CBA President Stephen Rotstein in Conversation with Caitlin Urquhart, newly appointed junior commission counsel for the Inquiry into the Treatment, Experiences and Outcomes of Innu in the Child Protection System. They discuss volunteerism, systemic racism, mental health, and social media.
How to put the volunteer into your career. CBA President Stephen Rotstein welcomes Caitlin Urquhart, dedicated Newfoundland & Labrador community builder and ecology advocate. Caitlin is this year’s recipient of the Douglas Miller Rising Star Award. The Douglas Miller Rising Star Award recognizes an early career lawyer who is a CBA member in good standing and who exhibits professional excellence; service to the profession; and outstanding dedication and team spirit in his or her ongoing involvement with the CBA. This award is intended to provide early recognition of developing talent, honouring members who already demonstrate characteristics of leadership to the profession.
In addition to her legal practice in St. John’s, Caitlin is an active member of the CBA. She also volunteers with Access to Justice Legal Clinics and is the chair of the board of directors of the St. John’s Status of Women Council. She recently stepped away from her role as staff lawyer with Ecojustice, Canada’s largest environmental law charity, to take on the position of junior commission counsel for the Inquiry into the Treatment, Experiences and Outcomes of Innu in the Child Protection System.
Next on Urquhart’s list is a National Strategy to Redress Environmental Racism Act, introduced by MP Lenore Zann in June 2021 to require examination of the link between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk. After the bill died on the floor of the House due to the dissolution of Parliament in the Fall of 2021, the bill was recently re-introduced as a private members bill (C-226). Urquhart is part of the movement calling for all members of parliament to support its expedited passage..
Advocate for Change - Caitlin Urquhart
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Interviewer: Caitlin at the end that question if you're not uncomfortable with question, we can cut it out.
Respondent: Oh, yeah, no, I don't mind. I think that, it was a wild ride. It was a very strange experience to be the target of one of these sort of social media campaigns where the bots are coming after you and people are coming after you and - anyways, bizarre.
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Respondent: Understanding, knowing and understanding the community within which you work is a really important component of being a competent lawyer and particularly in the type of practice that that I have been fortunate enough to maintain. I think it's important to know what's going on out there.
Interviewer: Please welcome my guest today in conversations with the president Caitlin Urquhart. Dedicated Newfoundland Labrador community builder, and ecological advocate. Caitlin is this year's recipient of the Douglas Miller Rising Star Award. The Douglas Miller Rising Star Award recognises an early career lawyer who is a CBA member in good standing, and who exhibits professional excellence service to the profession, and an outstanding dedication and team spirit in his or hers ongoing involvement with the CBA. This award is intended to provide early recognition of a developing talent on our members who have already demonstrated characteristics of leadership to the profession.
In addition to her legal practice in St. John's, Caitlin is an active member of the CBA. She volunteers with the Access to Justice legal clinics, and is the chair of the Board of Directors of the St. John's Status of Woman Council. She recently stepped away from her role as a staff lawyer with Equal Justice, Canada's largest environmental law charity, to take on the position as junior commission counsel for the inquiry into the treatment, experience and outcome of Inu in the child protection system. Welcome, Caitlin, nice to see you today.
Respondent: Yes, thanks so much for having me, Steven.
Interviewer: So I'm just going to ask you as part of my podcast, kind of a series of questions and kind of go through some parts of your career. So let me start, just to get to know a bit of how you got involved with the CBA. And what made you decide to become an active member.
Respondent: I think, partly because I've often worked with, for most of my career, I worked with a small practice. So they - and the firms that I worked with are always CBA members. Everyone was a CBA member. And it creates a great opportunity for building connections and networking and building relationships with other lawyers. And the reality is that when you're only four or five lawyers, you only practice in certain areas. And you often need to have other counsel that you can, that you know, that you trust, that you can refer to, or you get referrals from. And you kind of have - build those relationships in more sort of social settings, so that you ensure that you have good working relationships throughout the community, in the legal community.
And particularly here in St. John's. It's a pretty small community. So it's really helpful to be able to have those opportunities to connect and learn together as well. Often it's through CLE’s and those types of things that you meet people and when you have a file on you, you feel more comfortable, being able to engage with each other. And so I - that was kind of what initially got me into it. But then I think I realised that the CBA has an excellent advocacy component to it. And that was really important to me. In terms of ensuring that legislation that's happening federally and provincially is going to be subject to some scrutiny to make sure that we have, we as a group of lawyers who have this immense skill set and have the ability to influence and impact in a positive way legislation.
And to provide that skill set to lawmakers. I think that was something that I was really interested in. So got involved with the executive and the women lawyers branch. Women lawyers’ forum and whatnot. Just sort of as an extension of that
Interviewer: You did a better job than me giving an elevator pitch of why CBA member’s ship is valuable. Especially for early career lawyers. And I appreciate the compliment on our advocacy activities, is obviously something I'm very proud of as CBA president. When I did your introduction, we were talking a lot about obviously your career and what you're currently doing. And I want touch on that in a second. But you're obviously active in volunteering. So I'm wondering what your average day looks like.
Respondent: I mean, I think the reality of a lot of volunteer work is it kind of ebbs and flows. But I certainly have been fortunate to have employers who've always been supportive, that I take time when I have board meetings. My St. John's, status women council board meetings are a full afternoon. So I head off at noon, and don't come back for the rest of the day, basically, when we have those meetings. And there's many committee meetings and various different components of that that happen each week. So I think sort of day by day, it's not necessarily sort of - it's not all volunteerism, but certainly throughout each week, there's - I'm dedicating some hours to volunteer work.
And that's, as I say, I've always been very fortunate to have folks who support that. And I think the reality is that understanding, knowing and understanding the community within which you work is a really important component of being a competent lawyer. And particularly in the type of practice that that I have been fortunate enough to maintain. I think it's important to know what's going on out there.
Interviewer: Yeah, that's, again, I totally agree with what you said. Volunteerism is obviously something that I've been talking as part of my presidency, important to volunteerism. And I think what you're doing is exactly the kind of thing that I think makes the CBA a great organisation, because our members, obviously are very leading in their profession as lawyers. But obviously giving back to the community. So I'm interested for a second in this new work part of your life. Which is your new role as a junior counsel into the acquirer, into the treatment experience and outcomes of in you Inu child protection system. Can you maybe give us a sense of how that came about and kind of what you're doing on the commission?
And maybe just a bit more about what the timelines are on that work?
Respondent: So the inquiry is, was just recently launched. And we essentially have 18 months to - as the name implies - look into the outcomes, experiences and treat - or sorry, the treatment outcomes and experiences of Inu, in the child protection system. And I think that most listeners will be aware, of course of the human rights tribunals decisions around the chronic underfunding of First Nations child welfare, and of TRC and MMIW, findings around the impacts of quote unquote, child welfare on indigenous families and communities. And I think that, obviously, it's going to be a really challenging subject, challenging subject matter to address. But it is actually prior to working with eco justice, I did work in child protection as a private practice lawyer.
And sort of saw these - many of these challenges firsthand with my clients. So very much looking forward to being able to give voice to the Inu who have been disproportionately impacted and over represented in the child protection system for a long time. And help to hopefully create a space for reconciliation and healing. And ultimately, for self determination on this for Inu.
Interviewer: And for those of you who - and I include myself in this group who are new to learning a bit more about this commission - this was set up by the provincial or the federal government?
Respondent: Yeah, so it was established by the provincial government. And, as I say, just recently called, in response to calls from Inu leadership for this type of inquiry following actually the tragic deaths of some youth who had been involved in the child welfare system. So it's, that was actually in 2017, that was initially announced. And it only very recently came to be launched. So we're glad to see it underway. And I'm, as I say, looking forward to being involved in that process.
Interviewer: Can you, just based on your - you touched on this in your last answer. But based on your experience in child protection, and obviously the work that you're just beginning on this commission, can you talk a bit more about broader base systemic racism in dealing with our First Nations communities, or in broader based on what you've seen?
Respondent: I firmly believe that we, as lawyers have both a moral, but also sort of a professional or ethical obligation to know and understand systemic racism. To know and understand the colonial roots of our justice system. And how those roots continue to perpetuate and oppress indigenous as well as black people of colour and other marginalised folks within the that system. And it's really not sort of good enough anymore, to simply say, oh, well, I'm not racist, and therefore, I'm fine. And we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves. And to understand how those systems are playing out today. Both with our clients, and with our broader community. So that we can engage in a way that responds to an ideal use, anti racist and anti oppression, when we're dealing within those systems.
And we have the ability to advocate for change. And I think we all have a responsibility to know and understand at the very least what systemic racism looks like within our current system. And how we might be able to each individually bring about some change in that system.
Interviewer: I completely agree with what you say. And for those listeners, and maybe Caitlin you may have already participated in this, as it relates to indigenous communities, specifically I'd recommend the path. Which is the CBA’s program that we launched a year ago. It's a great program, and speaks about a lot of these issues. So that's a bit of self promotion on my behalf as the CBA president, but –
Respondent: It's fabulous. I really enjoyed it. And I have to say, I think the highlight for me was the art, was really cool, it was a very cool way to kind of work through that process. So really loved it, highly recommend it.
Interviewer: So I kind of want to go back a couple steps and talk about what got you interested in the law in the first place, the area that you're dealing with? Whether it be child protection, or broader, obviously, environmentalism is a different issue, but obviously a passion of yours. Kind of did you know early on that this is an area or is, or did you have an epiphany, some time in your younger life?
Respondent: I was - I'm one of the - I'm one of those people who knew at a very young age, or at least I think my parents thought at a very young age that this precocious child should probably go on to be a lawyer. And so my - certainly my dad always kind of pushed and encouraged me in this direction. And I think he was a great believer that law is a tool that can be used to change the world. And he always sort of - and he's not a lawyer, he's an HR professional. So I don't know where he got this, these grand notions of what lawyers do, but -
Interviewer: Probably hired some lawyers during his career.
Respondent: Yeah, certainly. So he - but he encouraged me. And I think that it's a really interesting transition as somebody who sort of as a young person, thought I can do environmental law. And I'll we'll have this opportunity to really change, as they change world and make things better. And then you kind of go to law school, and it's quite rigid. And it's - this is how the law is, and it can feel - just it's, I found that a really challenging experience. It felt sort of hopeless. Why am I bothering? Why am I spending all this time and energy and sleepless nights to go to law school when nothing's going to change because it's all, this is how it is and that's how it has to be. So I was very fortunate coming out of it that I was able to maintain some optimism and I still do believe that we can use the law to change the world.
But I do think that we all have to be able to think critically about the systems and structures that are there and that exist. And how we can use them to make things better for everyone.
Interviewer: Did you in addition to kind of getting that, getting the encouragement from your father, did you, do you have any role models, other people or mentors - should say mentors or role models, maybe they're one of the same - along your career?
Respondent: In terms of role models, I often draw my sort of greater inspiration from - sometimes within the law if I think of Pam Pomiter. But - Naomi Metallican, various others - but I also often sort of think outside of the law. And there's just - I think of Cindy Blackstock and I think of actually, a lot of the incredible activists who I've met on the ground. And the folks who were advocating against Muskrat Falls. These indigenous women in Labrador who were fighting for clean water and for not having methyl mercury poisoning in their country foods. And the immense passion that they bring to bring to their advocacy, their commitment that's beyond just their own well being.
It's for their families, it's for their grandchildren, it's for the next generations, how will they live. And that they're willing to bear the burden and go to jail, in order to make right. Or to try to protect. To protect that I think is just I find so inspiring. So I think it's - I draw my inspiration kind of broadly. But there's a lot of really strong women who I think I look up to. And try to - hope one day that I'll have a storied career them.
Interviewer: So this may sound like a bit of a strange question. But the other thing that I've been focusing on during my presidency, additionally, to talk about volunteers, and you just talked about it. So it got me thinking about it as mental health and wellness of the profession. Obviously, the pandemic has been a challenge for everybody. I'm just wondering, how have you been able to cope during the pandemic? And what coping mechanisms have you used in this area? If you don't mind speaking about these issues?
Respondent: For myself, I mean, I try to - I look at honestly, I look at Friday's for future. And I look at young people, and their passion, and their commitment to justice. And I just find that really inspiring. And makes me feel hopeful that I think, that the world, we're going to be OK, I think, when I look to the next generation. And then in terms of - so I guess, trying to find optimism and hopefulness and gratitude. I know that sounds really cheesy, but I do find sometimes you just need to say, OK, what's going on in my life that I'm really grateful for. And where can I find my peace of happiness? Because there is so much challenging going on in the world.
And then I honestly I fight. I think you go - there's all these things going wrong in the world. And how can I make it better? What can I do? What personal - what actions can I take to disrupt these systems? To reduce harm? To support community? Just trying to kind of find a place for an outlet for that. So it doesn't become despair. You kind of turn that sadness and anger into some action. And I think that often, that's the kind of new term, is community care. And your - but I do find that actually really rejuvenating and rewarding and that charges my battery, so I find my volunteer work really actually does play into that. As well as of course, making time for spending quality time with your family and making time to go for a walk.
We were talking about going around Signal Hill earlier, go walk around Signal Hill. Get outside and get some fresh air and that kind of thing. But I will say, like I everybody else, I think I've had my days where it's been harder than others. And just try to be gentle with myself and find my way back to that passion and commitment to make things better.
Interviewer: I have one question to ask you now. It's not related to what we talked about but it has to do I guess to a certain degree with the world we live in, which has to do with social media. I understand that you got yourself involved in a bit of a social media - what's the word I'm looking for? Shitstorm I guess it's probably the word. When you guess you put a tweet, it says burn it all down in response to the church burnings in Canada in June of 2021. I'm just wondering kind of what your thoughts are, I guess, about nine months after that tweet and kind of what has that meant as far as your social media presence and your continuing involvement in social media?
Respondent: Yeah, I mean, I think even just that sort of statement is really interesting, because the challenge of social media is that you can take a tweet and ticket entirely out of context. So my tweet was actually in relation to the shooting death in London. And was talking about systemic racism, and actually had nothing to do with the churches that actually happened subsequent to my tweets that churches started to be burned. But this news media, this right wing, I don't know if you can call it news, whatever it is website, posted this. And there were other folks who were tweeting sort of similar things around that time. In any case, just to say that it's really interesting.
The challenge of being on social media is that you put these things out into the world for people to interpret. And they will interpret them however they want to. And so in this case, (a) I'm very fortunate that I have a friend who's in PR and CBA actually was lovely, and gave me some public relations advice and what not. So I sort of turned everything off, and tried not to read it and just kind of let it pass. And changed my Twitter settings so that I don't see any of the bots anymore. So I just ignore. If it's not real people I'm not really interested in engaging. So I think that in terms of my - so luckily, that seems to have all sort of blown over. I can't say the same necessarily, for some of the other folks who were involved in that same Shitstorm.
There were a few other lawyers as well, who all got kind of caught up in it. And I think that some of them suffered certainly much more than I did. But in terms of social media, I think that something I find so challenging is that it's both this incredible outlet, and means of communication and means of connection. But it also is - and can be so polarising. You have - there's so little space for nuance, and space for finding common ground. And it's kind of - unlike a town hall or common square or whatever you want to think of in that way. Because you don't really have to engage with people on a kind of human to human level. And so I do think it made me think a little bit more critically, about the way that I engage on social media.
I still - I'm not giving up my social media. I'm definitely still going to continue tweeting things that some people might think are controversial or not agree with. But I think that that's it's a tool that I use for advocacy and for communicating around issues that are important to me. But I do think that it certainly has this challenge kind of creating echo chambers and creating less room for kind of common ground. And I think that that's - it's hard to see. And obviously it's never nice to be on the sharp end of one of these campaigns. But I suppose that's sort of the price that you pay to participate in those conversations.
Interviewer: People will read in their own tone. So you could write things and you can think, oh, well, this is friendly, or whatever. And people can read it in totally - I feel they could read it all in upper caps, upper case. So, but yeah, I think the message is, and I CBA President, I have a Twitter account. And I have a link I use LinkedIn for personal stuff. I use Facebook, but I do appreciate everything you said. And obviously, I appreciate being part of a social discourse and having – have tried to have a conversation, but it's not a town squares, as you mentioned. So I've really enjoyed our conversation today. I think I'll end where I started, which is congratulations on receiving a very well deserved award for your early career contributions.
But as I said, I know that there's lots of promising things to come. And I look forward to hearing all the great things that you do and continue to still be the advocate you are for Canadian Bar Association membership.
Respondent: Thanks so much for having me, Steven, it's been great chatting with you.
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Interviewer: You can hear this podcast and others on our main CBA channel on Spotify, Apple podcast, Google podcasts and Stitcher.
Respondent: The Bots are coming after you and people are coming after you. And I mean, I can't give it up. It's to – you know, as I say, I didn't experience I think - Aretha. I can't remember her last name. She is on the west coast and she was a BC [unintelligible 00:25:49] I think. And she got removed from her position. It was some - yeah. So there's - some people really did actually - as I say, I didn't really have any real consequences from it. And I think partly because if you actually read this stuff, it wasn't what they were saying it was. But yeah, some people did have - it was a pretty, yeah, it was pretty ugly. It was pretty, it was pretty ugly. So I can appreciate that some of those folks probably don't want to be on Twitter anymore.
Especially now that Elon Musk's owns it and there won't have any content moderation.
Interviewer: I should have gone there actually, should have gone there. But I guess I didn't.
Respondent: Subtle jab. I don't need to be slandering Elon Musk on the CBA podcast.
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