(Femme is a non-binary, gender expansive term and is queer)
On March 4, 2008, Parliament unanimously adopted the Motion to Recognize Contributions of Black Canadians and February as Black History Month. The motion was introduced by Senator Donald Oliver, the first Black person appointed to the Senate.
However, a celebration of the members of the Black community, by necessity, ought not to be confined to 28 days, when the Black community will continue to participate in and contribute to Canadian societies of the future. Hence, the birth of the Black Futures movement, a movement which insists that we reimagine the idea of Black History Month and change the emphasis from the history of Black people to their futures. This shift in focus is significant, because it requires us to strive harder to tear down the oppressive systems that still operate to inhibit Black futures in Canadian society. Those very systems that have made it necessary to allocate time to celebrate the people that they oppress.
It is widely accepted that members of the Black community continue to experience a veritable lack of access to justice. Indeed, in 2018, during a speech to announce Canada’s adoption of the United Nations General Assembly’s International Decade for People of African Descent, the Prime Minister acknowledged that the relationship between Black people and the Canadian justice system remains fraught with challenges.
The challenges that the Black community faces in relation to access to justice include participation in the legal infrastructure, as a lawyer or member of the judiciary. You may recall that, in December 2016, the Law Society of Ontario’s “Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees Working Group”, after four years of consultation and research, confirmed in its final report, that racialized individuals faced a variety of barriers to both entry and advancement within the legal profession. Significantly, the report also noted that race-based barriers are often complicated by additional intersecting experiences of discrimination based on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, among other things.
It is against this backdrop and the tenets of the Black futures movement, that I decided to write a profile to honour and celebrate a Black queer lawyer, who is excelling despite the persistence of race- and queer-based barriers within the legal profession. An individual who dares to rebel against the regnant legal-practice traditions to reimagine a legal system, practice and profession that is accessible to the Black queer community.
Allow me to introduce you to Samantha Peters (she/her/they/them), one of this year’s nominees for the Ontario Bar Association’s Heather McArthur Memorial Young Lawyers Award. Samantha, who proudly identifies as a Black queer femme, was called to the bars of Alberta and Ontario in 2020. In that short time she has made a palpable impact on the legal profession because of her innovative and rebellious approach to the practice of law as well as the seemingly fearless way in which she navigates the margins that contemporary Canadian society imposes on her intersecting identities. She has been featured in numerous articles and is the recipient of several accolades including a “top 100” and a “first black person to…”. In 2020, the Canada International Black Women Excellence Event (CIBWE) dubbed Samantha as one of the “Top 100 Black Women in Canada to Watch’” She was also the first ever Black person and Black queer femme to act as the Mentor In Residence at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law. Samantha co-created this role to provide support to Black law students; support which she needed but lacked when she attended law school.
Samantha received her J.D. degree from the University of Ottawa and completed her bilingual articles at a national Union in Ottawa. She also has an Honours BA, with a double major in Equity Studies and Political Science and a minor in French from the University of Toronto (UofT), as well as an MA in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education from UofT’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).
Samantha envisions a legal practice that exists at the intersection of law, education, and policy with a focus on human rights advocacy, sexual- and gender-based violence prevention work, and workers’ rights. When asked how she would describe her style of practice she said: “I love being able to practise law in ways that don’t have me operating in silos – I want to still firmly be in community, be connected to the law in some respect and use my legal education and skills in ways that are transformative and helpful to systemic change and community mobilising.”
So said, so done! Samantha recognized that lawyering in the traditional sense often caused harm to the Black queer community. Thus, she challenged herself to ask some important questions that the traditional practice of law would not permit her to entertain:
(1) How can I participate in a legal practice that is not causing harm, or is disrupting harm, or is transforming the legal system in a way that causes less harm? (2) How can I make the practice of law more feelings-based, community-based and caring? (3) How can I practice law in a way that centres the livelihood and desires of Black queer femmes that I know and that I support who are more likely to experience sexual violence, harm and exploitation in the workplace due to their existence on margins of the white hetero-patriarchal gender binary?
In seeking to answer those questions, Samantha founded Black Femme Legal, an “award-winning workplace toolkit for Black queer women, femmes and gender diverse folks across the 2SLGBTQI+ spectrum in Ontario who need workplace-related support.” The initiative was funded with a grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario and designed to offer to the Black queer community resources that could support its members “holistically in their quest to heal.” Consequently, the toolkit provides both legal and non-legal resources. The legal resources include, for example, “Know Your Rights Workshops'', guidance on navigating the legal system, and referrals to law firms and legal clinics. The non-legal resources, which are carefully vetted to ensure that they are trauma-informed and anti-oppressive, fall under one of three categories: community support, crisis support and healing support. For example, users can access links to services that cater primarily to the needs of the Black community, such as the Black Health Alliance, Brown Girls Yoga and Black Food Toronto.
Recognizing that marginalized people, like Black femmes and other members of the Black queer community, have not been able to define justice on their own terms, Samantha and the co-creators of Black Femme Legal, hope that the initiative will not only increase access to justice for the Black queer and trans community, but will also provide them with the support and tools to define justice for themselves.
About the Author
Tamara J. Sylvester (one/they/them) is a lawyer working in the Human Rights Services Office at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson). In addition to conducting investigations into human rights and sexual violence complaints at the University, one provides education and training on the University’s human rights and sexual violence policies. One is also a member of the SOGIC Executive and the SOGIC Section Editor. Contact Tamara at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version of this article appeared on the OBA SOGIC Section’s articles page.