Indigenous lay bencher aims to address inclusivity, diversity and racism in new role

By: Willow Fiddler, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Globe and Mail
Catherine Banning knows what it means to step up and fill a leadership role. She was raised by parents who taught her the importance of values like hard work. When her father, a First Nations Second World War veteran from Fort William First Nation, ended up in a hospital emergency department with a gall bladder attack in 1995, the day before he was to host the first Remembrance Day ceremony that would honour Indigenous veterans, he put his daughter in charge of the event that has taken place every year since on the Anishinaabe landmark Mount McKay, or Anemki Wajiw in Anishinaabemowin.
Her mother Evelyn, who turns 96 in May and is the oldest living member in Fort William First Nation, knows what it means to step up, too. Back in the Second World War when her husband, Frank, was deployed, she became a Rosie the Riveter – the iconic figure who symbolized the wave of women who filled the workplace gap – and assembled wings on fighter planes at what is now known as Bombardier Transportation in Thunder Bay.“
She went and she showed us women can do anything,” said Ms. Banning, one of 11 children and a trailblazer herself. Ms. Banning was recently appointed a lay bencher for the Law Society of Ontario. She’s just the second Indigenous person to be named to the position in the history of the 224-year-old institution and said she wants to prove to the Law Society and Canada that Indigenous people are “as good or better qualified at some of these roles than anyone else.”
The Law Society – the largest of its kind in the country – governs more than 57,000 licensed lawyers and 10,000 licensed paralegals in the public interest of ensuring they meet professional standards, including conduct.
There are a total of 53 benchers in the Law Society of Ontario and Ms. Banning is the only Indigenous person among the eight lay benchers, who don’t require a law degree or training and are appointed by the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. The remaining 45 benchers are elected lawyers and paralegals, and just two of them are Indigenous lawyers.
The collective benchers serve to govern the Law Society and meet most months in convocations where benchers belonging to a range of committees review reports and recommendations to make policy decisions.
Ms. Banning said she hopes to improve inclusivity and diversity and address racism in her new role, which includes serving as tribunal adjudicator to review complaints against lawyers and paralegals in Ontario.
She said the two Indigenous lawyers who serve as lawyer benchers – Etienne Esquega, who runs his own firm in Thunder Bay, and Dianne Corbiere, who also runs her own firm in Rama, Ont. – are both vocal and intelligent, qualities she believes she brings to the Law Society, too.
Ms. Banning’s appointment by the Lieutenant-Governor in February followed a recommendation from Ontario MPP Greg Rickford, with whom she worked years ago. Ms. Banning is a general manager for Maawandoon, an Indigenous community engagement company that works with remote First Nations on infrastructure projects, ensuring the communities and their needs are well-represented in the projects they undertake.
She was also chief credit officer for a credit union for close to 20 years, managing files involving property and commercial law and adjudicating a $70-million loan portfolio.
Since her appointment to the Law Society, Ms. Banning has been asked to sit on the society’s finance and audit committee, equity and Indigenous affairs committee and the tribunal committee, as well as serve as a tribunal adjudicator.“
I certainly will have a keen eye on any cases that indicate any type of racism,” she said. “I want to make sure that the community at large, whether you’re Indigenous or any other under-represented by law but maybe overrepresented by the court system, any of those cases are viewed with an eye that doesn’t reflect racism. And if it does, then make sure that those cases are corrected,” she said.
Ms. Banning said remote First Nations don’t have the type of access to justice through lawyers, paralegals and court systems that exist in urban areas.
“One of the things that I hope to make sure is very clear to the Law Society is the need for good representation within the court systems and within the legal system for First Nation community members,” Ms. Banning said.
She said having an understanding of First Nations realities is critical to addressing the overpopulation of Indigenous people in court and correctional facilities.“
And why is that? Is it because they’re not being represented well? Is it because maybe they themselves, the Indigenous clients, don’t understand the need for looking for a good representation or is it just unavailable to them?”