Ontario’s legal profession delivered an overwhelming “no” to U.S.-style culture wars, rejecting the entire slate of 36 lawyer candidates for the Law Society who ran on a campaign slogan of “stop woke.”
Lawyers broke into two coalitions in the bitterest campaign in recent memory for the Law Society of Ontario’s governing positions, known as benchers. The Law Society is the self-governing body for the province’s 50,000-plus lawyers, responsible for such matters as discipline and professional competence.
On one side was FullStop, the group of 36 whose slogan was “stop bloat, stop creep, stop woke.” On the other side was the Good Governance Coalition, which stressed, in their words, “diversity over division.” Good Governance won all 40 elected bencher positions reserved for lawyers, and the five spots for paralegals. (There are also eight appointed lay members.)
The election was held over several days in April; results were announced on Monday. The Top 20 vote-getters in Toronto and the Top 20 outside Toronto are guaranteed spots as governing members.
“The FullStoppers invented a culture war,” Will McDowell, a commercial litigator in Toronto, said in an interview. He was elected bencher for a third time.
But he said the “silent majority” of the province’s 50,000-plus lawyers rejected it.
“It’s nice to see that the Trump playbook hasn’t worked this time. You invent a culture war, you claim that the other group are the establishment, and the elites are going to control what you think. It’s straight out of the U.S.; pick your gubernatorial race or the current presidential race.”
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Lisa Bildy, a trial lawyer in London, Ont., was an outspoken member of FullStop. The Globe and Mail contacted her for comment and she replied with an e-mail that she said should be attributed to Bruce Pardy, a co-chair of the FullStop campaign and a law professor at Queen’s University in Kingston.
“Elites tend to think that only they should govern, and that rank-and-file reform is filthy populism,” Prof. Pardy said. “The legal elite at the Law Society is no different.”
He said FullStop had focused on budgetary discipline, sticking to the Law Society’s core mission, and the “curbing of woke excesses.” The group’s defeat will be harmful, he warned. “As Barack Obama once said, elections have consequences. He was at least right about that.”
The 21st-leading vote-getter outside of Toronto – Ryan Alford, a member of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law in Thunder Bay – will be bumped up to bencher, to fill a spot won by the organization’s leader, Jacqueline Horvat, known as treasurer. (The treasurer is an ex officio bencher.) Prof. Alford is a member of FullStop. He won’t be elected until the May 25 meeting.
FullStop grew out of a previous group, known as StopSOP, which won 22 spots in the last election, four years ago. SOP was a proposed Statement of Principles requiring lawyers and paralegals to acknowledge their obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion. The Law Society ultimately rejected the Statement of Principles in a majority vote.
Toronto lawyer Gerald Chan received the most votes in the election, 12,825. There was a sharp rise in voter turnout, with 22,585 lawyers votes cast, up from just over 15,000 in 2019.
In Mr. Chan’s view, while the StopSOP group framed their opposition to a diversity statement as a matter of free speech, the rebranded group “made it quite clear that they did not believe that systemic discrimination was a real thing.” Members exhibited “hostility and disdain” for equity and inclusion, he said.
“That’s the message that the profession has resoundingly rejected.” The vote affirmed “that the Law Society should be a leader when it comes to inclusion, not pull us backward with regressive slogans like ‘stop woke.’ ”
The group that was victorious had argued that the legal profession’s ability to regulate itself was at stake. “It would have been a very dangerous day for our profession had they been elected, ”said Peter Wardle, a commercial litigator elected bencher from Toronto. He called FullStop a “right-wing libertarian group that was determined to pull down the existing structure of the Law Society.”