one of Canada’s official languages will better enable women living in Canada as sponsored spouses to become involved in the community, meet people outside the home, obtain employment, volunteer, and get education and skills training. Having these language skills will also help women interact with important services, such as women’s crisis centres and health care providers. Mandatory language classes such as these would also have the benefit of providing socialization and the opportunity for women to meet people in those critical first few months while in Canada.

These courses could also include detailed information on women’s rights in our country. Understanding their rights and what options are available to them will assist women who want to leave their spouse due to an abusive situation.

It is also important that women understand they do not have to put up with practices that are unacceptable and illegal in Canada. It is also important that they understand their rights with respect to marital and common-law property, and with respect to family law and child custody and access.

The reality is that many immigrant women fear leaving their spouse because they are worried they will not be able to see their children or will not have access to their home. They may also be fearful of their legal status in Canada in the event they leave their abusive spouse.

Part of the application process should include explicitly making sure that sponsored spouses and their sponsors are aware of women’s rights in this country. One possible measure is signing a document, in whichever language they know best, enumerating their rights in Canada. This document would include that women are equal, have the right to end a relationship, have parental rights, and that spousal abuse is illegal, as is polygamy, forced marriage, and so-called honour-based violence.

Upon entry to Canada, sponsored spouses should also be made aware of the vast array of resources for women, including women’s health facilities, crisis centres, and educational resources, and also how to access them. It would be beneficial if more information were provided beyond just a pamphlet that’s given to them on arrival, so perhaps community organizations would be willing to voluntarily host seminars or workshops for women.

I know the study is focused on the situation of spouses, but I want to direct the committee’s attention to the fact that spouses are not the only immigrant women who need our help. Wives are not the only women at risk. We have tragically seen in Canada situations where daughters have become the victims of honour-based violence. As a country, we need to do a better job of protecting girls from this violence.

Aqsa Parvez, a Mississauga teenager who was the tragic victim of an honour killing at the hands of her own family, had sought help at a shelter, which unfortunately failed to identify the signs and sent her back to the hands of her abusers. The Shafia girls, who were brutally murdered in Kingston, had reportedly sought help from law enforcement and social workers. However, they tragically fell through the cracks.

We need to offer better training to teachers, social workers, workers in women’s shelters, police officers, and Children’s Aid Society agents to help them recognize the signs of girls in danger, and where possible, take action. The study’s scope should be broadened to take into account the situation of daughters. We must do everything we can do to make sure that every women and every girl is free and equal in Canada.

In summary, the best way to protect women coming to Canada as sponsored spouses, and to help these women break out of isolationism and better integrate into their communities, is through education. Learning an official language and understanding their full legal rights and what resources are available to them and how to access them will help fulfill these goals. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak about this important issue and to offer some practical advice.

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There are many organizations within the legal profession targeted to women, from networking groups to speaker series. These are great, but they tend to attract more senior lawyers and cover issues that are relevant to that age/experience demographic. Overall, there is a lack of groups specifically geared towards junior women lawyers who are in the first years of their practice – a time when they need support and guidance the most.

That’s what makes Young Women In Law (YWL) a standout group. They are a Toronto based organization that specifically focuses on women in the first stage of their legal careers.

I recently had the chance to speak with Erica Young, a Toronto commercial litigator and President of YWL.  As Young points out, there are many organizations devoted to women in law, but there is a lack of specific attention to young women in the first few years of their practice. YWL aims to fill that gap – members must either be under 40 or in the first 5 years of their career.

YWL was founded 10 years ago by 10 young women in law who saw there was a need to promote and support newly called female lawyers. They have 250-300 members and it costs 100 dollars annually to be a member. While the organization is based in Toronto – it is open to all Canadian lawyers and articled students.

While many ‘women in law’ organizations cover more broad topics like general work life balance issues, YWL hosts speaker events on more specific topics geared to their audience of novice lawyers. These topics include things like navigating career paths, from work assignments to negotiating salary and raises. An important topic that YWL recently addressed was maternity leave – every firm does it differently but there is a lack of public information out there for lawyers looking to find out more. In many cases, the terms of a maternity leave (length, top-up, etc.) is something a lawyer may have to negotiate – taking into account many different factors.

According to Young, the top challenges facing women in law include finding quality mentorship and the attrition of women in the legal profession. They won’t be solved over night, but these are two challenges that will hopefully become easier thanks to groups like YWL.

By: Kathryn Marshall

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As I have previously done in Ontario and Alberta, I have helpfully compiled the top law twitter accounts in BC. Follow these accounts to stay on top of interesting and timely legal news, industry developments and breaking cases in British Columbia.

  • BC Injury Lawyer @BCInjuryLaw – BC personal injury lawyer – also runs a great blog
  • David Eby @Dave_Eby – former head of BC Civil Liberties Foundation – now NDP MLA
  • Warren Smith – @lawheadhunter – Managing Partner of the Counsel Network (legal recruiter – he posts a lot of interesting career advice and tips)
  • Law Society of BC @LawSocietyofBC
  • Trial Lawyer’s Association of BC @TLA_BC
  • Pivot Legal Society @PivotLegal
  • Canadian Bar Association –BC @CBA_BC
  • BC Civil Liberties Foundation @BCCLA
  • Keith Fraser: Province reporter – covers Vancouver Courts @keithrfraser
  • Kim Bolan: Vancouver Sun crime reporter @kbolan
  • Justice Institute of BC @JIBCNews
  • Access Pro Bono BC @AccessProBono
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This column originally appeared in the Law Times.

How to fix the articling problem is the ubiquitous topic of discussion among lawyers. From the LSUC’s controversial new “two-tier” articling program, to calls from many lawyers to scrap articling all together, the debate has become extra heated in recent years.

A group of 15 Ontario lawyers are about to shake the debate up even more with an extreme proposal that, if put into practice, would have disastrous outcomes. On May 13 they will be tabling a motion at the LSUC’s AGM that proposes making it mandatory for law firms of 8 lawyers or more to hire an articling student who will be randomly selected and assigned to that firm.

The rationale is that it will make things fairer for everyone and cut back on the rivalry and anxiety felt amongst law students as they compete for coveted articling spots.

This is, by far, the most flawed solution that has been proposed in the great articling debate.

Firstly, it kills competition, and that’s a bad thing. A healthy dose of competition motivates people to work harder and be better. It goes without saying that law school is a competitive environment. It is the natural outcome of putting hundreds of ambitions, bright students together for three intense years. From grades to moots and even law rugby, students are pitted against one another from day one and strive to come out on top. It should come as no surprise that law students are competitive when it comes to job opportunities too. Just like there are only so many A’s to go around, there are only so many jobs available too. So students need to ensure they are doing the right things both inside and outside of the classroom to give themselves a competitive edge.

Secondly, it wrongly assumes every student is entitled to a job. Getting a university degree does not mean you deserve to have a job waiting for you at your doorstep the moment you graduate. A degree from a good school certainly gives you an advantage, but you still need to go out and hustle to land a great gig. Law grads, like all other job seekers, need to make their own opportunities. When I was searching for articles, I ended up getting hired by a firm that hadn’t hired a student in 9 years. I was able to convince them that taking on a student was a great move, and that I was the right person for the job. Students shouldn’t expect a job to land in their laps, they should get out there and network, hit the pavement and even cold call if necessary.

Thirdly and most importantly, it strips both the students and the law firms of their free choice. Many articling jobs lead to permanent law positions. One of the most important factors in hiring a new inexperienced lawyer is whether that person is a good fit for the firm. Personality plays a big part in this. If students are being randomly paired with law firms, neither the firm nor the student has any say in the hiring process. Students cannot seek employment at firms they gel with, and firms cannot hire students they feel would fit in well with their firm culture. This is a recipe for unhappiness in the workplace. This could have a very detrimental impact on the legal profession as a whole, which already struggles with an attrition problem.

Hopefully this motion will be scrutinized and swiftly voted down. While there is no doubt a problem with the articling system in Ontario, going to the extreme and forcing students on firms and vice versa in a random lottery system is not the answer.

Update: The motion was indeed overwhelmingly voted down

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This column was originally published in Canadian Lawyer.

To get ahead in a crowded field you need to stand out. That’s true for businesses, athletes, brands, and even law schools. 
Over the past few years, the number of law faculties in Canada has expanded, with Trinity Western University being the latest to announce its plans to open a law school. While there is ongoing debate over the need for new schools amid reports of students struggling to find articling placements, the demand for law studies remains strong.

Instead of opening more traditional three-year programs, what Canada should do is introduce an accelerated law degree program.

A shorter two-year program would appeal to a market of future lawyers different from the norm. Older students in their late 20s, 30s, and even 40s looking for a change in career but hesitant about going back to the classroom for three years, plus a year of articling, would likely be attracted to a fast-track program.

The difference between a two- and three-year program may not be a big deal when you’re fresh out of undergrad, but when you’re older and may already have a family, mortgage, and career, time is more valuable and the decision to take a step back from those crucial earning years to further your education is much harder.

As you age, the opportunity cost of education increases — the difference between a two- or three-year program could be a deal breaker for some people.

Other professional programs have already gone the route of modifying their schedules to shave off time. Many business schools now offer one-year MBA programs geared to mid-career professionals, and some medical schools offer a fast-track MD program.

Canadian law schools have been making changes to their programs, but many are making them longer, not shorter. While new combined degree programs are very attractive, they lengthen instead of shorten time in the classroom.

While this is great news for students who want to get an MBA or master’s degree while in law school, what about students who are only interested in an LLB/JD, and want to earn it as quickly as they can?

Unlike some other professional degrees, law school is very much defined by the “full university experience.” Any graduate can tell you law school isn’t just about learning how to be a lawyer. The campus life, moots, clubs, study-abroad programs, guest speakers, and rugby are a big part of it. The law schools know it, too — just look at any law school’s promotional material.

In many law schools, there’s as much emphasis on studying the law as a discipline as there is on learning practical lawyering skills. The traditional three-year degree program gives students time to pursue elective courses like legal philosophy and comparative law, and get the most out of the extracurricular student life.

These activities certainly enrich a legal education, however not all students —especially older students — are looking to have a full university experience when they go to law school.

Some students simply want to get their law degree and begin work as soon as possible. Since many students do not summer at firms, a two-year program could be run by slotting in an extra term during each summer. It’s a market need that has not been filled in Canada.

Several U.S. law schools have already begun to offer two-year accelerated law programs. Northwestern Law in Chicago, considered a top-tier school, has a fast-track JD program that offers courses geared more towards the work environment, like accounting and leadership, and requires at least two years’ professional work experience before admission.

A shortened JD program wouldn’t just be for the benefit of students, it would benefit the legal field as well by attracting a market of potential lawyers who already have some work experience in management and leadership, which they can contribute to the field early on.

An accelerated program would also recruit students who have probably taken more time to really consider whether law is the right career path for them, which could reduce attrition and dropout rates.

There’s lots of talk these days about how law schools can evolve to meet the needs of a changing economy and legal market. How about changing to meet the needs of a new generation of workers who are more likely to change careers instead of sticking with the first thing they did right out of school?

With these new law schools opening up in Canada, introducing a two-year degree program could be a great way to differentiate from the pack and offer a unique legal education experience.

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