Diversity and inclusion: an important piece of the “access to justice” puzzle

By Noëlle Richardson

In my view, access to justice is only possible if we in the justice system provide relevant, responsive services to society’s most vulnerable people.

Noëlle Richardson

Noëlle Richardson

Inclusion can help employees in the justice system to understand the needs of clients from across all of Ontario’s communities. Moreover, it can help staff to develop the necessary cultural competencies to effectively serve these clients.

Such a perspective can go a long way toward helping organizations to recognize all of the ways in which we all differ. It would also help them to solicit everyone’s perspective in the interest of providing better services to those who need them, and develop a culture in which everyone feels they have a place at the organizational table that matters.

A broader definition of the term diversity that includes everyone is not only fundamental to this approach, it is crucial to ensuring an approach that is not underpinned by an air of benevolence.

Changes in our society have led to changes in how we look at diversity

What Noëlle means when she says…

Diversity – All of the ways in which we all differ; an entity we are all a part of and none of us is apart from.  

Inclusion – An approach that uses our diversity to gain access to perspectives and ideas that allow us to be more effective in what we do.

Accessibility – An approach that puts the focus on “fixing the environment” instead of “fixing the individual.”

Canadian society has evolved at an accelerated rate since the 60s, when changes to this country’s immigration policy in resulted in a noticeable shift in Canada’s visual demographic.

In recognition of the challenges that come with demographic plurality, some federal and provincial laws and policies have aimed, over the years, to ensure full participation by all. These range from the multicultural policy which Canada adopted in 1971 and enacted into law in 1988, to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, to the Federal Employment Equity Act of 1996, to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act of 2005 – to name a few.

All have the intent of full participation for each and every individual, regardless of place of origin, colour, creed, or race, etc. Combined, they have created greater access to Canada from parts of the world previously denied such access.

Representing society within our organizations

Within this continually changing environment, we must find ways to stay abreast of the needs of society. One of the best ways to do so is to have society represented within our organizations. The benefits to organizations that make this choice are many. An organization with inclusive practices:

  • positions itself as a desirable place to work
  • attracts and can select employees from a broad cross section of the population
  • can access a broader perspective when determining policies and practices that meet the needs of a plural province
  • is more likely to meet organizational goals and societal expectations of efficient and relevant services and programs to best meet the needs of 13 million multifaceted Ontarians who depend on these services and programs.

Challenges in acquiring the necessary skills to recognize diversity

Unlike any other area of learning, acquiring the necessary skills to ensure a broad understanding of peoples’ realities and perspectives seems to pose a great challenge.

In many other areas of business, we seem to have no problem seeking to obtain knowledge and skills if they are requisites within a specific arena. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case for acquiring knowledge and skills associated with more fully understanding and appreciating the otherness of the other.

Having wondered over the years why this is the case, the only plausible reason seems to be that to many people, admitting to deficits in understanding those unlike ourselves is to admit to a gap in character, not knowledge.

Viewing inclusive practice as necessary bona fides when delivering services to the public might help us to move beyond this particular barrier of political correctness. I have no doubt that incorporating cultural sensibilities as required bona fides into the work of lawyering can help the justice system to enhance access to justice across the province.

Noëlle Richardson is Chief Diversity Officer, Agencies, Ministry of the Attorney General.