With the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Community (SOGIC) marking 25 momentous years of leading LGBTTIQ2S advocacy in Canada, I reached out to two former chairs of the OBA’s SOGIC Section Executive – Chris Ellis and Paul Saguil – to get their perspectives on SOGIC's significant accomplishments and evolving challenges over more than two decades.
Chris Ellis is a native of Atlantic Canada who worked at as a litigator at a downtown Toronto firm and volunteered for Pride organizations around the world before settling in Ottawa where he now works for the Federal Government. His involvement in the OBA’s SOGIC Executive – which he became chair of in 2001 and continued to serve, as an executive member, for many years after – was borne out of an already well-established commitment to activism.
"I was heavily involved in student government in law school,” explains Ellis. “I attended the Law Society's joint Pride reception with SOGIC at Osgoode Hall the summer before I started articling. After I expressed to them my willingness to get involved, they brought me into the group's executive. The next year I became chair."
Ellis remembers SOGIC undergoing a lot of outreach and expansion while he was chair, establishing important links with other professional groups and helping to establish SOGIC branches in other provinces. "I remember one very successful event we hosted with queer journalists and physicians. Those links were probably the forerunner of the LGBT organizations for professionals that have appeared in recent years.”
He cites as his single proudest moment establishing a SOGIC section in British Columbia. “We brought a motion to form the branch before the CBA Council and I believe it was unanimously approved,” Ellis recalls. “That branch is thriving to this day."
Like Ellis, Paul Saguil, who currently works in-house at TD Bank as deputy head of their Sanctions Compliance and Anti-Bribery / Anti-Corruption Program, started attending SOGIC events as a law student. He became chair of the OBA branch in 2013, where he served for three years, and currently serves as the chair of SOGIC National. He had several favourite highlights to share.
"Toronto hosted World Pride in 2014, and that was also the first year that SOGIC participated in Pride March,” Saguil reports. “We formed important partnerships with other organizations such as OUTLaws, Start Proud, and the Roundtable of Diversity Associations.” Another historic achievement, according to Saguil: “SOGIC also co-sponsored an OBA resolution with the equality committee and other sections, calling on the law society to adopt a non-discrimination requirement for all current and future accredited law programs in order for graduates to be recognized for admission to the bar in Ontario. In coordination with other SOGIC branches and the National Executive Committee, we mobilized the CBA to speak out (and eventually intervene) in the proposed accreditation of the Trinity Western University law school."
Saguil and Ellis were both quite candid about the challenges SOGIC has faced throughout the years in recruiting and retaining members. "The profession as a whole was still fairly conservative in 2006," Ellis told me. "The push for same-sex marriage helped motivate LGBT lawyers and law students to see the value in what SOGIC offered, but many still did not want to be openly identified with the group. I remember that our membership list was considered top secret."
Despite having a more accepting environment within the profession in recent years, Saguil observes that these challenges continue to this day. "We have an enthusiastic and dedicated core group of volunteers but growing our membership base was and continues to be a challenge. This has made long-term succession planning somewhat difficult."
There is agreement that the profession has grown more accepting in recent years. Saguil has seen signs of this in many places. "The most obvious recent evidence of that was in the Trinity Western University case,” he says. “SOGIC was instrumental in mobilizing the CBA's intervention – to have the largest professional association for lawyers in Canada championing the rights of 2SLGBTTIQ members simply affirms how far we have come in our fight for acceptance and inclusion."
Ellis sees the legalization of same-sex marriage as a major turning point. "There was a sea change in attitudes within the legal and wider communities." However, he also qualified that this sea change has mainly benefited the "LGB" portion of our community. "Not everyone else is accepted yet within the legal community – which is unfortunately true for large sections of the queer community itself."
Despite major strides, there is still work to be done. "There are many areas that require constant vigilance and ongoing improvement,” says Saguil. "The Executive Committee of SOGIC National is focused on informing the CBA's advocacy and law reform efforts, including drafting submissions to and participating in consultations with legislators and policymakers, including with the Minister of Diversity and Inclusion."
Ellis points to two specific areas that need to be worked on, even inviting the community to look inward and find ways to support the struggle of those who are the most marginalized. "In particular,” he contends, “we need to focus our attention on supporting the struggle for recognizing rights internationally, and fight for minorities within the minority here in Canada.” He goes on to add, “At Pride organizations, I've seen how apathy among some members of our community and factionalization in general have distracted us from these goals.”
“Portions of our community have not enjoyed the same privileges and freedoms as others,” says Ellis. “Remaining united in the struggle until all of us can say we feel free, accepted, and empowered is a challenge for us."
About the author
Teddy 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. Currently, he is working overseas as part of the CBA's Young Lawyers International Program.