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Inside the political battle to ‘depoliticize’ the Law Society of Ontario


The fight for control of the Law Society of Ontario fits neatly into the culture war discourse of our times.

It’s woke versus anti-woke. It’s about cancel culture. It’s about fixing bloated institutions versus good governance. Jordan Peterson is, of course, tangentially involved.

The law society’s April elections have burst into mainstream view because they have, once again, revolved around a “statement of principles” about diversity and inclusion.

The statement was introduced in 2018 and would have required lawyers to promote equality, diversity, and inclusion both in their professional and personal lives, but a strong showing by a group of candidates calling themselves the StopSOP coalition“Stop the Statement of Principles” in the 2019 law society election meant the statement was repealed before it could be implemented. This year’s election is a rerun of that 2019 campaign, with the new FullStop slate fearing that anything less than a strong showing by their side will allow the statement to be re-imposed.

The battle for the soul of the law society mirrors the ongoing strife at a variety of institutions that were once proudly non-political. The College of Psychologists of Ontario has engaged in a highly-publicized war with Peterson, one of its members. Culture wars have simmered, and occasionally boiled over, at prestigious media outlets like The New York Times for years. Some tech firms have even banned political discussions at work to stop these clashes from erupting.

The fight over the law society’s statement of principles may be a microcosm of the fractious political clashes happening across our society, but it’s also a battle that raises a fundamental question: is there anywhere left in society that remains free of the culture war?

In response to the surprise StopSOP victory in 2019, an opposition coalition was formed to make sure that kind of surprise doesn’t happen again.

The Good Governance coalition argues that it will bring competence and experience to the law society, while valuing “diversity over division.” The coalition is temperamentally opposed to the idea of running slates of candidates but, with the FullStop pushing enough candidates to possibly get a majority, the stakes were raised high enough to make it happen.

“The Law Society’s responsibilities are too great to risk that happening again,” the coalition argues.

The two groups are vying for 40 spots reserved for lawyers on the law society’s board of governors, which are known as “benchers.” There are also spots on the board for eight members of the public and five paralegals.

The board meets about once a month to iron out matters of policy and form panels that, among other things, make disciplinary decisions about Ontario’s lawyers.

The Good Governance argues that the stakes are literally existential. A victory by the FullStop coalition could put the regulator itself at risk, the group argues.

“Nothing less than our continued ability to self-regulate is at stake,” the group argues in its vision statement. “It has already been lost in Britain and Australia. We cannot let the same happen here.”

Perhaps forgotten in the law society’s fractious election are the lawyers who would prefer not to sign a statement of principles but don’t want to wage an “anti-woke” campaign against it. Or, put another way, the lawyers who just want to be lawyers.

One of the great accomplishments of modern liberal democracy is that we can live in peace while holding different ideas about how to structure our society, said Brian Dijkema, the vice president of external affairs at the Cardus think tank. A big part of that accomplishment is the creation of spaces in our lives that remain free of politics.

“One of the gifts of democracy is that you should not actually have to have a political opinion all the time,” said Dijkema. “The space to not have an opinion is actually something that I’m most worried about in our political culture.”

The question of what amounts to a political opinion, though, is in the eye of the beholder. Both campaigns in the law society election argue that the other side is politicizing the law society.

The FullStop candidates argue that the imposition of the statement of principles was a radical departure from the role of the law society and that it demanded action.

“We are in a political battle to de-politicize the law society,” said Bruce Pardy, the executive director of Rights Probe and professor of law at Queen’s University. “That may sound like a contradiction, but it really isn’t. It was only because the law society became politicized and insisted that lawyers express their concurrence with a specific ideological view that the StopSOP and FullStop campaigns arose.”

The activism within the law society is a distraction from its role, argued Ryan Alford, a professor at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

Some FullStop candidates admit that the public relations undertaking is a difficult one because their position could look less like it’s about the role of the regulator and more about opposition to popular ideas like diversity and inclusion.

“They pitch themselves as adhering to these superficially unobjectionable ideas. Who is against diversity, equity, and inclusion? No one is against it,” said Stéphane Sérafin, a FullStop candidate. “So the tough sell part is that you have to explain to people that it’s not the ideas themselves that are the problem.”

The simplest objection to the statement of principles is simply that it’s not the law society’s job to tell lawyers what to think, argued Ryan Alford, a professor at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

“If the law society said, on pain of losing my license, that I had to affirm that I love my mother, I’m not going to do it, because what I’m doing is acknowledging that they have the power to do that,” said Alford.

The FullStop candidates have a sense that the secret ballots of the law society will benefit them because they’ve heard privately from people who support them but aren’t inclined to say so publicly.

“Our message has been enthusiastically received by lots of people—but again, many of them wish to say so only privately. That reflects the scary place we have reached in this country, where people are afraid to say what they think, even what it is shared by many others,” said Pardy.

Sérafin describes himself as someone who would traditionally define identify as a leftist, but his discomfort with “identity politics” has alienated him in recent years. As a law professor, he endured professional upheaval after first-year students complained to the university because he wouldn’t declare certain decisions racist and colonialist.

Sérafin describes this increasing tendency in universities and the strife in professional regulators and white-collar employers as a pathology of the “professional-managerial class.” The term was coined by leftist writers in the 20th century to describe the white-collar workers who found themselves somewhere between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

In recent years, though, the phrase has been co-opted by conservatives and disaffected liberals like Sérafin to describe the burgeoning class of knowledge workers who are infusing social justice into their work lives.

Dijkema agrees that it is primarily a white-collar phenomenon.

“I would say it’s a university-educated issue. And I want to make clear here, there are real issues of injustice, right? On anything from Indigenous Affairs to racial issues, you just have to look at Canadian history and the injustice is real,” said Dijkema.

A common thread running through the institutions that have been paralyzed by these fights is a workplace that revolves around WhatsApp groups and Slack channels.

“I think this mode of talking about (injustice) is very much a laptop class thing,” said Dijkema.

Sanitation, CCTV, and getting back to work: How cities can revitalize their downtown cores


Canadian are becoming increasingly concerned about their struggling cities, from rising homelessness, to increased drug use, to declining public safety in cities like Toronto and Vancouver

Ottawa and Calgary are experiencing the partial desertion of their once-packed downtown office spaces, while Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Vancouver are struggling with high rates of addiction, homelessness, or random violence.

Some cities are tackling public safety by adding police officers and mental health nurses to the downtown area, but they are also focusing on how to make Canadian cities appealing again, both to residents and tourists.

“The downtown core is the driver of the entire city and without businesses thriving, who’s going to pay the taxes, who’s going to support the services?” asks Lorraine Lowe. “We definitely need to pay more attention and focus on the economic vitality of the city.” 

Lowe is the executive director of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver. B.C.’s largest city has suffered from high rates of homelessness and addiction for years, especially around the Downtown Eastside (DTES). 

The intersection of Main and East Hastings is the epicenter of both problems, which have spread to and negatively affected nearby neighbourhoods like Chinatown, which is a block away. It has resulted in many business closures and declining enrollment in Chinese-language schools due to safety concerns. 

“There’s the issue of businesses losing customers because people don’t want to come down,” says Lowe, who says Chinese-language school enrolments are being affected as well. “The parents of these children don’t want them coming down to Chinatown because (of) the perception of it being unsafe for them.” 

To help address these issues, Vancouver’s newly-elected city council passed a resolution titled “Uplifting Chinatown Action Plan” last January, recommending expanded cleaning and sanitation, targeted graffiti removal, enhanced community support, and increased collaboration between the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), local business associations, and community police. The cost was estimated to be $2.2 million.

“That’s the first step with the city, having the aesthetics and graffiti removal, sanitation, but I think we all need to get off the moral high ground and start using common sense and talking about getting CCTV cameras,” says Lowe. “And also looking at where that money is being spent because I don’t think pouring more money into what is existing is going to help.” 

The council has also passed a resolution to transform Granville Street, the city’s busiest entertainment district, which has high rates of open drug use and visible homelessness during the day. The resolution emphasizes public safety, economic stimulus, and cultural revitalization. 

Lowe says all levels of government have a responsibility to try and restore the health of downtown cores, and she has hope for Vancouver. Years ago, both Granville Street and Chinatown were bustling commercial and cultural hubs.

“I think we are on the right track, it’s just gonna take a long time for us to get back to where we were before,” says Lowe.

In Ottawa, the national capital’s downtown is facing its own different problems. Prior to the pandemic, businesses in Ottawa’s core heavily relied on the patronage of federal employees working in the many offices owned or leased by the Government of Canada. 

Many shops and restaurants have taken a hit with government employees opting to work from home or a hybrid of both. 

“Businesses have not been recuperating. They took a very hard financial hit in downtown Ottawa, and then also because our downtown was virtually empty, major social issues arose like homelessness and mental health and addictions,” says Michelle Groulx. 

Groulx is the executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas (OCOBIA). She says directives for government employees to return to the offices on a part-time basis have not meaningfully helped businesses. 

As of July 2022, Ottawa saw a 25 percent rise in crime, including the categories of assault sexual assault and robberies, as well as a spike in vehicular theft. Groulx says that converting the federal government’s offices into residential or commercial spaces would greatly benefit downtown Ottawa. 

“We’re in a housing crisis, and we know that where you have people around 24/7, social issues start to lessen because people are there to take care of each other,” says Groulx. “They have eyes on the street all the time…small businesses and businesses that serve people, consumer-based businesses will do considerably better than having a market that’s there half the time and only during nine to five on random business weekdays.” 

Groulx adds that unless all government employees return to work or the federal government sells its offices to be taken over by the private sector or converted into housing, downtown Ottawa will not change for the better.

“The federal government is the number one occupier of our downtown so we cannot reinvent our downtown Ottawa without the feds getting involved,” says Groulx. “They have more tenancy and more ownership of buildings than any other single occupant in downtown Ottawa. So they’re critical in order to either convert their buildings to housing or have buildings changed over to the private sector, but they have to take action.”

Going back west, Calgary faces an underpopulated core with a high commercial vacancy rate of almost 30 percent, mostly caused by a downturn in the energy market that rendered towering office buildings half or completely empty. Calgary’s municipal governments have pursued a downtown revitalization strategy, spending $360 million to date on converting empty corporate buildings into residential properties. 

Emily Campbell is a communications advisor for the Home Spaces Society, a non-profit affordable housing developer with a portfolio of over 33 properties in Calgary that serves almost 1,000 vulnerable residents. Last September, Calgary was estimated to have a homeless population of 2,782

“Building affordable housing certainly helps homelessness, that’s our key demographic. We’re really trying to find homes for a ‘Housing First’ perspective,” says Campbell. “You’re not required to be completely sober. You’re not required to attend treatment or have perfect mental health or even have a job before you are offered an affordable housing unit.” 

Campbell says that without a regular place to stay in the first place and in order to ensure things like personal safety and hygiene, it is difficult for homeless people to improve their lives. 

“We’ve been having issues with downtown vacancy in Calgary for a while. A lot of our economy was tied to the boom and bust cycle of gas and we’ve been struggling since I would say around 2014,” says Campbell, who adds COVID made things worse. “With fewer people coming to offices downtown, it means that the city isn’t collecting as much tax from the companies that they used to which left a bit of a deficit in our city budget.”

In 2022, Calgary’s transit system had a budget shortfall of $64 million. Like Groulx, Campbell says having a denser core brings vibrancy and community safety. 

“If people are doing their grocery shopping, going out to restaurants, living their lives, it creates vibrancy in communities,” says Campbell. “The more people are on the streets, the safer the streets are, the more people who are out shopping, there’s more reason to open shops downtown.”

Campbell says it is difficult to create vibrancy if shops and businesses are relying on customers to commute in from outside the core.