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Black lawyers win Ontario discrimination appeal

Lawyer Selwyn Pieters outside before a press conference for Black Youth Taking Action at Ryerson University on May 15, 2007.

jim ross The Globe and Mail

The Ontario Court of Appeal has reversed a lower-court ruling and sided with a pair of Toronto-area black lawyers who say they faced "racial profiling" when they were asked for identification by an employee at a courthouse library.

The province's top court also ordered the Peel Law Association and one of its librarians, Melissa Firth, to pay $30,000 in legal costs as it reinstated $2,000 awards ordered by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal for lawyers Selwyn Pieters and Brian Noble.

The three-judge appeal panel ruled that the vice-chair of the tribunal, Eric Whist, had an "ample basis" in his 2010 decision to find that "race and colour were factors" when Ms. Firth questioned the two lawyers near the door of the Peel Law Association's lawyers-only lounge at a courthouse in Brampton, Ont., in an incident that quickly became heated. Ms. Firth has denied that race was a factor, saying she questioned the men because they were closest to the door.

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Mark Freiman, a lawyer for Ms. Firth and the association, said he was disappointed with the ruling but that he was still studying it. He would not say whether they would seek leave to appeal it to the Supreme Court of Canada.

"It was racial profiling," Mr. Pieters, who has acted in many high-profile criminal cases as well as racial discrimination cases, said in an interview on Thursday. He said the May, 2008, incident left him feeling "humiliated," particularly because he was interrupted while speaking on his cellphone.

Invoking the name of one of Ontario's most prominent white lawyers, he said: "Lawyers are a pretty privileged bunch. And people generally don't approach lawyers in the way that this woman approached me. She wouldn't have approached Eddie Greenspan like that."

Mr. Pieters and Mr. Noble first took their case to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, which ruled in their favour in 2010. But last February, the Divisional Court of Ontario overturned that ruling, saying it was "not rationally supported" and ignored the evidence that the men were closest to the door of the lounge and so were the first to be checked. The Divisional Court decision also noted that the librarian had asked hundreds of other people over the years for ID in the lounge, including white lawyers.

But in its ruling Thursday the Court of Appeal said the tribunal's vice-chair did not disregard any evidence and "carried out his statutory task of sifting through all the evidence and arriving at a difficult decision."

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