In conversation with Justice Donald McLeod

Justice Donald McLeod Photo copyright Black Ottawa Scene

 

Saturday 26 January, 2019 City Hall

 Ontario Court Justice Donald McLeod is no stranger to readers of Black Ottawa Scene. In 2018, he was brought before the Ontario Judicial Council on charges that his “conduct could negatively impact the confidence of members of the public in the independence of the judiciary from politics,” according to allegations of judicial misconduct set out in a notice of hearing from the Ontario Judicial Council, the independent body tasked with investigating and disciplining provincial court judges. He was subsequently exonerated from all charges by the Judicial Council.  Black Ottawa Scene caught up with Justice McLeod just before the launch of the 2019 Black History Month celebrations at City Hall, where he was one of the special guests. Justice McLeod was gracious enough to grant us an interview.

Welcome to Ottawa

Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

I take it this is not the first time you’ve been in Ottawa in the past two weeks.

No it’s not. In fact, I’ll be here three or four times in the next three weeks.

It’s an honour to have you here sir. Can you give us a sense of what your life has been like in the past year? You have undergone quite a few adventures. Could you summarize what it’s been like for our readers?

That’s a hard one. Life has been interesting to say it that way. There have been some ups and downs, some bumps  along the way but it is expected at times when you’re doing the work that we’re doing here. I think it’s been interesting but it’s also been empowering.  I’ve been able to see a community, so many different avenues, so many different ways, just seeing the way that we’ve been able to come together, rally around, has been tremendous. 

Let’s go back to the charge against you by the Justice Commission. How did it come about?  Who made the accusation and what was the accusation all about?

It was the Judicial Council that had decided that there was information there that required a little more public scrutiny. It was laid by a fellow colleague of mine and as a result of that being levied that there was a belief that I should not be interfacing with the government the way that I was one of the leads or the main the spokesperson for the Federation of Black Canadians. 

You were very much involved in the development of the Federation, something many in our community have seen as overdue. Did you feel you were targetted, what was it that they said was out of sync? What was it all about? Our readers were truly puzzled.

I think part of it was that I am the founder of the Federation. There was a lot of heightened scrutiny around the fact that I actually started this organisation,. I think there was a belief that a  judge should not be engaged or involved with politicians to the extent that we were. There was a sense that what was taking place here was perhaps outside of a judicial function. And so, at that point, there was judge that felt it should be looked into more deeply than it was prior.

Before  becoming involved with the Federation,you had, according to what we read in the news, contacted the Ethics Unit of the Judicial Council, and you had been given the go-ahead,, what is then that they said you did wrong? We’re just puzzled.

What had happened was that I did contact the Ethics Commission Committee and sent them the information so they knew exactly what it was I was undertaking, but again, when we look at the  sort of the obligation and duties of judges, it seems to be something that other judges had not  done before, at least not to the extend that I had . For whatever reason, it’s hard to comment on why people felt it necessary . I’m just glad it was resolved in the manner in which it was. But I do understand why there were those people who were puzzled, there were those people that were sort of interested in finding out why this type of engagement with me happened but you know it’s hard to comment on something that I don’t know what motivated them to do it, all I know is that it was done.

So you don’t know what motivated the complaint. Many of us on the outside were beginning to say that there has to be some racial overtones around this, because we just didn’t get it.  You had done the right thing, the right way, followed due process and all. If it was not racial, what was it? 

I think it’s, that’s the kind of thing I always think it’s better for others to decide. Where I am concerned, it was an investigative action taken with respect to what I had undertaken with the Federation. And in doing that there were other things that were at play. I think there was a misunderstanding in terms of what our community needed and and perhaps what we were able to do was to garner more clarity in terms of what judges can do, in light of the fact that this case became so popular. 

You’re saying that this was really a test case and set a precedent for the future?

Yes and I think it did do that. We were able to develop bright lines around activities for judges within  the judicial system and how that would play its way out, in the normal course of things.  I think before this, there was less clarity. As a result of this case, there’s more clarity.

So how did you survive during this period? Surely it must have been very stressful for you, your family and your friends . How did you cope?

I have a very strong family and I come from very strong stock. The ability to survive came a lot from my interacting with my family itself, seeing how to be able to stand there, standing beside me, and also the community. This community worked in such large measure to really help and rally around me. It was amazing and humbling all at the same time, it was something that I would not have expected but it was something that I was very happy to see. But in many respects, the community coming in the manner in which they did completely helped to get me to the point where I am now.

Let’s talk about the Federation.  Are you still involved with the organisation?

Yes, I am  back with the Federation now that the matter has been resolved. So I am considered the lead advisor to the Steering Committee as well as to the Executive team.

Now with the Federation moving on, we did notice that during the formative stages there was a number of people from our own community, specifically one person in the Toronto area, who was vociferously attacking you personally and the Federation. What was your take on that? 

I think you know that we are a community of communities and the reality is that not everybody is going to have the same  viewpoint, even though we have the same purpose in mind. I think there were questions, there were issues, there were concerns.  We tried our best to address them as best as we could. But I also think there were times that we could have done better.  I think those are the growing pains of a national organisation in its infancy. We tried our best to address as much as we could, in the best way that we could and I think we were able to actually do that. But it did take us some time to get our footing. With respect to criticism from persons outside, in the  GTA or elsewhere, the reality is that those concerns were there and I am glad that we were able to address them. Maybe they have not all  been addressed but I think as an organisation we are doing our best to make sure that we are transparent.

How did you personally feel, you must have felt hurt. If I were  in your position, I would have felt that my own people, the people I was advocating for and fighting for, would be be the same people literally stabbing you in the back. Did you get that  feeling or were you impervious to that?

I think that what I saw, what I witnessed was a  very interesting dynamic with our community,  that dynamic was one where I didn’t feel stabbed in the back.  I felt that our community was asking questions and we have to do our best to answer. But if you’re gonna work in this environment you  have to get used to the fact that people are not going to agree with us all of the time.  Because we’re so diverse in our communities, we have to expect that. Sometimes people thought that maybe we are here to the exclusion of everyone else. The suggestion was that even though we are here, it doesn’t mean that  other persons cannot stand beside us and we stand beside them. I think that message is going out more now. As a result, we’re getting less backlash and we’re getting more community buying in from those who had criticized us in the past.

What is the status of the Federation now? Have you been incorporated and what are the plans for the next few months and years moving forward?

The Federation had in fact been incorporated as a not for profit back in 2017. Where we are now we”ll be having the summit here in Ottawa on 2nd and 3rd  February, the National Black summit followed by Black Voices on the Hill on 4th  February. You see there is going to be a strong push towards the Federation in the initiatives that are taking place, there will be a lot of interaction and interfacing with the government,  between those that who able to and those from the community.  The hope is that by the next 90 days, next six months, we actually have the representatives of  the Federation of Black Canadians in place able to respond to what is taking place in Canada.  It’s gonna be a big push in the next little while but our expectation is that we’re going to do it. 

Is the plan to set up city-based or province-based branches ? How do you see the structure moving forward?

It will be a regionally-based, provincially-based hubs.  All across Canada, there will be hubs that are set up, that have mandates specific to the provinces, specific to the municipalities , but also specific to the national federal lens as well.  Each province will have a group of individuals chosen by that province to determine who sits on the Federation of Black Canadians.

So people would be required to take out membership by paying a fee. How would that work?

There will be a discussion with the communities around if there should be a membership fee or not.  But again because it’s nationally-based, the expectation is that we don’t just foist on to the community the things that we think are reasonable or things we think are appropriate.  Some things we have to make sure that the community decides.  We want to make sure that we set  up an infrastructure but also allow the representative Federation boards to be able to make some decisions themselves.

 Now that you have a Board of Directors, do you have President? Who is the lead right now?

The way the Federation works thus far  is that we have an interim Federation of Black Canadians. The mandate of this  Federation is to gain the representative Federation of Black Canadian Board. Right now, we have a Steering Committee that is actually doing the work behind the scenes, while we are getting the capacity for the Federation, and in the next few months we will actually have the branded Federation of Black Canadians with its first representative Board across Canada. 

Would you be looking to getting charitable status at some point? 

Yes, that’s a must.  Right now we’re a not for profit but the hope is that eventually we’ll have charitable status.

In conclusion, what lessen would you say you’ve learned from this experience  from your involvement with the Federation, and the judicial process? 

I have learned so may lessons.  One of the main lessons is that as Black Canadians, we want to come together,  we want to make sure that we are strong with one fervent, resolved voice. But I have also learned that we do not want to be a voice that is simply monolithic. We want to make sure that our voices are heard, that all our voices are taken into consideration, that there is no one voice, there are other voices.  There is a  suggestion that we are all in this together, to push to walk forwards together. 

Looking back is there anything you would have done different? If you had to it all over again would you do it the same way or different?

I am fairly certain that I would have done it different. You learn  always, hindsight is always 20/20 but going back, I could figure out where the gaps were and I can fill those gaps.  I would want to have done it differently,  but I don’t know if it’s exactly the same. If I had the hindsight that I  I have now, I think I would have filled more gaps, done some things a little differently to make sure that the community knew what our intentions really were. 

Finally would you have any message for our readers who are really fascinated by your experience and the publicity surrounding your activities?

What I would tell your readers is one, even if our community activism can even be seen in the things that we read and so the idea that there is a paper like this in this landscape, says a lot not only about you but also about the persons that read the magazine.  Second, we are hoping that as a result of this community, this activism that is taking place not just with others, we’ll be able to to galvanize ourselves even better. When we come ourselves together on the same page, our strength is immeasurable. We are strong than most on our hardest days, so my hope would be that if we’ve learned any lesson, it is that community organizing done correctly, done with resolve always leads to positive results.

Thank you so much sir.

 

 

 

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