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The access to justice challenges of Chinese Canadians

by Avvy Go

I have been asked by Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) to write a guest blog about my thoughts on access to justice from an “Asian Canadian legal perspective.”

I am appreciative of the opportunity to share my thoughts, based on my experience working for the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, as to the challenges still facing Chinese Canadians in accessing justice in Ontario.

Chinese Canadians and the law in Canada

To understand where we are today, we need to know where we came from.  Due to overtly discriminatory laws, Chinese Canadians were not allowed to practice law in Canada until 1947.

Prior to that, Chinese were disenfranchised as second class Canadians, whose rights were deliberately curtailed by legislation at both the provincial and federal levels.  The Chinese Head Tax (1885-1923) and Exclusion Act (1923-1947) were all aimed at restricting and even excluding the entries of Chinese.

Discriminatory immigration laws continued to exist after 1947, making it difficult for Chinese to come to Canada until the 1960s.

While Canada has come a long way since then, systemic barriers continue to post significant challenges for Chinese Canadians and other persons of colour from pursing a legal career. Based on the 2006 census, we know that Chinese Canadians and most Asian Canadian communities are still under-represented in the legal profession, and the lawyers from these communities are more likely to be working as sole practitioners as opposed to making partners on Bay Street.

Racialized poverty in Ontario today

Meanwhile, poverty in Ontario has become racialized, with most racialized communities experiencing higher and deeper levels of poverty as compared to non-racialized groups.

The study by United Way of Greater Toronto, Poverty by Postal Code, sums up the situation best. Between 1981 and 2000, poverty rates among non-racialized communities in Toronto decreased by 28%; over the same time period, poverty rates among racialized communities increased by 361%. In the City of Toronto, Chinese families are twice as likely to live in poverty, as compared to their white counterparts.

It should be noted that such racial inequities and disparities grew during an economic boom, and as Ontario’s population was becoming more diverse.

The double whammy of being racialized and poor puts Chinese Canadians and other Asian Canadians at a huge disadvantage when it comes to accessing justice. On the one hand, being poor means few can afford lawyers on their own, and must turn to the chronically under-funded legal aid program for help when they have legal problems. On the other hand, as people of colour, Chinese and other Asian Canadians must contend with ongoing systemic racial discrimination within the legal system, which in turn leads to more complex legal needs.

Equity and the justice system in Ontario

It certainly does not help when the system that is supposed to offer legal assistance either can’t or won’t. To start, the promotion of equity does not appear anywhere in either the principle or mandate of the Ontario’s legal aid program.

The two legal clinics which do cater to the Asian Canadian communities came about as a result of community struggle for equal services.  Even today, these two clinics remain among the smallest in the legal clinic system, despite the tremendous needs within the communities they serve.

The challenge of systemic racism

It would be wrong to assume that the only barriers faced by members of Asian Canadian communities are linguistic and cultural in nature, and that such barriers can easily be overcome.  The prevalence of systemic racism within our legal system is manifested in such issues as racial profiling by law enforcement, discriminatory immigration and refugee policies, and even the gross under-representation on the bench. None of these issues can be resolved by the meagre dollars spent on interpretation services alone.

It would be good if resources were set aside specifically to address the needs of Asian Canadian communities in accessing legal services. It would be greater still for LAO to conduct a thorough review of all of its policies, programs and practices from a racial equity lens, to help ensure that all decisions made by LAO have the effect of promoting – and not undermining – racial equality.

Avvy Go is the Clinic Director of Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.  Since becoming a lawyer, Avvy has worked exclusively in the legal clinic system, while advocating for immigrants and racialized communities.  Avvy has received a number of awards including the Order of Ontario in 2014.