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It was the first time Judge Vibert Lampkin had ever seen a list of every black judge in the country -- and he was startled.

There were only 17 across Canada. "And two of them were retired!" the Guyanese-born Ontario Court judge said. "I thought there would be more. We are really a rare breed."

The group meets for the first time tomorrow, at a dinner organized by the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers to celebrate those 17 appointments. Yet underlying the celebration there will be a nagging question: Is this as good as it gets?

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Given the existence of almost 2,000 judges across the country, the proportion who are black is truly minuscule. Of the sitting judges, Ontario has 10, Nova Scotia has two, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia have one each.

"Where is the equity?" asked Judge Castor Williams of the Nova Scotia Provincial Court. "When we speak of equity, it always seems to be about the male-female equation, rather than ethnic."

He said it is equally disquieting that many black judges are relegated to the lower courts, where their rulings are subject to reversal.

"I wonder why those who make the appointments don't look at a different system that involves equity," Judge Williams remarked in an interview. He said a more cynical person might feel black judges have reached a point where they are trusted to make decisions -- but only if they can be overridden.

Both Judge Williams and Judge Lampkin said that while they strive to ignore skin colour in their role as judges, they are conscious of being under constant observation.

"Your very presence and the role you play demonstrates to individuals of any race that we can do the job," Judge Williams said. "It debunks the stereotypical attitude of: 'We won't let you do it,' or 'You can't do it.' "

Born and raised in Antigua, Judge Williams spent years in military postings around the world before coming to Canada. He spent 19 years as a defence lawyer and a prosecutor. In 1996, he became only the second black judge in Nova Scotia.

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While a lawyer, Judge Williams witnessed firsthand how black defendants become alienated from the justice system.

"They felt as if they were political prisoners," he said. "They would do the crime and feel justified in doing it because they were not part of the system. They felt the system existed to oppress them. This I could relate to. I, too, experienced what I felt was a type of stereotypical thinking."

While Judge Lampkin's background was largely in corporate law in Toronto, he was well aware of the number of blacks who came into contact with the justice system. He said he knew the common denominator was low-income status.

"White-collar crime is not something black people tend to get involved in," Judge Lampkin noted wryly. "They just don't have the numbers."

Judge Williams said that while it would be "ludicrous" for him to spend his career feeling as if he is a torchbearer for his race, no one should underestimate the symbolic impact of a minority-group member occupying a high position.

Judge Lampkin agreed. "Whether they are aboriginal, Chinese or East Indian, it is important for people to feel they are being judged by their peers," he said.

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Judge Williams said his years of dealing with black defendants taught him the importance of making members of a social underclass feel the system will give them a fair shake.

"They should be shown the respect they deserve," he said. "Coming before a court is a very traumatic experience. You see the fear and the anxiety in their eyes. The fear or animosity -- or whatever it is -- dissipates when you speak to them kindly and make them aware that they are individuals who will be treated compassionately and fairly."

Appointed in 1982, Judge Lampkin was one of the earliest black judges in the country. He said part of the shortage is due to the relatively small pool of black law students and lawyers.

However, he said the concept of affirmative action has always bothered him. Indeed, Judge Lampkin initially resisted going to the bench for this reason. "I didn't want to get on the bench because I was a black guy," he said. "I wanted to be appointed on merit."

He said he lets down his "colourblindness" only when he speaks to groups of black schoolchildren.

"You have to let your hair down and be a role model," he said. "I tell them: 'You can make it, too, if you work hard enough and apply yourself.' A lot of it has to do with luck, and a lot has to do with hard work."

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Judge Lampkin said he is frustrated by the failure of many black lawyers to attend seminars and make contacts in the profession.

Both judges said it has been their good fortune that their encounters with discrimination have generally been more amusing than jolting. Judge Williams recalled that as a defence lawyer, he encountered a Crown witness who was evidently taken aback at the idea of being questioned by a black man. "She just clammed up," he said. "It was useful, because the Crown couldn't get the evidence it needed. My client was acquitted."

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