Of elephants and tidal waves and the future of the bar society

The now-available video of the bar society’s incoming president’s remarks to the annual general meeting puts a new — and more hopeful — spin on what she actually said than the one I suggested in last week’s column.

In last week’s column about the annual meeting of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society — “NS Bar Society: Another Day, Another Racism Investigation” — I highlighted criticism of a talk by the society’s incoming president, Melanie Petrunia.

I quoted from an email by Linda Wood, a lawyer with Burchell MacDougall who is also a member of the bar society’s racial equity committee and chair of its subcommittee on “consultation policy and respectful conduct policy.”

In her email, which was shared with me by someone else, Wood claimed Petrunia 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)… 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 I was writing that column, I checked the barristers’ society’s website in search of the actual text of Petrunia’s speech.

It wasn’t there.

Since the column appeared, however, the society has uploaded the video of her “The Year Ahead” talk.

And it puts — to my mind at least — a different spin on her remarks.

As someone relatively new to the bar society’s governing council — joining as a member at large in 2019 — Petrunia began her 15-minute talk by introducing herself and her own background to bar society members.

She is, she explained, the “first ‘out’ queer woman” among the society’s seven female presidents, not to forget all those countless males who’ve otherwise led the organization since it was established in 1749.

At the beginning of her own career as a lawyer, she admitted, she would have been “shocked to hear a president acknowledge their sexual identity without fear.” Now, thanks to changes in the law, she was legally able to marry and adopt three children as a member of a same-sex couple.

While citing her own story as evidence society at large is “making progress when it comes to diversity,” she was quick to add, “We have a long way to go.”

She isn’t your typical president of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society in other ways either. She is not “descended from a long line of lawyers,” she said, and she had no roots in Nova Scotia before she planted them herself after she arrived from British Columbia to begin law school 20 years ago.

The child of a refugee mother and only the second person from either side of her family to graduate university, she applied to law school primarily because of her experiences as a gay and environmental activist in unversity. When she discovered others with similar interests at the law school, she says she knew “I found my people.”

Oh, and one more fact about Petrunia you probably won’t find in the public biographies of many of her predecessors: since her first major depressive episode at 21, she has lived everyday with anxiety and depression.

So, what did Melanie Petrunia really have to say about “the elephant in the room” and “the tidal wave” that could take down the barristers’ society?

In her talk about her vision for the society over the next year, Petrunia referenced a “two-minute questionnaire” members of the bar society’s governing council are expected to fill out after every meeting. One of the questions: “Were there any elephants in the room?”

The Oxford dictionary defines “elephant in the room” as “a major problem or controversial issue that is obviously present but avoided as a subject for discussion because it is more comfortable to do so.”

In Petrunia’s account, the real elephant in the room seems to have been the recent “turmoil” at the bar society and its reluctance to deal with underlying issues like systemic discrimination head on. She said members she spoke to asked whether the society itself was perpetuating systemic and direct discrimination and whether the council’s apparent focus on the admittedly “important” issue of systemic discrimination. was “distracting from the ‘real work’ of the society.”

Petrunia offered her own answers “from my perspective.”

“Yes, we’ve really perpetuated systemic discrimination.”

“I emphatically say ‘No,’” the bar council has not been too focused on the issue.

“We must face racism and discrimination now because we have neglected and denied it for more than decades,” she explained.

Using “the analogy of an approaching tidal wave,” she made a different argument than the one suggested in Wood’s email. “Changes are coming finally to the society. We must move and change and stay afloat in these new waters. For those who would rather plant their feet firmly in the sand and stop talking about equity and diversity, I think you can see the analogy through — we drown.”

While confronting those issues “is not to the determinant of all else,” she added, “addressing racism and discrimination is the important work of the society and it is integral to our strategic goals and to our statutory obligations.

One of the key “opportunities” for the society in the coming year, she added, will be “implementing the recommendations” from Doug Ruck’s review of systemic discrimination.

As if to underscore that, one of the first decisions of the new council under Petrunia was to announce the appointment of an external investigator to look into allegations by Josie McKinney, who resigned from the bar society council in November 2021, because of what she described as “the direct and systemic racism and discrimination that I have experienced during my time on councilIt has become so relentless that I cannot bear it any longer.”

I confess I’d initially seen the appointment as just one more example of the turmoil at the society.

But perhaps it — and Melanie Petrunia’s selection as president — are really positive responses to that turmoil.

Emma Halpern thinks so.

In response to my column last week, Halpern — the current executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society and a former equity officer at the barristers’ society who attended Dalhousie law school at the same time as Petrunia — wrote to counter what she described as “the incorrect message” my column conveyed.

Petrunia’s speech, she said, “was a moving call to action in relation to equity, diversity and access to justice, and truly a bright-light moment in what has been a very dark and problematic time at the society…  I would like to give Ms. Petrunia the opportunity to steer the society and its committees towards initiatives that will build a more just and equitable system for all.”

It won’t be easy, as even Melanie Petrunia herself acknowledges. “The work of equity involves dismantling the systems of inequality and oppression,” she told the society’s annual meeting. Doing so, she added, “causes turmoil if you’re doing it right.”

Let’s hope this really is the start.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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