Doug Elliot with SOGIC logo behind him

Unafraid of Controversy: An interview with Douglas Elliott

  • June 02, 2020
  • Teddy Weinstein

SOGIC’s national and provincial sections were not formed from nothing. Years of organizing, lobbying, chance relationships, and secret meetings went into its creation. Recently I got a chance speak with Douglas Elliott, partner at Cambridge LLP and one of SOGIC national’s first co-chairs. We spoke over the phone from our respective quarantine lodgings north of Toronto. He gave me the full story, from his time working on the Ontario Bar Association’s report on AIDS, up to the final decisive vote in Mont Tremblant that created SOGIC’s national section.

Activism and involvement in the 80s and 90s

The story of SOGIC dates back to 1985, shortly after Elliott’s call to the bar. The Canadian Bar Association was forming a committee to look at the legal repercussions of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. However, they were not including anyone from the gay community or the AIDS movement. “The two were practically synonymous at the time,” he explains. “Back in 1985, there was no EGALE, no other organizations, the landscape of LGBT movements in Ontario was very different.”

Elliott was on the board of the AIDS Committee of Toronto at the time, and they wrote to request that one of their members be included. Tracy Tremayne-Lloyd, who was heading up the report, agreed. As a result of their efforts, the OBA was the first bar association in the world to issue a report of this kind.

In the 80s and 90s most legal work involving gay men was focused on issues related to AIDS. “To be honest I was getting a little fatigued.” Elliott said. “I wanted to do something for the LGBT community that wasn’t just AIDS related.” At this time, there was Gay Bar Association in the United States, and a section in the American Bar Association. Together with other activists like barbara findlay in British Columbia, Elliott began to formulate a plan to create something similar in Canada.

The Beginnings of SOGIC in Ontario and British Columbia

findlay had already created a group for gay and lesbian lawyers in BC when Elliott was approached by a lesbian lawyer in Toronto named Terry Hancock to create a branch in Ontario. “By this point I had been in the press a fair amount. I was out, openly gay, and clearly not afraid of controversy,” Elliott recalls. “I was asked to be the first co-chair of the Ontario organization.” The belief was that it would be better to work within the bar association rather than create a separate organization like what was happening in the United States. They anticipated some resistance, but that it would ultimately be worth the fight.

The first decision was to call the organization the Lesbian and Gay Issues Rights Committee. “There was some debate at the time about whether this was going to be just for lesbian and gay lawyers [trans and intersex people, Elliott admitted, were not a major part of the conversation at the time], or did we want to make the section about gay and lesbian rights and include allies?” The decision was made that allies would be welcomed and desired, and the section became rights based rather than identity based.

The OBA section was approved on Worlds AIDS day in 1994. The next challenge? Take the movement national, and begin seeding similar organizations in other provinces under the umbrella of the Canadian Bar Association.

Building the Movement: from the Prairies to Mont Tremblant

Alberta and Manitoba followed Ontario with their own local SOGIC branches. Sheila Mann was a key player in Alberta, as was Greg Harding, the president of the Alberta Branch of CBA at the time. The late Mike Law spearheaded the Manitoba effort; he became the first president of that section shortly before SOGIC national was formed. He went on to become the president of the Manitoba Bar Association in 2007.

“The main argument we were making was that in addition to being the right thing to do, making the CBA a welcoming place for LGBT lawyers also made a lot of business sense,” says Elliott. “Lots of young and up-and-coming lawyers were more likely to be out, and we didn’t want them to walk away and form their own organization … The CBA didn’t want to lose that market.”

The annual CBA summer meeting of 1995 was held in Winnipeg, and the attorney general at the time, Allan Rock, was present. Rock had made a promise in 1994 when he became attorney general that he would add sexual orientation to the Canadian Human Rights Act by Christmas. By summer 1995, that had not happened. George Thomson, Rock’s deputy AG, reached out to Elliott and the others to arrange a meeting with gay and lesbian lawyers to talk about the Human Rights Act.

“I agreed to go personally. We met privately, no press, to receive an apology,” Elliott recalls. “Allan insisted on not discussing what happened to anyone outside the room, which obviously I’m doing now, since it’s been a long time and it’s of historical significance.”

“There was a notorious social conservative in Allan’s caucus named Roseanne Skoke that Allan was having a lot of trouble with,” he continues. “When we met with Allan in Winnipeg, he apologized for failing to deliver on this commitment and that he felt bad. I remember Mike [Law] being in the room. He asked ‘Allan, does this mean I have to keep suing you?’ and Allan responded. ‘Yes, please do, and I hope you win!’” Elliott explains: “Ultimately, it would be easier to defeat the resistance in his caucus if the courts forced Parliament to make the amendment.”

The Birth of SOGIC National

All of this led up to a final moment in Mont Tremblant, where the resolution to create SOGIC’s national section under the CBA was approved. “I need to give credit to the CBA national staff … they were a lot of help,” says Elliott. “They couldn’t help us directly with lobbying for the vote or taking a position, but they gave us a lot of assistance making sure we wouldn’t get tripped up by procedural matters.”

One major tactical decision tthey made was to hold the vote for the resolution at the more intimate midwinter meeting in February of 1996. It would be a smaller, more focused group of lawyers. Everyone would be staying in the same hotel, which made it easier to have face-to-face networking. “It’s easy to hate someone you’ve never met,” Elliott points out, “it’s a lot harder if you’re in the same hotel bar sharing a drink.”

The organizers chose the name SOGIC: the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conference. It sounded good, and addressed the clear inclusion of trans and two spirit people into their mission, which had become more part of the conversation since the early 90s. The label “queer” wasn’t as widely used back then.

Elliott recalled a number of memorable stories from the Tremblant trip. “Even on the Airport shuttle there was a man very loudly declaring how disgusting it was that the SOGIC resolution was on the table. He said he would do everything in his power to defeat it, comparing gay lawyers to bank robbers, child molesters, etc. It was outrageous, and very offensive.” No one on the bus seemed to be calling him out on his remarks, Elliott remembers — no one denounced him. They just sat quietly. “I knew from that experience there was some pretty significant opposition.”

Another challenge was getting the lawyers in attendance to show their support for the resolution. Elliott and findlay had brought shiny rainbow lapel pins to give out to those in attendance, but even supporters of the resolution were hesitant to wear them because they didn’t want to send the wrong signal (the rainbow flag, at the time, was not as ubiquitous a symbol for allies as it is today).

Then, Elliott saw an opportunity; “Allan Rock was there to give a keynote speech. I approached him, since I knew he was friendly to gay people, and asked for his help. I said ‘Allan, I want you to wear this pin in your lapel when you give your speech.’”

Rock was hesitant, but in the end decided it was a way to subtly show support for the resolution without getting directly involved. As the attorney general, he did not want to take sides, but wanted to do something to help.

Then, during the speech, the light hit the podium in such a way that it reflected off the pin and sent rainbow flashes like lasers spraying across the room. Far from subtle, according to Elliott. “I turned to barb and said ‘this is awesome, no one can possibly miss this!’ After Allan’s speech was done, there was practically a stampede towards us to get a pin.”

The resolution passed overwhelmingly. “I happen to think that we might have still passed even without Allan’s gesture, but the reason we got such a strong showing and the loud opponents were shut down was because of his courage that day,” Elliott posits. He and findlay became the first co-chairs of SOGIC National, following a decision to make sure there would be gender equality on the executive.

Remembering Mike Law

Before we signed off, Elliott wanted to make a point to memorialize Mike Law for his role in this story. Mike tragically died of a heart attack just six days prior to our conversation, on May 3, 2020, after battling drug addiction. His celebrated and successful career included being on the national legal team for Canada v Hislop, a major case in delivering survivor benefits to those in same sex relationships. 

Unfortunately, his career also bears the stain of a one-year suspension from the Manitoba bar, when it was discovered that he had been stealing from clients. “Mike was suspended for a year, not disbarred, which I think says a lot about him and the respect he garnered from the profession.”

Elliott wanted to make sure that Law is remembered for his role in creating SOGIC, and his contributions to the LGBTQ+ rights movement in Canada. “Tragic, tragic waste of someone who was so charming, smart, and handsome. He was a real leader. Drugs took all that away from him.”

“Drugs are a big problem for lawyers and a big problem for gay people,” Elliott adds. “For gay lawyers it’s a huge problem that we can’t ignore. I want this to be a warning, especially to younger folks, not to ignore the extra challenges that LGBT lawyers face today.”

About the author

Teddy WeinsteinTeddy Weinstein is a graduate of the University of Windsor, Faculty of Law. He articled for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and was called to the bar in Ontario in 2019. He recently returned from working overseas as part of the CBA'S Young Lawyers International Program and is currently based in the downtown Toronto area.