Alberta law society upholds requirement for members to take Indigenous course

Law society upholds course

The Law Society of Alberta has voted by a three-to-one margin in favour of keeping a requirement for its members to complete a course on Indigenous history and culture.

Almost 3,500 lawyers voted on the motion, which would have struck down the society's right to require such courses.

After more than an hour of "spirited"online debate Monday morning, 2,609 lawyers voted against the motion while 864 supported it.

"It wasn't a close vote," said Edmonton lawyer Dennis Buchanan, who took part and supported keeping the required course, called The Path.

"I'm glad the 'no' votes won," he said. "I would have been happier to see fewer 'yes' votes."

The vote stemmed from a petition filed last week signed by 51 lawyers. They sought to strike down the society's right to require its members to take courses not directly related to the practice of law.

Some signatories called the required course political indoctrination. One said the rule reminded him of his childhood in authoritarian China. 

On Monday, the society's benchers, roughly equivalent to its board of directors, thanked the membership.

"We have always understood that there is a balance to achieve between setting standards of competence to protect the public interest and allowing lawyers to choose their own continuing professional development," they said in a statement.

"We have not identified other courses that we believe should be mandatory. However, the flexibility granted in Rule 67.4 is critically important so that we can thoughtfully consider whether specific education courses are necessary to protect and advance the public interest."

British Columbia's law society has a similar requirement and the Ontario society requires its members to take mandatory courses on sexual harassment and abuse. 

The requirement for Alberta lawyers to take The Path has been previously supported by the Canadian Bar Association's Alberta branch.

"CBA Alberta believes that the Law Society of Alberta, as the regulator, should have the authority to determine which learning activities are necessary to maintain a high professional standard and the integrity of the legal profession as one that serves the public interest," said president Amanda Lindberg in a release last week. 

Roger Song, the Calgary lawyer whose name was first on the petition, was not immediately available for comment. Nor was Glenn Blackett, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms who supported the petition in print.

Buchanan said the debate, conducted like a webinar, was vigorous but well-moderated. 

"It was a spirited debate," he said. "With certain exceptions, the tone was civil and respectful.

"There were some people that made remarks that were hyperbolic — perhaps on both sides."

Buchanan suggested a higher turnout wouldn't have affected the outcome. About one-third of Alberta's 11,000 practising lawyers tuned in to the meeting.

"It was good to see a lot of people did turn out for this," he said. 

"My suspicion is that the people who were in favour of the resolution were more likely to attend."

In a statement, the law society maintained that the ability to require courses, such as The Path, is an important part of being a self-regulating profession.

"In consideration of this authority, the law society must regulate in the public interest, which includes promoting and enforcing a high standard of professional and ethical conduct by Alberta lawyers," it said. 

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