April 29, 2016
Building a community of students that is representative, inclusive and respectful of the population it will soon serve has long been a critical issue facing law schools across Canada.
“Systemic discrimination and overt acts of harassment are unfortunate historic and ongoing features of both the legal profession and many law students' experiences,” explains Kaila Mikkelsen, Assistant Dean, Students. “The result is that law students from groups underrepresented in the profession and/or marginalized in Canadian society can feel a profound sense of exclusion as they enter this professional program.”
Law schools have a unique challenge with issues around diversity and equity because of how law is taught in the classroom. While real life cases demonstrate the application of legal rules and principles, they can create an uncomfortable environment for students with a more a personal connection with the issues a specific case raises, or even with one of the parties involved in a case.
An Aboriginal student participating in a class discussion about an Aboriginal right to fish case may be a relative of the litigant in the case. Similarly, a female student who is a rape survivor may listen to a class discussion about a particular defense to sexual assault.
“Situations can arise in the classroom, where dominant voices may act to suppress full, open and respectful discussion, or statements may be made without the recognition that there may be a person in the class whose ‘issues’ are up for discussion,” said Kaila. “The effect is often alienation for certain students.”
To help address important situations like these, the law school has provided presentations and discussion on equity and diversity for first year students during orientation week. This year, equity workshops were during ‘Reorientation Day’, a new initiative developed by the Allard School of Law’s Student Services team to provide students a break from the classroom to engage in some important conversations around diversity. Reorientation Day was held in January, after first year students had some time to get to know their classmates and experience the classroom setting.
Reorientation Day introduced three short film vignettes capturing incidents of discrimination and harassment that can happen in law school, which were written, directed and produced professionally with funding from UBC’s Equity Enhancement Fund. The films were presented to small groups of first year students, with upper year students, faculty and staff facilitating discussion afterwards. The goals of the workshop were to enhance awareness of issues around harassment and discrimination in a law school setting and the greater legal environment; provide students with the tools to intervene and become active bystanders when witnessing acts of discrimination and harassment; and engage in an empathetic analysis of the law.
“Law students love to debate and challenge the law, and in fact are encouraged to do so as part of the study of the Law. However, we want them to consider that a discussion and review of case law needs to be more than an academic exercise,” said Kaila.
From contact with her counterparts across the country, Kaila believes that this is the first time such a workshop has been undertaken in a Canadian law school. Following on the development of other, very successful Student Services initiatives, including the Allard School of Law Peer Tutoring Program (winner of UBC’s 2014 Helen McCrae Award), the feedback from students has been overwhelmingly positive. Kaila intends to make this initiative an annual event.