Remarkable Alumni and the Rites of Spring!

Each May, I have the opportunity to gather with some extraordinary legal leaders and their friends and supporters for the Osgoode Hall Law School Dean’s Gold Key Alumni Awards. On May 17, 2017, at this year’s Alumni Award ceremonies, I was reminded again how fortunate I am to get to know – and celebrate – these remarkable individuals. And while Osgoode is distinct in Canada for having the largest law alumni community in the country (many of whom still are graduates of Osgoode prior to its affiliation with York University in 1965), what unites all graduates of Canadian Law Schools is far more significant than the distinctions between schools, as is particularly apparent at the growing number of pan-Canadian law alumni events that have been organized abroad, in New York, Hong Kong, London and elsewhere. So, how strong are the alumni ties that bind, and should we care?

Interestingly, alumni ties tend to matter more the farther away the experience of law school has been. In other words, a twenty-fifth reunion will draw a bigger crowd than a tenth reunion (at least, I hope so, as we are planning for the 25th reunion for my class of ’92 this Fall!)
From a distance, law school fits better into our personal narratives, than at the time we are there, or in the frenetic aftermath of articling, settling into a career and a life, often on paths that are less and less linear. Between law school and my first job as an associate at a law firm, for example, I had moved five times and lived in three different cities. Despite this sense of being unsettled (or perhaps because of it), my affiliation as an Osgoode grad started to matter in ways I found new and surprising.
Looking at the lawyers we honoured on May 17th, it was striking how diverse their career paths from that shared Osgoode point of departure turned out to be. Lynn McGrade’s ’88 path as a leading corporate lawyer on Bay Street , for example, is just a few subway stops from Paul Copeland’s ’65 stomping grounds as a criminal defense lawyer in pre-gentrified Yorkville, but might as well have been a world away. Julia Shin Doi ‘92, recognized for her professional accomplishments, and leadership on diversity and inclusion in our profession, ended up back at University – first in York University’s Counsel’s office, and now as General Counsel and Secretary to the Board of Ryerson University. Meanwhile, Delia Opekokew ‘77, a survivor of residential school, experienced a different world entirely. After graduating Osgoode in 1977, she embarked on a career of firsts – she was the first Indigenous woman to become a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada in 1979 and in 1983 she became the first Indigenous woman to join the Law Society of Saskatchewan, and has laid important legal groundwork in both jurisdictions for advancing our journey to Reconciliation. While an Alumni Award is a snapshot in time, it is intended to reflect the cumulative achievements of each recipient. This cumulative aspect was particularly apparent in the award for John Rosen ’68, who has elevated the criminal defense bar in Canada for close to 50 years!
Because alumni ties tend to strengthen with age, it is particularly meaningful to honour recent graduates. Joe Hoffman ‘12, for example, was the Alumni Mentor of the Year, making a significant impact in the journey of current students by going above and beyond the call in his service to Osgoode’s mentorship program. Another highlight of the evening focused on recent graduates is the “One-to-Watch Award.” This year, the Award went to Kyle Rees ‘12, who graduated just 5 years ago, and settled in to the tight-knit legal community of Newfoundland and Labrador. In January 2015, Kyle learned of the struggle of a young trans woman who was denied a driver’s licence in Newfoundland, whose Vital Statistics Act required “transsexual surgery” before the gender on a birth certificate could be changed. After hearing about the woman’s struggle, Kyle took on her case on a pro bono basis and consulted with other lawyers and experts across Canada to determine the best way to challenge the Act. His efforts resulted in a successful outcome. In July 2015, the provincial government agreed to amend the legislation to bring it in line with both the Charter and 21st Century Canada!
Amanda Kabejja Serumaga, from the Class of 1994 was honoured for her contributions to public service half a world away. Her legal education enabled her to pursue the commitments to social justice for which her father, Robert Serumaga, a Ugandan playwright who sacrificed his life for his country, leading her mother to escape with Amanda to the safety of Canada. Amanda returned to Africa to put this commitment into action, and now serves as Kenya’s Country Director for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Amanda is leading the implementation of the Country Program Document, steering UNDP’s key priority areas in devolution and accountability, productive sector and trade, environmental sustainability, renewable energy, and sustainable land management, along with community security, cohesion, and resilience.
Osgoode also awards an annual Dianne Martin Medal for Social Justice through Law. This year, both the aforementioned justice champion, Paul Copeland and renowned children’s rights lawyer Jeffery Wilson ‘76 were honoured. It is telling that each was recognized as much for the collective efforts they helped launch as their own accomplishments (in Paul’s case, his role in founding the organization now known as Innocence Canada and the Law Union, while in Jeffery’s case, his role in founding the Legal Aid Clinic, Justice for Children and Youth).
Part of what makes these alumni awards so meaningful is that they only come about because of the nomination of other alumni. And the selection committee, drawn from the Alumni Association Board and this year overseen by recently retired Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Susan Lang ‘74, often will be as moved by the nominator’s story as the recipient of the Gold Key.
There is nothing self-executing about an alumni community. Graduates are under no obligation to participate and not everyone, of course, reflects on their law school years in positive ways. As a large law school on a commuter campus (at least until the subway opens later this year!), it is not uncommon for Osgoode graduates to introduce themselves years later only to realize they attended law school during the same years and never met!
The May Alumni Awards represent a rite of passage, a guaranteed feel-good way of marking the end of the academic year (and tend to coincide with the final throes of grading and last committee meetings). But as the years go by, this date on the calendar has come to serve as a reminder that we are each threads in a quilt that is always a work in progress.
While Osgoode today is a transformed version of the law school I remember as a student, the presence of graduates at the Awards ceremony from the Class of ’16 back to the class of ’61 facilitates surprising connections. For all, law school represented a memorable crossroads.
While my time as Dean is necessarily fleeting, my place in the Osgoode alumni community will endure – and for that, I have come to be truly grateful.