An open letter to the community from BLAC

Dear Community:

The Board of Directors of the Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC) has been working hard to establish a legal aid clinic servicing Black Ontarians that will provide the desperately required free and subsidized legal services that our communities need.

Much of the work we have been engaging in until now has been the type of work that is unseen, and we are overdue in providing an update to you all. During the year and a bit that we have been working to establish and open BLAC, we have incorporated, undertaken an extensive province-wide community consultation, secured an accessible office space, and hired staff.

We had originally set a very ambitious goal of opening in August 2018. Because of unforeseen delays with our office renovation, we were unable to meet this goal, but I am very excited to let you know that we anticipate that BLAC will open for business by March of this year.

We have secured office space at 720 Spadina Avenue. The building houses several community-based service organizations and is easily accessible by various public transportation hubs.

The office is currently being renovated to meet our needs and will be physically accessible. As soon as the renovations are completed, BLAC will open for business. We expect the renovations to be completed by late February.

The Board of Directors has done a lot of work to get to this point. We began with an extensive consultative process, retaining Turner Consulting Group to engage the diverse Black communities of Ontario in a needs assessment that would help us prioritize the types of services that BLAC would offer and the work in which we would engage. We also wanted to know the best way to engage our communities across the province, and to identify what the optimal staffing complement would be to provide the best possible access to justice for the growing Black population in Ontario.

The consultative process began in October 2017 and concluded in July 2018. We held consultative sessions across the Greater Toronto Area and in Ottawa, Windsor, Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo. For community members who could not physically attend sessions, we made an online consultation survey available.

We also consulted with other existing community legal clinics, specialty legal clinics, community organizations and lawyers. The consultation revealed the need for a clinic that would be embedded in the community; that would be a strong, active voice against anti-Black racism; that would prioritize transparency and accountability; that would be representative and inclusive of the full diversity of the various Black communities of Ontario; that would provide direct services and test case litigation; that would engage in public legal education and that would provide in-person services.

As such, we are building an organization that is without precedent. Never has there been a specialty clinic designed specifically for the Black community that offers both direct legal services and test case litigation. We are committed to seeing this vision through and have submitted a funding request to Legal Aid Ontario to make this vision of Black Ontarians a reality.

In the meantime, we have hired a robust staff complement that is working to ensure that BLAC is ready to serve community members. We are so fortunate to have Executive Director Ruth Goba, formerly of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, leading an excellent team of three staff lawyers and an office manager that includes Fareeda Adam, Patricia Suleiman, Trynda Thomas and Nana Yanful. We will be hiring a paralegal and an administrative assistant in the near future.

In order to fully meet our goals, we are seeking additional funding in the hopes of hiring one more lawyer, one more paralegal, a social worker and an institutional advocate. Our staff will be providing mobile legal services, with drop-in support available in different locations across the province. We have also prioritized hiring multilingual staff in order to meet the needs as assessed through our consultation.

Looking forward, this organization will be developed through community engagement, and we encourage you all to get involved and become members. We will be posting forms for membership on our website shortly. Please do get involved! Our vision is for Ontario’s Black communities to drive the development of the Black Legal Action Centre. Together, we can envision the expanded access to justice we all hope to provide.

Sandy Hudson is the Vice-Chair of the Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC). This article was submitted on behalf of the Black Legal Action Centre’s Board of Directors.