Adam Dodek is a professor and former dean of the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Common Law. His last name is pronounced “DOUGH-deck.”
Trouble has hit Canada’s largest law society. Each year the Law Society of Ontario welcomes several thousand new lawyers into its ranks. The new barristers and solicitors don lawyer’s black robes for the first time in a ceremony that dates back more than 200 years. For each new lawyer and their family, the highlight is when they ascend the stage. Their name is called out and projected on the screen as they walk across the stage. Sometimes their name is mispronounced. That’s wrong and every step should be taken to make sure that doesn’t happen.
To its credit, staff at the Law Society of Ontario have recognized that they need to do better. In a report to the Law Society’s governors – still archaically called “benchers” because once upon a time they would sit on benches – Law Society staff recommended hiring a professional name reader for these “call to the bar” ceremonies.
The policy rationale is straightforward. As the legal profession has become more diverse, so too has the list of candidate names being called to the bar. A lot has changed since John White, Robert Gray, Bartholomew Beardsley, and seven other white men were called to the bar in 1797.
Each new lawyer’s name is called out by a bencher. Despite its best efforts, each year the Law Society receives complaints from disappointed candidates about their names being mispronounced. For some, having their name mispronounced is embarrassing to them and to their families who attend this momentous event. This is understandable, regrettable and completely avoidable.
Hiring a professional name reader would, well, professionalize the process. Who can be against progress and professionalization? Apparently, some of the benchers, that’s who. Last month, they brought a motion to ensure that names continue to be announced only by benchers, on the grounds of, among other reasons, opposing “whacky wokism.” The opposition and the rationale are self-centred and wrong. Fortunately, the motion was defeated.
There are few things more important than one’s name. It reflects one’s identity, individuality and human dignity. That’s why international human rights instruments have long recognized the right to a name, the right to choose one’s name and the right to retain one’s name. Enslaved people often did not have the right to choose their name. Oppressive regimes often target people because of their names. And here in Canada at residential schools, Indigenous children were stripped of their Indigenous names and given Christian names in their place.
I have a last name that is sometimes mispronounced but what sticks in my mind is something that occurred in my first year of high school in Vancouver in 1983. On the first day of school, our shop class teacher read out the roll and after each name quipped: “Canadian, Jew, Indian, Chinaman …” The message could not have been clearer to this multicultural group of 13-year-olds: for some people, there were still insiders and outsiders and your name gave you away.
In Canada, many immigrants changed their names in order to better assimilate into Canadian society. Others did not. Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker became a lifelong champion of civil rights, in part because of his childhood experience of being mocked and harassed for having a German name.
As dean of the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, I had the responsibility and the honour of reading the names of each of the more than 350 graduates every year. I worked hard to practise the names. I got the phonetic pronunciations and even had a pronunciation coach. When I read out a graduate’s name and they walked across the stage and had their 10 seconds in the limelight, I envisioned all the hard work that they and their family had done to reach that day.
I will never forget some parents thanking me for pronouncing their family’s name correctly. “No one has ever pronounced our name right before.” It made me tear up and it also made me proud. For me and for them.
I was good at some types of names and not so good with others. I realized and regretted making mistakes. I know I could have done better but perhaps even more importantly, I know the university could have done better than me. I may be many things, but a professional name caller I am not.
We owe it to everyone to get their names right. It’s not about political correctness or wokeness. There are a lot of reasons why but at the end of the day, it just comes down to one: respect.
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