In the summer of 2005 -- dubbed by media as the summer of the guns -- a delegation was chosen to meet with the Prime Minister. There was an urgent need to address and eradicate gun violence. Among the leaders chosen to meet then Prime Minister Paul Martin was a one-time refugee from Eritrea. The young, then 18-year-old Saron Gebresellassi, was concerned about her "priority" neighborhoods and wanted to do something about it.
She mentored countless young people and contributed many hours to help change the reality. She is presently a J.D. (Juris Doctor) Candidate at the University of Ottawa also works with the prestigious law firm -- McCarthy Tetrault. On June 13th, she will be honoured with the 2012 McCarthy Tétrault LLP / Women's Law Association of Ontario Community Contribution Award. She reflects on her Canadian journey as well as the recent tragedy in downtown Toronto.
What was your reaction on the latest shooting at the Eaton Centre?
Six years ago a similar shooting spree took place outside the Eaton Centre in what was characterized as the "Boxing Day Massacre." While gun violence was certainly not new to Toronto, it was the first time it had made its way from the city's margins to the downtown core. It marked a turning point in youth mobilization and sparked the attention of municipal, provincial and federal political leaders.
That led to a historic meeting with then-prime minister Paul Martin and leaders within the African-Canadian community who lobbied for community-based strategies to eradicate gun violence. An increase in funding for youth-led programming emerged but five years later those funding sources have since fizzled out as the youth sector declines in popularity. In my estimation, this calls for us as a city to engage in serious introspection and reflect on how we will collectively mitigate the injury we incurred.
When did you move to Canada?
I arrived to Canada at the age of three as a U.N. Convention Refugee with my family whom were fleeing the Eritrean-Ethiopian war. We grew up in west Toronto in a "priority" neighborhood that is still very much a stigmatized community. I embrace my blue-collar immigrant/refugee heritage as it gave me a unique work ethic that has turned out to be quite beneficial!
At the risk of sounding like a bona fide nerd, I thoroughly enjoy learning everything there is to know about the law and lawyering. Law is an art and a science simultaneously. I enjoy being able to speak competently and knowledgeably about diverse legal matters from class action lawsuits to nuclear and atomic energy law to everything in between! I am gaining expertise in a wide array of matters of critical importance to the daily lives of ordinary Canadians. Knowledge of the law is a versatile and powerful tool to have at one's disposal.
Describe some of your advocacy work
I have had an incredibly positive experience while in law school at the University of Ottawa. I advocated vigorously for language rights -- a hot topic in the national capital region and I made a submission to the Standing Committee on Francophone Affairs and Official Languages which came to the attention of the Dean and Vice Deans of the Faculty of Law. That resulted in the creation of an ad hoc committee to implement structural measures to promote bilingualism. I was very active with the Black Law Students Association, Women's Legal Mentorship Program, Legal Links & Bridges, and Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG-Ottawa).
I was involved in creating Black History Month programming in collaboration with the Michaelle Jean Foundation and was also invited to speak to the Eritrean and Ethiopian communities in Ottawa. I enjoyed mentoring first year students and easing their transition into the law school environment in addition to providing academic support in the form of tutoring and legal writing assistance. Outside of law school, I worked one-on-one with students to provide guidance and tangible support in applying to graduate studies.
Tell me about some of your volunteer work in the community?
I'm National Conference Chair for the Black Law Students Association of Canada -- a national organization devoted to excellence and substantive equality. I'm frequently invited to deliver seminars across Ontario to expose post-secondary education as a viable option to marginalized youth. I also give legal education and information workshops to various communities including the deaf community, Eritrean community, activist community and various youth groups.
Why is the latest award special to you?
This award is special because a) it is the community reminding me that my contributions are valuable and b) it is the first time I am being recognized by the legal community which is quite the honour given that I'm very young in my legal career. It is no secret that women are exiting private practice in disproportionate numbers. Women and men in the legal community have been tackling this problem for many years. While I do not know definitively what the solution is; I am confident it lies with young people whom will comprise the next generation of lawyers.