NS Bar Society: another day, another racism investigation

The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society’s new president, already under fire from within over her speech at the society’s AGM, has hired a Toronto law firm to investigate more allegations from within of “direct and systemic discrimination and harassment.”

Three people sit at a table
Photo from the webpage of the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society illustrating diversity.

We can only hope that former provincial ombudsman Doug Ruck’s internal review into allegations of systemic discrimination at the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society is completed before the last person left in the office turns out the light and closes the door.

The latest turmoil — it’s hard to keep up — comes amid reports of still more departures and a decision to downsize the society’s downtown Halifax offices, presumably, in part, to account for all the empty desks.

At its virtual annual general meeting last month, the society went through what used to be a ritual changing of its executive guard.

Melanie Petrunia, a tax litigator with Nijhawan McMillan Petrunia who had served her time as the society’s first vice president, assumed the presidency.

As has also been traditional, the new president took the opportunity to talk about “The Year Ahead.”

That, it seems, is where things went off the rails. Again.

After Petrunia’s speech, Linda Wood — a lawyer with Burchell MacDougal and a member of the council’s racial equity committee, as well as chair of its subcommittee on “consultation policy and respectful conduct policy,” fired off a frustrated email to fellow members of the committee.

Petrunia, she wrote, had described the society’s policy on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) as the “elephant in the room… and compared EDI to a ‘tidal wave’ (implying said tidal wave can destroy NSBS)…

NSBS presently faces severe challenges; that is a fact. The best case scenario I could have heard at the AGM from our new president was clear identification of those challenges and the steps being taken to deal with them. I wasn’t expecting the best case scenario; I expected to hear platitudes, vague generalizations and promises along the lines of: ‘we are facing significant challenges and we are taking steps to deal with them’. However, I was floored when instead the new NSBS president named EDI as the “elephant in the room” and the ‘tidal wave’ that could take down NSBS.

While acknowledging that Petrunia’s choice of words was “probably not purposeful,” Wood said that describing the situation that way “misdirects… attention away from the source of the problem and instead blam[es] those trying to identify the problem and work on fixing it.”

Wood offered her own sampler of what she described as some of the “real elephants” hanging around in the NSBS room:

  • Both council and staff have become such toxic dysfunctional environments that it has become extremely difficult (impossible?) to recruit and retain the necessary skilled people. For example: can’t fill all Council seats, can’t recruit a capable ED, and can’t retain a good Director of Professional Responsibility.
  • NSBS has gone 15 months without an Executive Director, arguably it is council’s main job to hire and oversee the ED, and it hasn’t accomplished that.
  • Legal self-regulation is based on volunteer work by lawyers… However professional and personal overwhelm in current times has decreased lawyers’ volunteer capacity to the point where the current self-regulation model may no longer be viable.
  • The NSBS Director of Professional Responsibility hired in 2020 (“following an open competition and rigorous selection process,” according to NSBS press release), which is arguably the most important position in self-regulation, only lasted one year. Their replacement was hired without going through said “open and rigorous selection process…”

There are plenty of other rampaging elephants laying waste to that room too. If you want to know more about the backdrop to the current situation, here’s my last latest update on the situation from May 16.

In April 2021 — after finally, formally acknowledging systemic racism within its own organization — the society appointed Doug Ruck, the respected lawyer and former ombudsman, to review “our regulatory policies and processes to identify and address any areas of systemic discrimination that exist within the Society.” At the time, he was given 10 months to come up with findings and recommendations for “solutions and changes required to eliminate or mitigate systemic discrimination in the Society and encourage an organizational culture free of bias.”

That was 14 months ago.

His report is now expected within the next “months.”

In the months since his appointment, there have been more resignations, firings, controversies over decisions by disciplinary hearing panels, threats of lawsuits, the appointment of a head-hunting firm to find a replacement for now long-gone Executive Director Tilly Pillay (the first person of colour to hold that job), and at least one other “review.”

Paula Minnikin, a consultant and volunteer member of the society’s governance committee found — surprise — the society’s governance practices wanting.

Now, it seems, there will be yet one more investigation.

On June 29, Jacqueline Mullenger, the society’s (still) acting executive director, sent an email to members of the society’s governing council with the subject line: “Allegations of Direct and Systemic Discrimination and Harassment.”

Good Morning,

I am sending this email on behalf of Melanie Petrunia and [Vice President] Mark Scott:

This is further to Josie McKinney’s November 13, 2021, letter of resignation from Council and [the racial equity committee’s] follow up memo to Council on March 1, 2022.

Josie’s resignation and the REC memo state that Josie, and members of the REC had been subjected to direct and systemic discrimination during the time she was on Council.  The March 1, 2022, memo from the REC suggests that members of the REC have been subjected to harassment as well as discrimination.

Council has authorized the hiring of an investigator to review the allegations set out in Josie’s resignation, and now repeated in the March 1, 2022, memo from your Committee.

The Toronto firm the council has hired — Rubin Thomlinson — is the same one the University of King’s College hired last year to conduct an independent review of its handling of sexual assault allegations against Wayne Hankey, a former professor who had been facing criminal charges at the time of his death earlier this year.

So… Doug Ruck is wrapping up his investigation into general issues of systemic discrimination. And Rubin Thomlinson is beginning its investigation into specific allegations of “direct and systemic discrimination and harassment.”

The society can only hope one of those reports finds a road map out of its current mess.

If not, it may finally be time — past time — for society to stop being the self-regulating body for Nova Scotia’s legal profession.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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