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Thousands of Alta. lawyers to meet online Monday to debate mandatory cultural training

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Thousands of Alberta lawyers are expected to take part in an online debate Monday morning over the issue of mandatory Indigenous history training.

At least 400 active lawyers have signed a letter supporting the Indigenous cultural competency requirement, while 51 others have signed a petition stating that they oppose mandatory training, ahead of Monday's meeting of the Alberta Law Society where those opposed are looking to repeal Rule 67.4, which board members of the law society passed in 2020, making cultural sensitivity training mandatory.

All Alberta lawyers had 18 months to complete the training, or risk suspension.

CTV News Calgary reached out to all 51 signatories who signed a petition opposing mandated cultural training and heard back from a few.

And while 51 of them signed a petition opposing mandatory cultural training, according to the Alberta Law Society, many of them completed it anyway.

"While I can only speak for myself, I fully support education in Indigenous cultural competency," said Chad Graham in an email.  "We had a series of excellent opportunities to study this area in law school when I attended. All new lawyers are (or) have been - and as far as I am aware - continue to be required to take an excellent course on Indigenous culture and legal practice during their articles (year following law school) and I think this is important in light of the TRC Report and our working context.

"The petition, as I am aware of it, speaks to whether the benchers (an elected group of leadership in the law society) are given under provincial legislation (or should be given) the power to mandate any certain cultural, political and social perspectives as requirements for the continued practice of the profession," Graham added. "My understanding of the petition is that it is about the independence of the profession and our ability to attract and celebrate diversity in the profession and to support the inclusion of many practitioners."

THE PATH

Lawyer Richard Harrison took the course, called The Path, but signed the petition objecting to it being mandatory.

"I will start by saying that ‘The Path’ was a wholly meritorious course," Harrison wrote. "I appreciated its content. I will not say I enjoyed it—I’m not sure who could. It was a depressing reminder of the path our country needs to walk towards reconciliation and the sins we need to atone for.

"To me, The Path was an inherently cultural and political course," he added. "Although I found that I appreciated its content, finding a legal component to the course was difficult. As I prepared to take the course, and eventually did take the course, I found that I was concerned by the potential for abuse.

"In an age when Donald Trump can ascend to the highest office of the United States and when anti-democratic forces seem ever-present, I felt a deep foreboding that the same power that allowed our regulator to impose upon our membership a requirement to take cultural teachings could be abused," he added. "Often I think to myself that I’m being ridiculous, but then I am reminded of my surprise after the results of the 2016 election were published.

"It was difficult for me to reconcile the merits of The Path with my concerns that the requirement to take the course could be abused," he said. "I resolved the issue this way: I believe there is hardly a better message to send on reconciliation that the one time our regulator imposed upon us a cultural requirement was to take The Path and that following the imposition, our regulator responsibly removed its ability to impose cultural and political requirements."

EIGHT SUSPENDED

According to a spokesperson for the Alberta Law Society, close to 10,000 active lawyers were required to take the course, and only a handful didn't.

"There were 9,769 active lawyers required to complete The Path by the initial deadline. Of those, only 26 lawyers were administratively suspended for failing to complete the requirement and were included on the public notice to the profession.

"As of today, only eight of these lawyers remain suspended," said Law Society acting communications manager Avery Stodalka, in an email to CTV News.

The law society also issued the following statement on behalf of CEO and executive director Elizabeth J. Osler.

"The issue to be debated (at Monday's meeting) is the authority of the Law Society of Alberta Benchers to mandate specific professional development activities for Alberta lawyers in the public interest," it said. "The Law 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."

Koren Lightning-Earle, one of the lawyers who helped gather the 400 signatures in less than 48 hours in support of the cultural training said that they felt it was necessary and appropriate, given the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings.

"This is an opportunity for that real allyship – those TRC calls to action are calls to all Canadians," Lightning-Earle said. "And there is specific ones for justice.

"We are not above those calls to action, and we have an obligation to uphold those calls to action."

Lawyer Dan Mol said, "Even though I think we all support the objectives of sensitivity and reconciliation, I think what's important is that in the future, the precedent is there for the law society to impose points of view on lawyers."

For lawyer Darren L. Richards, one of the 51 who signed the petition, the issue has nothing to do with Indigenous cultural training and everything to do with law society overreach.

"This is about Rule 67.4 that grants the Law Society Benchers powers not granted in the legal profession act," he said. "The petitioners simply do not believe the benchers have or should have the power to mandate cultural, political or ideological education of any kind on Alberta lawyers as a condition of practice."

The Monday meeting will take place online. Over 4,000 lawyers are expected to participate and the majority vote will determine how the Alberta Law Society proceeds.

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