Maybe some people just shouldn’t be lawyers

Child-protection work makes up a significant part of my legal practice, and it can be absolutely heart-wrenching. Representing a criminal defendant and having his/her freedom largely in your hands is nothing compared to the pressure of representing parents who may literally have their children taken away.

And when your clients are of First Nations descent, it can be even more emotionally challenging. Not only are you representing an individual whose family may be torn apart, but you’re often seeing the effects of centuries of discriminatory and devastating government policies and social marginalization.

There’s really no way to fully prepare for this until you actually start doing it, but our law schools are not helping anyone by shielding prospective lawyers from these cases. But the University of Toronto has chosen to do just that:

The dean of the University of Toronto law school has apologized for a class assignment that he said relied on racial stereotypes about Indigenous people.

Some students in first-year law objected last week after being asked to consider a hypothetical scenario in which Indigenous parents, struggling with drug and alcohol issues, had placed their three children in care. A non-Indigenous family looked after the children for two years and was prepared to adopt them.

But the father, who had stopped drinking and remade his life, wanted to maintain access to the children. The students were asked to write a memo about the case, taking into account a 2017 Ontario law that gives priority to maintaining familial and cultural links for Indigenous children.

Edward Iacobucci sent an apology for the content of the assignment to all first-year law students last week. The dean wrote that the hypothetical scenario “included several troubling stereotypes about Indigenous people.”

[…]

No students would speak to The Globe on the record, but, in addition to concerns about the impact of stereotypes, some students said they did not feel properly supported in having to read upsetting details in real-life case law relating to the hypothetical case.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and a leading advocate for Indigenous children in the child welfare system, reviewed the assigned scenario and said on its face she found nothing problematic.

“Frankly, if students don’t learn about how to respond to these cases in university, I would be concerned about their capacity to do so when they graduate from a school of law,” Ms. Blackstock said.

“The reality is that First Nations kids are overrepresented among children in child welfare and that the leading drivers of it are poverty, poor housing and substance misuse linked to multigenerational trauma arising from colonialism writ large and residential schools in particular,” said Ms. Blackstock, who is also a professor of social work at McGill University.

More than half the children in foster care in Canada are Indigenous, even though they make up only a little more than 7.5 per cent of the youth population. …

Imagine a medical school apologizing for upsetting its students by teaching about pediatric cancer or Lou Gherig’s Disease. Imagine an engineering school apologizing for upsetting its students by teaching about fatal bridge collapses. That’s basically what’s happening here.

Being a lawyer is a noble pursuit, but it’s not for everyone. You are regularly forced to confront fact situations that may be disturbing and challenge your preconceived notions. A law school education should help you mentally and intellectually prepare for this.

The University of Toronto has chosen to coddle its students instead. And I suspect other law schools will follow.

Update: a U of T law student responded on Twitter.

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