Kelsey Sibanda sat down with Justice St. Pierre, Justice of the Provincial Court of British Columbia (Port Coquitlam), UCalgary JD, 1994, to discuss navigating law school as a Black student, ways to help prospective students interested in pursuing law school, and being a steward in the community.
Q. Please introduce yourself by telling us about your law school and career journey, as well as any fun facts that you would like to share with us?
I was born in Vancouver. I know a little bit about my biological parents as I was adopted at birth. My biological dad was from Trinidad, and my biological mom was a white Russian Menonite. I was born in the 60s, and that union was not going to work in some communities. I was adopted into a mixed race family. There were 5 kids (me, my Black brother, my Indigenous sister, red haired freckled white brother, + foster kids). It was like a total united nations family. At any given time, we had up to 10 children in the house. So it was a busy family. My brother and I were the oldest. We stayed in B.C, and then we moved to Sherwood park. Did high school there. It was a school of 2000 kids, and there were maybe 4 or 5 Black kids. When you grow up Black in Western Canada, it's a different experience because you are in the extreme minority to the point of you being a token. Eventually I went to high school there and music was a huge part of my life, my mom is a musician. I played in a band and put myself through school.
I went to the University of Alberta, and my undergrad was in psychology and philosophy which I loved. I think the best years of your life are those undergrad years, I still have fond memories of that, especially hanging out in HUB mall and eating at Ho Ho’s Chinese food. I loved it. As part of a radical group of socialists that wanted to change the world, it was fun. I finished that, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do after that. I thought I’d be a professional musician, so I tried that for a little while and worked at a music store to pay the bills for like 3-4 years, and it was fun. It was a great part of my youth. My friends were passing me by doing careers in professions and actually making money. It got to a point where I was like, “I can touch this out, or get a back up plan going.”
A good friend of mine who was a lead singer in a band that I was playing in went on to law school, in fact, he is a professor of law at the University of Alberta. His name is Tim Coffield. We were bandmates for a longtime and he went on to law school at Dalhousie. When he went to law school, I was like if he can go to law school, I can go to law school. Tim is a very bright guy. So I went. I went to the University of Calgary for law school. I loved it because it was a small school, and I met another Black student named Ed Washington. Was a mature student who had a masters in film from Stanford and had been a Black Panther in the Berkley Scene in the 1960s. He sparked my love for that kind of advocacy work. I didn’t stay in Alberta as it's too cold. I immediately went to Vancouver back to where I was born. I got a job in criminal law. I wanted to do criminal law because I was arrested when I was 18 for wearing a studded wristband. The police officer thought it was a prohibited weapon, but of course it was not. I had to go through the whole process of getting a lawyer and getting the charges removed, and then realizing how much discretion the police have to interrupt your life if they want. I wanted to be the agent between the state and an accused person to make sure justice is done. That is part of the reason I went to law school
Q. You played a role in the beginning years of the BLSA Canada’s beginning years. We would like to hear more of what that was like for you as a young law student, and why did you think that it was important for the BLSA to exist?
Those were interesting times. I started law school in 1991, and I think that was the first year of the BLSA Canada as a national group. I believe it started in Toronto, and it was a challenge for them to reach out across the country to find other Black law students. You phone up a school, and the school’s inevitable response was “we can’t identify who our Black students are.” We were like, just look at them and tell us who they are so that we can get in touch with them. The first conference was actually in Toronto. The main founder was Margaret Parsons, but there were others in the early years. I got involved early on the executive side, and I became the Vice President for the Western region, and my job was to try to get all the Black students in the western region signed up for [BLSA Canada]. We had conferences in Windsor, Ottawa, Halifax in the following years. It was great to get everyone together, and it was well funded at the time as the secretary of state of Canada provided significant monies for funding. As far as importance, it was incredibly important. The first conference I went to was amazing as I was in a group of 100+ Black students, and it was unbelievably empowering and it was so great to be the majority in that meeting. It continued with CABL (Canadian Association of Black Lawyers), and this is a huge plug for the National Bar Association in the US. Many of us go to conferences in the US, and you can’t imagine those things with thousands of Black lawyers and judges, so I recommend everyone who gets a chance to go to a national bar association in the US because it will open your mind to what the possibilities are for Black lawyers.
Q. Do you have any advice that you would like to share for racialized minority groups, especially Black students, or recent law grads that are trying to navigate the legal profession?
It’s not easy. Getting into law school isn’t easy. People should take some comfort from getting into law school. To the students who are trying to get in, it is within your reach. It is in the reach of any intelligent, hardworking individual. I used to think law school was only within the reach of rich white kids who lived up the hill, and I really believed that because of all of the things I would see and hear in the media. You never see yourself represented, especially in Western Canada. When I was going through the wrongful arrest, I saw one Black judge on the stand, and that was amazing. You have to know that you can do it which is a hard thing to know because you don’t really see it. My advice is that you need to do well in any undergraduate program that you are in. It doesn’t matter what that program is, you must do well. The LSAT is another hurdle. The LSAT is not the best test of who is going to be a good lawyer or not. The difficulty is not the questions, or content, it's the arbitrary time limit that they put. My advice is to practice under the time limits.
As Black people we are always struck by the idea of meritocracy, but it relies on the false assumption that everyone has an equal chance of gaining the merit to be involved in a meritocracy. That’s not true. SOcial scientists have proven that it's not true. It's harder for racialized grads to get jobs. People who do hiring hire people who are like them. As “another person” you are likely to have a more difficult time as this creates challenges. That's the reality of it. You can whine about it,or use your skills and persuade folks that have power of the decision that your presence will be a benefit. Anyone can make a strong argument that there is a robust business case to be made for diversity in any professional setting. Also find a mentor, you will find those in CABL, in the judiciary, me (I always have my phone number and door open for anyone who wants to talk to me).
Q. If you were currently a Black law student, what kind of legacy would you like to leave behind in a way that would function as a law student or prospective students to better navigate the law school journey?
That’s a great question. It would be very helpful for people who are currently in law school to go to the Dean and say look, I know there will be kids behind me that will need a hand. I would like to leave my contact information with the school, and I would appreciate it if it could be passed down to any new students. When you become a lawyer and enter into the profession, you have to get involved with helping others to reach their goals and help them on their road to success. Some of us get to the “promised land” and get into a big law firm, but they disappear. They have never put their hand up to be a role model or a mentor. They should try. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Too many of us get to that point and don’t turn back to help others. If you have the power to inspire someone behind you, that is a super power. One of my favourite shows is Luke Cage, he is grouchy and reluctant at times, but he always gives in because that is his role in the community and he understands that. So I think you have to get involved in helping those behind you get forward. If you are a Black law student, organize an event where you go to high schools and get all of the Black law students together and tell them what your road was, and give them anecdotal information about your journey to help them make informed decisions. Just seeing a face and seeing that you’re there is enough to inspire some kids to do it.
Q. What were the biggest challenges that you faced as a Black law student, a Black lawyer, and eventually a judge? Also, what do you think helped you to overcome those challenges?
As a Black law student, when I went to the University of Calgary, one of the first challenges I faced was finding a place to live. I applied for a basement suite in this lady’s house around the university, and I showed up to an ad. I get to the door, and all of a sudden, the place isn't available anymore as it had been rented. She apologized, but I knew right away what was going on. I had a Caucasian friend of mine phone her up and go down there to see if it was still available to rent, and she said that it was still available to rent. I knew this discrimination existed, but you don’t think it's so palpable and in your face until you experience it for yourself. Despite that, in my view, the presence of race is not crushing or all consuming unless you want to make it that way. The bulk of my experience in University was positive. I think that my positive experience in University is largely due to the fact that I am a naturally confident person. It’s important to note that confidence is not something you are gifted from God, it's something that you have to work at. When you are in that situation, it is an unfortunate artifact of the historic marginalization of Black people. One of the artifacts became clear when people are going off to get jobs after finishing school. You do not have the luxury of being mediocre. There were so many students that I graduated with that were mediocre students, but they had some relative(s) that could provide connections for them to secure an articling position and get a job, despite marks that were not as good as yours. You do not have that luxury as a marginalized person to be mediocre. Sometimes you have to go somewhere for a few years that you do not want to go. I know that my mentor had to go up north to northern B.C to get a job. There are jobs, but they may be in places where urban folk do not want to go. There are so many challenges when you talk about race. When you take a human rights case, and they are talking about some racialized case involving race, I don’t know about you, but as soon as you start talking about those things, everyone looks at you and wonders, “what will David say about this, would this offend him?” It’s an interesting navigation.
Q. I would like to give you the final word to say anything to our students that you want them to know and take to heart.
There is a great book by a B.C. author about Black pioneers in B.C. called Go Do Some Great Thing by Crawford Kilian. That’s my message to our people, “Go do some great thing.
I would say a few things. First, confidence is so incredibly valuable in every aspect of your future life. I run into some students who have a bit of a defeatist attitude coming out and they have a bit of a struggle getting a job and I see them get defeated and it hurts me. As soon as you allow that to affect your temperament, you have already lost the game. It is hard to stay up all the time. Do not accept that you have any limitations because the world will suggest that you do. In reality, yes you will have limitations if you are being pragmatic, of course there are limitations out there. But, if you let that infiltrate your psyche, if you let that define how you will proceed, you have lost the game. You will have disappointments. You will have challenges that may impact your ability to move forward, and your temperament. I’ve always believed that you choose your temperament. I believed that from the time I took philosophy in undergrad. If you choose positivity, and you start to believe that, it becomes self empowerment. It’s the engine that keeps you going when times get tough. I would suggest that students be visible in their communities. Do not achieve and then retreat. That’s a killer in our community. This idea of assimilating, going to the country club, and then disappearing from the community when you have the power to do good, you have failed yourself and your community. I have seen some students blowing their brains out by focusing on that one thing which was keeping their heads in the books and studying. I understand the reasoning for that as a portion of your success may come from exam performance, but you need a balance. It will make you a better student and a better person. My therapy is music. It has always been music. There is a great book by a B.C. author about Black pioneers in B.C. called Go Do Some Great Thing by Crawford Kilian. That’s my message to our people, “Go do some great thing.” There is a world out there that could use your talents, your expertise, and your help. I think you have an obligation to use that power.