Skip to main content

Former top lawyer Donna Walwyn says ‘a response to a systemic problem has to be systematic, intentional, prolonged.’ Her brother, Frank Walwyn, is a partner in a law firm that’s taking action

Open this photo in gallery:

As Black Lives Matter protests swept the world last year, siblings Donna and Frank Walwyn reflected on the anomaly of their own success, and on the leadership they believe is needed to bring about widespread change.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Frank and Donna Walwyn, brother and sister, move in a world in which few Black Canadians have gained entry. He is a partner in a Bay Street law firm – the only Black equity partner in its 160-year history – and she co-founded an international real estate company after leaving her position as a partner at another Bay Street law firm.

But the exceptions don’t change the world, they’ve come to believe, after reflecting on last year’s protests for racial equality.

“Part of the problem with trying to accept and understand systemic discrimination or anti-Black racism is that people get to hold up exceptionality – ‘But you can succeed, you can do it! Look at Frank Walwyn!’” Ms. Walwyn said in an interview.

“Frank has every single award that you can possibly get, every single recognition. He’s recognized internationally. But ask him how the makeup of his firm has changed since he joined. And whether it’s still the case that you have to be exceptional to succeed.”

In fact, there is just one other Black lawyer, a young associate, plus a Black articling student, among the roughly 110 lawyers at WeirFoulds LLP. On Bay Street in Toronto, that is far from unusual; a survey by The Globe and Mail last summer found the numbers of Black partners and other lawyers at major Bay Street firms to be similarly small, in the few firms willing to share information.

The question now for Bay Street is whether the success of Frank and Donna Walwyn can be replicated – whether there is a Walwyn formula by which talented Black individuals and others from racialized communities can be recognized, supported and developed on Bay Street.

Some of the elements of such a formula may be found in Mr. Walwyn’s own experience at WeirFoulds: Nurtured with mentors and given access to clients, he was placed in an environment conducive to learning from the time he joined as an articling student in 1993.

Open this photo in gallery:

Frank Walwyn is photographed in Toronto's financial district on July 15, 2020. He is a partner at Weirfoulds LLP, the only Black equity partner in the law firm's 160-year history.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

“It is so important to be given access to client meetings where you learn how clients interact in business transactions, interact with their professional advisers,” Mr. Walwyn said recently. “It’s unquantifiable how important that is. I was also given access to files that paid, that allowed you to learn about business, and get billable hours in, which in a Bay Street firm is critical to your value to the firm.”

But first, you have to get in the door.

Until recently, says managing partner Wayne Egan, the firm’s thinking on hiring went like this: “We’ve got good people involved and they’re going to be fair and do the right thing.”

Then came the year of George Floyd – a Minneapolis police officer killed the unarmed Black man by kneeing on his neck. The year that protests spread from that city across the United States and Canada, and beyond. The year of the Black North Initiative, led by Canadian business leaders, aimed at removing systemic barriers in the way of Black Canadians.

And the firm concluded that good people doing the right thing was not the answer. “It doesn’t get you there,” Mr. Egan said.

The Walwyns had sponsors

The Walwyns come from a family of path-breakers. There are eight siblings in Canada and the United States, all thriving. It is an archetypal immigrant success story – a family spirit of optimism and a focus on literacy and education, bearing fruit unto the new generations.

As in many such immigrant stories, the first generation made sacrifices for their children. But, in Ms. Walwyn’s view, those sacrifices were larger than they needed to be, because of the systemic discrimination they faced.

Their parents had owned and operated a private school in St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean. They had studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After arriving in Canada in 1974 with seven children (an eighth would be born in Toronto), they couldn’t get teaching jobs because they lacked “Canadian experience.”

So they worked three factory jobs between them, making sure one or the other was always home to supervise the children. They lived for a time crammed into an apartment above a store in a small plaza, in the working-class area around Islington and Finch avenues in the city’s west end.

What stands out in her memory, Ms. Walwyn says, is the disconnect between “how incredibly smart and accomplished my parents were” and what they were able to achieve in the workplace in Canada. “To this day, my dad is the smartest person I have ever known. A true scholar.” But both parents were unable to get past the institutional and systemic barriers in their way, she said.

Although Mr. Walwyn says he lives “in a bubble” – his personal success leaving him free of direct contact with racism in his daily life – both he and his sister have encountered instances of racism. When Mr. Walwyn was in high school, people would touch his hair, and he would get in fights. Something like that happened to Ms. Walwyn in a Bay Street boardroom: “I had a client ask me, ‘Hey, is your hair real, or is it sewn in?’”

But they have also encountered helpers, sponsors.

Mr. Walwyn, a high-school valedictorian, only went to university because his high-school principal recognized his potential and intervened in his life. He was working, happily, as a mechanic. The principal asked about his university plans. He had none. The deadline for applying to university was past. But the principal wasn’t deterred.

“To get in, strings had to be pulled, and calls had to be made, if I can put it that crassly,” Mr. Walwyn said.

For Ms. Walwyn, there were two sponsors. The first was a law professor, Eileen Gillese. (Today Ms. Gillese is a judge on the Ontario Court of Appeal.) At a time when Ms. Walwyn wasn’t sure she wanted to write the bar exams and become a lawyer, Ms. Gillese phoned her frequently to encourage her. The second sponsor was the late Stewart Saxe, a partner at the Bay Street firm of Baker McKenzie, who recruited her because she was a rare specialist in pension law.

Open this photo in gallery:

Donna Walwyn is photographed at her Oakville, Ont., home on July 16, 2020. After 20 years, she changed careers and left the law profession to become a real estate developer.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

The two siblings’ careers flourished. Mr. Walwyn handles complex business litigation that sometimes plays out in multiple countries at once. His clients are from a score of countries, including Canada, the U.S., Britain, Nigeria, Ukraine and Barbados.

He was recognized in the 2020 edition of Best Lawyers in Canada, chosen through peer review. In 2019, he received the Law Society of Ontario’s highest honour, the Law Society Medal. And his public service has been substantial. He has served on screening committees for judges at both the federal and provincial levels, and has been a president of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers. (His sister has, too.)

Ms. Walwyn is a founding member of the Black Opportunity Fund, which makes long-term investments to support Black-led organizations and businesses. She led the pension and employee benefits practice group at Baker McKenzie in Toronto. (She didn’t leave the firm, she says; she left the practice of law because it was not suited to her personality.)

She is now the chief executive officer of the Fairway Group, a real-estate development company incorporated in St. Kitts and Nevis.

Translating words to action

When interviewed at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Mr. Walwyn was concerned about the pace of progress. Often, over the years, he had received calls from young Black lawyers at other firms, struggling and seeking advice. Change was slow.

“There’s so much going on in the world right now about this George Floyd situation, the ‘I can’t breathe’ situation,’” Mr. Walwyn said in June. “Well, I can tell you, figuratively, on Bay Street, that happens every single day with associates in law firms. When I get calls from associates who are struggling, the figurative expression is ‘I can’t breathe.’ And they can’t breathe because they’re not getting access to the types of files, to the experiences that would allow them to succeed, to breathe, to survive.”

Ms. Walwyn added that “a response to a systemic problem has to be systematic, intentional, prolonged.”

And that is the stated goal at WeirFoulds. Last month, WeirFoulds published a statement on its website acknowledging that it is guilty of systemic discrimination, and setting out a structure for addressing it. This includes a new approach to hiring (such as mandatory training in unconscious bias for the people who do the hiring), accountability mechanisms (internal surveys of staff makeup and attitudes) and improved mentorship, outreach and transparency.

The firm has set up an equality, diversity and inclusion committee with wide participation (nearly 30 people from all departments), and seven subcommittees to translate words into action. The committee’s co-chairs include a member of its management committee, a sign that the core leadership believes in its work, and a former chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission – Raj Anand, a partner at the firm.

”The legal profession is behind the curve,” Mr. Anand said in June. “The single biggest issue is a lack of leadership.”

But now he says, speaking of WeirFoulds, “I think the change in approach and mindset is massive.” One sign is that the firm has taken on four new equity partners, three of them racialized minorities (though none is Black). Another sign is that it is trying to jettison the idea of “fit,” which Mr. Egan and Mr. Anand say leads to hiring people who look like those who do the hiring.

As for Mr. Walwyn, he says now that he is optimistic about his own firm, but still has concerns about the leadership on Bay Street. He adds that audits are being done to check whether law firms are living up to their commitments, and “I look forward to being proven wrong.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles