Conversations with the President

Helping Canada’s vulnerable communities with Wei William Tao

Episode Summary

CBA President, Stephen Rotstein, hosts his first episode with guest Wei William Tao. They talk about volunteering, his community involvement and his work in the immigration law area.

Episode Notes

CBA President, Stephen Rotstein, hosts his first episode with guest Wei William Tao. They talk about volunteering, his community involvement and his work in the immigration law area.

My guest today is Wei William Tao, Canadian Immigration and Refugee Lawyer in Vancouver. Will co-founded Heron Law Offices in 2021 and provides legal services in all areas of Canadian immigration and refugee law, with a particular focus on complex refusals, appeals, judicial reviews of international student, family class, and foreign worker-related applications. He won the CBA Immigration Section Founders’ Award in 2020, and won the CBA Immigration’s Volunteer Recognition Award for his work with the Section’s Anti-Racism Committee in 2021. He has been Best Lawyers-listed since 2017. And he’s still early in his career, having been called to the Bar in 2015. 

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Episode Transcription

Helping Canada’s vulnerable communities with Wei William Tao

Voiceover:  This is Conversations with the President, presented by the Canadian Bar Association.

Stephen:  Bonjour and hello everyone. Welcome to the first episode of this season of Conversations with the President. My name is Stephen Rotstein, the first public sector President of the Canadian Bar Association. I’m speaking to today from Toronto, home of many Nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinaabe, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat.

 I would ask that each one of you consider the Treaty Lands and the Territories on which you reside, as we acknowledge with respect and gratitude the many First Nations, Inuit and Métis, who’s footsteps have marked this land for centuries.

 My priority as President is to strengthen our community. I mean this in two ways. The first one is to ensure members of the legal profession in general, and the CBA members, in particular, have the tools and resources they need to be the best they can be, both professionally and personally, with a special emphasis on mental health and wellness as well, as we emerge from the pandemic. 

The second part of strengthening our community is for the legal professionals to use their unique set of skills to volunteer and give back to the community. This can be pro bono work, of course, but I see it as much larger than that. In this series of episodes, I will talk to accomplished legal professionals who – because of the work they do – strengthen our community. I hope you will be inspired by their examples, as I am.

My guest today is Wei William Tao, Canadian Immigration and Refugee Lawyer in Vancouver. Will Tao founded Heron Law Offices, in 2021 and provides legal services in the area of Canadian Immigration and Refugee Law, with a particular focus on complex refusals, appeals, judicial reviews of international student, family class and foreign worker-related applications. 

He won the CBA’s Immigration Sections Founders Award, in 2020 and won the CBA Immigration’s Volunteer Recognition Award for his work with the Sections Anti-Racism Committee, in 2021. He has been on the Best Lawyers List, since 2017 and he’s still early in his career, having only been called to the Bar in 2015.

We’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be right back, after the following message.

Male:  Did you know the Canadian Bar Association has its own Podcast Network now. Don’t miss episodes of The Every Lawyer, Modern Law, and Conversations with the President to learn how to navigate a rapidly changing legal world. Reflect how the law keeps pace with its times and take a deep dive into issues that matter the most. Find us on all your favourite Podcast platforms and on Subscribe so you don’t miss anything. 

Stephen: Will, welcome to the podcast. 

Wei:  Thank you so much Stephen. It’s such a privilege to be on this show. My name is Will Tao and I’m a Canadian Immigration and Refugee Lawyer, with Heron Law Offices, in Burnaby, British Columbia – a firm that I founded just earlier this year.

Stephen: I want to start by asking you a little about your career. From where I sit, you’re still considered a young lawyer and I’m always interested to hear how the younger generation is thinking about law, especially as it involves what one might call an atypical career path. Where did you graduate from? And where did you go after Law School?

Wei:  Yes. So I graduated from the University of Ottawa, in 2014. And I was actually caught up in the whole Heenan Blaikie collapse. So I was going to article with Heenan Blaikie, but what ended up happening was the firm collapsed and then we were sort of out of articling positions at the last minute and I kind of went back to my roots. And I thought – I had done a lot of clinic work in Law School in immigration and I had done Immigration as my Undergraduate, Migration History. And I thought, you know what, why not go back to the city that raised me – Vancouver – and do Immigration Law. And thankfully an opportunity opened up for me at Larlee Rosenberg – a leading boutique Immigration Law Firm – and I met mentors to Steve Meurrens and then the career kind of started that way. 

Stephen:  Interesting. I guess that’s a perfect example of when one door closes, another door opens.

Wei:  Absolutely. And I think I’m – I count my blessing to this day. And again, different younger lawyers and lawyers – everyone has their own interest – some love the big law environment. For me, having seen that and knowing what that entailed – and for me liberty and freedom and creativity being sort of things I value in my practice – I don’t think that environment would have been – I would have been a very different lawyer had I gone through that system. So I’m grateful for seeing the other side, but I’m also grateful for the – like you mentioned – the door opening to pursue my own career in a boutique area of the law.

Stephen:  And when you graduated from Law School, did you have a clear sense of the type of area of law you wanted to practice in? Or did the experience, as you said through your articles, kind of shape the lawyer you are today, as far as your area of practice?

Wei: I think Law School has its ways of pushing people in different directions and, of course, you leave Law School with some significant debt. And then you see your other colleagues go to some reputable firms and the amount of money they earn and those type of things. But I think – ultimately I think a lot of the things that happened, happened after I started articling. I wasn’t a very good articling student. I almost got fired. I mean there’s [laughs] some stories about me just –

Stephen: That takes a certain degree of madness [laughs] because – to actually get [crosstalk 00:05:56].

Wei: There was a conversation between myself and the Principals, “Do you really want to do this? And are you suitable for this?” Because I was just making all sorts of mistakes. But that’s what’s interesting. It was actually – at that time my own partner was overseas and I was trying to do a Visa application – actually, the Firm had helped me with one. Ironically it was refused for my own partner to come and it was refused on the ground that the bank statement of my mother didn’t have her full name. And just – I think it was one of those wake-up calls to the level of detail in the work and then also all the systemic issues that followed. Like, why are they calling my then partner, “Young, single and mobile?” And it created that advocacy drive in me. So I mean if things like that didn’t happen, I also wouldn’t be here today.

Stephen: Right.

Wei: So there were a lot of things that occurred early in my career that have sort of shifted to where I am today.

Stephen: Right. Well you know we mention you’re a young lawyer. You’re still, in my opinion, pretty early in your career. So you’re still – you’re well ahead of where I was [laughs] when I was at the stage of career that you are today, so it’s very impressive.

Wei:  Thank you. I feel older than my age already and that’s not good. I probably start looking [laughs], starting to look older than my age with – and the pandemic has had a big impact on all of us – for me it’s been the lack of physical exercise. But all in all, I’ve been grateful that there have been a lot of mentors and people on the way who’ve opened doors and said, “You know what, you are still young, but we want you to speak at this.” Or, “We want you to get involved on this Board.” Or, “We want to open doors for you.” 

And without those individuals who really recognized that in early days, a lot of individuals are waiting for that opportunity and it could take several years. So I was grateful to get that within the first couple years of my practice. And it’s only been six years and a half, I think at this stage, but it definitely feels more like 15 to 20. I don’t know why, it’s just the mentality that I have – I carry.

Stephen: The joke is they’re kind of like dog years. Every year is worth so [laughs] many – in the practice of law is worth so many years. So you mentioned mentorship, but I think it’s important to just drill down, because you’re very active – you’re very active in many community groups and Boards. And I’m just wondering if you could speak to how important it is for lawyers to get involved, for example, in whether non-legal community projects, or mentorship? And how you see that then – how you see that helping them become better lawyers?

Wei: Absolutely. For me, I think community actually drove the immigration practice. I still get most of my referrals from community groups and organizations that I work for – or even on Facebook – from people that I met years ago that I volunteered with in university, for example. So I have always been involved. That’s something that was – predated Law School – but I think the level of involvement changed after Law School, where it went to positions that perhaps you are being handpicked for the legal skills you had, or your ability to critically think through issues.

  So I mean there have been a lot of projects going from before being involved in Chinatown Advocacy, sitting on the Boards of Non-Profits. I was the Culture Communities Advisory Committee Chair for the City of Vancouver, a Community Committee. And now, I mean I’m sitting on a few other – we’ve recently founded a Charity – I’m on the Board of that. And we’ll be starting a Non-Profit organization that – with – where I’m one of two Board members. 

And then I also do some advocacy with the CBA of course, that helped cofound the Anti-Racism Committee for the National Section and I’m chairing the Conference and – co-chairing the Conference with Sofia Mirza. I mean there’s a lot of projects. I think – you know what – this is interesting, I’m going to turn the question around. I actually think right now, it’s not only important to get involved, but part of it is also to watch your involvement. And I’m thinking about this maybe now on the other side of having involved – getting – gotten involved in so many different projects. But right now I’m at the phase where it’s, “Where is your capacity at? How much can you take? And how much can you put into that? And also, opening doors for others. Are there other individuals who you’d like to see take your position? 

And I think it’s really great when you jump into a position or ones open for you, when you have capacity. But when you’re starting to feel like you’re not 150 percent engaged, is there someone in your pipeline – your mentorship pipeline – a mentee of yours – who can take over your position. And I’m constantly thinking about that with stuff that I’m involved in now.

So it’s a fine balance, but again – my legal career, my immigration career, all the migrant communities that we work for and we lawyer for – it all started with doing a volunteer talk or helping them out in some way.

Stephen: Right. And my question was going to be – and it’s maybe a rhetorical question – is when do you sleep? [Laughs] But it sounds like you don’t sleep that much – at least your days – your waking days – are pretty full.

Wei:  I think most of my lack of sleep now comes from my newborn baby. So we have a six-month-old. She turns six months tomorrow.

Stephen: Congratulations.

Wei: A daughter and she’s the joy of my life. I do sleep. I do sleep quite a bit. And I’m grateful for a spouse who lets me sleep [laughs] when the baby’s crying in the middle of the night. But I think this is where setting your – I mean, I just take pride in packing days in a relatively – make sure I set out time for myself – for the morning health walk, for cooking lunch for the family, doing the – being the dinner and dishes person – and then in between is just being efficient with the time but also having really good people behind you. I think that that sort of – it gets missed when – especially in the lawyer ego world of – if it’s social media they see your face or they read about your accomplishments – but behind every lawyer is a team of individuals.

And for me, I mean, it goes from my – from the contracting lawyers that we have at our firm to, I have the most incredible mentees and students – who run around behind the scenes to make things happen, review the PowerPoint the second time to make sure there are no mistakes – and I don’t think those people in law often get their due. Those people are the ones who create the environment, to allow you to think creatively and to engage in bigger picture things. If you don’t have those detail people behind you, you’re going to make mistakes, then you’re going to have that lack of stability in your practice and career. So I have to give all the props to those people in my life.

Stephen:  Well that’s – I think that’s a good – that’s good advice for anybody that nobody can do it alone and really, it’s a team effort. So I want to pick up on something you said earlier. You mentioned your newborn daughter and I understand that earlier in this year – at the same time that you had a newborn daughter – you decided to launch a Law Firm, Heron Law. You also talked about your work to deconstruct and rethink traditional ways of doing Immigration Law and Refugee Law by applying an intersectional race equality lens. I guess, what made you decide on this – I guess this setting up your – this new Law Firm in that career path?

Wei: Yes. I mean, I was grateful to have been at Larlee Rosenberg, a leading boutique and then I went to Edelmann. So I was – I pretty much trained at the best places I could – Edelmann, now Justice Edelmann, B.C. Supreme Court, showing the ways of – he was so engaged in community, such a strategic litigator – learning about all of that. But I think there was still part of me that was looking around. And again, I have to give props to my cofounder, Edris Arib, who was my Legal Assistant, at Edelmann at the time, who was telling me, “Listen. We can do this. We can do this for our communities. Why does law have to look a certain way? How do we get more racialized folks involved in practice? How do we inspire all the young lawyers? 

And I know I was still – I mean I’m still relatively young – but I was thinking, now that I have a daughter – I just actually had moved to Burnaby as well – so that was shortly before starting my own firm as well. So I had the move, the baby on the way and decided, now is the best time, especially if I want to focus on building a legacy project. Can I build something that I could be proud to tell my child about – that we are building a project for you, we’re building a project for your generation, for the daughters. And actually, ironically, our firm – there’s three of us that have young daughters that were all just born this year. 

And I constantly keep in my mind a vision of them – the next generation – running the Law Firm and the various roles – being lawyers, being able to go to a room of – a court room that looked very different than it does today, with judges that look very different than they do today and being able to argue a case for a client – and it gives me hope and that hope drives this firm. So very much I thank everyone who got me to this point and all the firms, but it was also, “Listen, it’s time to do something new, exciting, change up the game a bit.” I think we’ve done that so far.

Stephen: That does – I mean, it’s very impressive like I said, that one of those things in a year – having a new child – would be enough. But actually setting up a Law Firm and taking that initiative, is very impressive. I want to speak to you about a development in Immigration Law. This – earlier this year the federal government announced that it would allow Indigenous people to reclaim their traditional name – well I guess it’s more than Immigration Law, it’s a more broader conversation – will allow Indigenous people to reclaim their traditional names on official documents such as passports. And you decided to offer your services of your firm to Indigenous individuals, on a pro bono basis. Can you tell us why you did that? And what response you’ve gotten from the community?

Wei: So one of the big conflicts in my practice – and just in general, my existence as a settler on Indigenous lands – and I forgot to mention at the outset that I’m speaking as a settler on Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Qayqayt territories, where our firm and our various virtual offices are located. 

 But the conflict between being an Immigration Lawyer that helps settle settlers and newcomers to lands that are not ours, has always been a conflict in my practice – and increasingly so – and the lack of Indigenous engagement when it comes to immigration. So these things were already percolating in my mind and in my consciousness. 

And then when the government launched the name, “Reclamation Projects,” and I knew they had involved immigration forms and things that I was familiar with, but I knew working with our clients that these are not forms that the lay person would be able to fill out. And then you add the additional layers of Indigenous folks who may never have had to engage with bodies such as immigration or forms such as these, or want to, how could I be a bit of a go-between, or a facilitator in that process?

So we decided to open up a call to say, “Listen, we’re going to help anyone who wants on a pro bono basis, and we’ll cover all your courier expenses – anything that you incur from it – because the process, we realize, was actually quite problematic. It was done at a time – and I understand why – you know quite quickly, but they didn’t go through proper consultations. 

And there were – the instructions themselves are quite confusing – and in fact, we’re starting to see the conflict now at the local provincial level, because individuals who are contacting us now are not even dealing with the passport issue, or the citizenship certificate issue. It’s how do I change the name at a provincial level? And through that, we’ve realized all the provinces have different processes. They have various levels of transparency on their instructions to do so. And various limitations – such as not being able to include Indigenous characters in names or requiring police checks – that can be very evasive. 

So these are things that I definitely wasn’t expecting, so I jumped in. I wanted to help out on a piece that I was familiar with and it’s turned into now a bigger project. And we’re actually doing consultations and being contacted by various governments and government bodies, to do some consultation around that, for non-profits, to see how we can help their clients, so it’s become a bigger project. It’s exciting.

There’s a lot that needs to go into working with Indigenous communities, including Trauma Informed Practice. Myrna McCallum has been a great help for us. We’ve learned a lot through this process. It isn’t one that is easy to jump through, but it’s given us such rewarding stories and such heartfelt stories. And really – I mean I still think of some – I’ve had angry individuals contact me – taking all their anger on the government against – in a conversation with me, but I think about how our history has brought us to this point. And I’m just grateful to be able to do the work. So I’ve sort of landed at that spot.

Stephen:  Great. Well I just want to commend you for doing that important work and it sounds like it’s – as you mentioned – it’s gotten broader even than your original expectations. But I think it is – as you mentioned – is very important work. And I have – just even hearing you speak about it – just realized how meaningful it is to you personally and to myself as well, so thank you.

There’s so many things going on with you, that I talk about one thing and there’s something else to talk about. [Laughter] 

Wei: It’s true.

Stephen:  I understand that in addition to everything else you’ve already talked about, you can say you spend considerable time and energy to running a blog – the Vancouver Immigration Blog. You also co-host a Podcast. As a new Podcaster myself, I can learn at your feet. You run the Immlight Podcast. And you also cofounded a non-for-profit Advocacy organization, called Arenous – the Arenous Foundation. You also comment on the media and are very active on Twitter. Do you see these activities as core – the core part of your work as a lawyer? Or is it just a side hustle?

Wei:  It’s [laughs] – they’ve actually become – it’s really interesting – I still am the primary face for consultations at our firm and I am always actively and fully engaged on my clients’ files. But I would have to say that over the years – the last few years especially – I’ve shifted from being almost 100 percent of my energy directed at the – I would say the file work – to being able to be in a place to let go a bit and say, “Hey, we have the most amazing contracting lawyers. We have incredible support staff that can do the parts that they do,” which frees up my time to engage on those – on the projects that I do. 

I do have a very deep-seeded interest in the larger systemic issues in the law. So that’s where, for example, the last two months we’ve actually done eight presentations as a firm to various community groups and speaking at the National Conferences, because we are uncovering through our work, developments in the law that we believe affect practitioners, affect clients. And if we do not speak about it, or release these – for example access to information findings that we find – this information never gets the public consciousness and it will have a negative impact on clients. And we do a lot of work for clients from the global south and high refusal countries and their problems are not necessarily on their digital file. The problems arise from the systemic nature of immigration and the historic exclusion that individuals from those countries face.

So for me all the work that I do, is all related to one. There is no – I don’t separate really the two worlds. And in fact – and my spouse will probably say this is a problem of mine and criticize me for it – but I don’t really even separate to be honest, work in my own life. As a contractor I don’t have set hours. Some days I’ll attend a Conference. For example yesterday I was at a Charities and Non-Profit Conference – because I need that information for some of my work now – but in the evening I start drafting emails to clients. And our clients happen to be all over the world, so actually they’re happy about it, because it’s whatever time. And my spouse is, “That’s OK, because the baby’s asleep and you should focus on work.” 

I don’t see one without the other and I’m grateful that I have the systemic machine to support the client work and it’s always been a back and forth between the two. We take lessons from one and apply it to the other. And then what we do when one helps us attract the clients and actually connect with the clients really, on the actual client work because they will have read my materials or seen the Podcast and say, “I found you because of that. And I want to work with you because you share so openly and I agree with what you want to say. And we want to keep that in the application.”

Stephen: Well thank you. Thank you for your insights today. This is my first Podcast I’ve ever done and I think you set the bar exceptionally high. So thanks again.

Wei: Thank you.

Stephen: And I’m sure – I know, I personally will continue to not just follow your blog but follow all the great work that you’re doing. And all the best successes for the future endeavours.

Wei: I appreciate that Stephen. And I also want to thank you. I know it’s often a thankless job, putting aside a lot of your own personal career ambitions for the greater good of the legal community. And taking helm of the CBA and all the work that CBA does to its various Sections and Chapters. And again another organization that without the CBA I wouldn’t be here where I am. So I want to thank you for your leadership and everything that you do.

Stephen: Great. Well thanks a lot. 

We want to hear your stories about how you think legal professionals can help strengthen our community. Do you know a lawyer who exemplifies this ideal? Or do you see a need for legal professionals that aren’t currently being met? Let us know on Twitter @CBA_News, on Facebook and Instagram at Canadian Bar Association. You can also find me on Twitter at Stephen Rotstein. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Conversations with the President. Subscribe to get the newest episodes as soon as they are released on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your favourite Podcast platform and don’t forget to leave a review. Until next time.