On Friday September 4, 2020, I opened my web browser to find two updates from the Cornwall Police Service. The first, as posted in the Cornwall Standard Freeholder, was an update on the force’s “Equity, Diversity , and Inclusivity (EDI) Action Plan”. Pictured in the story’s cover picture were CPS Chief Danny Aikman, Deputy Chief Shawna Spowart, and Staff Sgt. Tracey Pilon – three very senior and experienced members of the force and three white faces. The article went on to list the number of hours spent on the initiative as well as its laudable intentions.
I then moved on to my social media, where I saw a tweet and picture from the Cornwall Police Service, congratulating three new (white) officers being sworn into duty. While I felt happy for the initiatives of our local police service and felt excited for the newest recruits, excited for their accomplishments, a nagging feeling stuck with me: another wave of white faces.
With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and EDI initiatives, my non-whiteness has never been more apparent to me in Cornwall. When I started practicing law in Cornwall, it was abundantly obvious that I did not fit the mold. The institutions I work with – The Cornwall Police Service, the Ontario Provincial Police, the Children’s Aid Society, the Crown’s Offices – all predominantly white institutions.
On a personal level, there have been a lot of mispronunciations of my name, both first and last, and questions about my ability to speak English. Often, I am asked – “Where are you from?” When I answer with “Born in Toronto and raised in Guelph” the follow up question is usually “No – where are you really from?” As if my heritage and the colour of my skin has to be clarified before the next topic can be discussed, rather than my academic, personal, or professional accomplishments. I have been called exotic, ethnic, an immigrant, and a foreigner.
On a professional level, I am a lawyer who works with the community’s most vulnerable – I see poverty, racism, gender disparities, and addiction. I work with the accused, presumed innocent. I work with victims, advocating for privacy and integrity. In the institutions I work with, I see immense power and privilege and how it affects my clients. Often, the people standing between the community member and the institutions are the lawyers at my office – attempting to tip the enormous power imbalance back to a place of true equality and fairness. We push back against racial profiling and we argue for just sanctions to account for the intergenerational trauma caused by colonization and experienced by our Indigenous population.
Last Friday when I opened my browser and was met with the wave of white faces from the Cornwall Police Service’s “Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity” initiative and from the swearing in, I thought – good effort but we have so far to go. The power structures we are trying so hard to eradicate are being replicated, even within the well-intentioned initiatives of the Cornwall Police Service.
Chugh Law Professional Corporation