Black Law Students’ Association Hosts Toronto Alumni Event

Group photo of Black Law Students' Association Toronto event
Photo by Jay Paris

At the first annual reception for black graduates of Queen’s Law, alumni came together from across Ontario to join Dean Bill Flanagan and students at Toronto’s Society Loft on October 10. The event was hosted by the Queen’s Chapter of the Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA) of Canada, established in 2015 to help foster inclusivity and to give its members a platform for guidance and support.

“I am very happy with the turnout!” exclaims Michael Coleman, Law’17, co-founder and past president of BSLA–Queen’s. “Everyone was so engaged.”

Alumni on the guest list now work in a broad array of positions in the legal profession and deal with a variety of legal areas. For instance, Justice Donald McLeod, Law’95, of the Ontario Court of Justice is the first black Queen’s Law graduate to be called to the Bench; Frank Walwyn, Law’93, of WeirFoulds LLP is one of Bay Street’s first black partners; Alexander Cornelius, Law’93, is a senior crown attorney; and Gerry McNeilly, Law’93, is Director of Ontario’s Office of the Independent Police Review. Others included partners in private practice, sole practitioners, government lawyers, and an in-house lawyer for LexisNexis. Several came from Ottawa, and one alumnus even drove from Waterloo to Toronto and back, just to attend the reception.

Dean Bill Flanagan was a key speaker at the event, affirming the school’s commitment to diversity and its goal to increase the numbers of black students. He also drew the audience’s attention to the Robert Sutherland Fellowship in Law, an award established in 2015 by alumni and friends to honour the remarkable legacy of a Queen’s University graduate who, after graduating in 1852, went on to become the first black lawyer in British North America. The Fellowship supports graduate students coming from the Caribbean, Sutherland’s place of birth. BLSA–Queen’s expressed its interest in helping raise additional funds to support this Fellowship.

Justice McLeod also spoke at the reception, giving life advice to junior colleagues and students who may have come from humble beginnings. For him, mentorship has always played a significant role in his career. In his first year at Queen’s Law, he met two fellow black law students who helped guide him, and he has continued to keep in touch with them since then. He also continues to pay it forward, taking on several important initiatives that focus on uplifting black youth. For example, with the help of other black professionals, he established an organization called “100 Strong,” which unites young men with supportive mentors and promotes self-empowerment and success. 

Citing Justice McLeod and Frank Walwyn as among his main mentors, Mr. Coleman says he now uses their lessons to uplift students himself. He created a peer-support group called “Help. Learn. Inspire!” that focuses on connecting young adults with mentors in their favourite subjects and also provides them with daily motivation. “One way I do this is by informing them of the challenges I faced during law school, and how I was able to overcome them,” he says. “At all times, the focus is on helping these students both set and achieve their goals.” 

Stella Gore, Law’18, who helped organize the reception, says that having mentors in various fields has been a big help to her and she wants to take it a step further. “I’d like to see a formal mentorship program at Queen’s Law. It would be good to have that kind of support from the beginning of school.”

The reception may be the springboard to do just that. Mr. Coleman was most impressed with the humbleness and enthusiasm shown by all the graduates. “The older alumni made a concerted effort to reach out to the recent graduates and current law students with the goal of providing us with guidance and help,” he says. “This immediately showed me how much our alumni value mentorship and community – two key strengths that are also present at the law school. I may have graduated last year, but Queen’s Law and BLSA will always remain a part of me.”

This story is written by Aschille Clarke-Mendes and first appeared on the Queen’s Faculty of Law website.