Judge and advocate

PDFPrintE-mail Written by Gloria Elayadathusseril Friday, 04 February 2011 03:07

Judge Andre is one of the first and few justices to hold a doctorate degree in law, a gold medalist in English, recipient of the African Canadian Achievement Award and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Award.

Irving Andre was born on the Caribbean island of Curacao and raised on another, Dominica (not to be mistaken for the Dominican Republic), whose population is about 72,500 — that is a few thousand less than the city of Nanaimo, B.C. Being born in a middle-class family as the fourth child among seven, and then living on a tiny island, life could have been very tough for him, he says, but for one thing — education. “I have been buffeted by the realization that it’s only through education that I can achieve anything,” he says.

So has he achieved anything significant? Not just one achievement, but many!

Yes, he is one of the first and few justices to hold a doctorate degree in law, a gold medalist in English, recipient of the African Canadian Achievement Award and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Award, and is also the only black judge in the Ontario Court of Justice in Brampton. (though he is rather sad than proud about the latter)!

Justice Andre first left Dominica to gain an undergraduate degree in geography at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica upon receiving a U.S. aid scholarship. He then moved to the United States to pursue a doctorate in history at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, once again on a scholarship.

“While there, I resumed a relationship with a young lady from Dominica, who would migrate to Canada,” he recalls with a smile. So despite his passion for education, he discontinued his doctoral studies after two years and moved to Canada in 1984, following his new wife.

Though he was happy following his love to Canada, the young man was faced with hardships in settling in and feeding their growing family. He delivered newspapers and flyers over the weekends while working as a claims adjuster at the Workers’ Compensation Board. “After a year, I decided I should at least make an effort to resume studies. It was logical for me to study law once I had acclimatized myself to the Canadian experience.”

Andre remembers why it was a natural course to pursue law: “Even as an undergraduate student in Jamaica, I was always very interested in studying law.” In fact, back home, he couldn’t get government financial aid to study law so he had turned to his second love, history. “I always had a strong interest in becoming either a history professor or a lawyer, so it wasn’t a difficult decision.”

He continues, “Somewhat ironically, it was easier to study law here than in the West Indies because of the question of funding … Law offered the promise of being able to work independently of others and being able to make a difference.” He then practised criminal law for nearly 10 years, before he was called to the bench in 2002.

He has definitely been making a difference, both in the black community and outside, ever since. He has been actively involved in several organizations including Sisserou Cultural Club and the United Achievers Club of Brampton, the John Howard Society and the Kiwanis Club of Brampton, the United Achievers Non Profit Housing Corporation and the RESQ Youth Club. He has also authored or co-authored more than a dozen books on history, literature and economics.

Currently, Andre is updating the thesis that he worked on for his PhD, The Significance of Race in the Sentencing of Drug Couriers, in which he presents the case of many black single mothers who have been enticed into becoming drug couriers to drug destinations in the Caribbean. “There is a significant debate as to how these couriers should be sentenced. Should they receive punitive sentences? Or should their impoverished or disadvantaged backgrounds play a more significant role in their sentencing? Hopefully, I can bring some insight into the issue and make a contribution to make it easy for courts to deal with this problem.” (The University of British Columbia Press is scheduled to publish the revised version as a book sometime later this year.)

To help empower the community, he also speaks to youth through various community organizations and settlement agencies about the importance of education in uplifting communities. According to him, now is the time to “seize the reigns” of your future and to make something of yourself.

“It’s a theme that I echo in many speeches and presentations I make — the whole notion of why as immigrant people we can’t wait. We can’t wait, for example, for a glacial pace of change, but we have to be the agents of change. [I say] that we have come here and we have to seize the moments and opportunities that exist and that we should make every effort to take advantage of the educational opportunities.”

In his own case, Andre not only seized such an opportunity, but also came out in flying colours. “As an articling student, I was assigned to prosecute cases of violation of the occupational health and safety act. I did a lot of travelling, but, more importantly, I did a lot of litigation, did a lot of court work and I found it very exciting. I was very much enthused by going to court and arguing on behalf of the Crown.”

He graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School of York University in 1988 specializing in labour law, while winning an award in immigration law studies. One of his papers analyzing the Commonwealth Caribbean and Mexican Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program was also published in the Osgoode Hall Law Journal.

When he was called to the bar two years later, he continued to work in the Ministry of Labour, as an assistant Crown attorney.  During his tenure, he found a disproportionate number of immigrants employed in window cleaning and construction industries, and that they were disinclined to report workplace injury out of fear. “There was always an unspoken rule that you weigh in the risk of losing your job if you report the accident,” he says, adding that he noticed that though it was not their fault, the workers injured on the job were reluctant to testify or give information because of fear.

“I would like to think it has changed because I know that the penalty has increased. But are we at a stage where all workers feel free to come forward? I don’t think necessarily … because there are certain realities that immigrants face in terms of job tenure. And you know the old maxim, which relates unfortunately to many immigrants, that invariably they are the last to be hired but the first to be fired, so my impression is that to a significant degree it’s still the case in the workplace.” 

While he believes that there has been a significant increase in awareness among the immigrant communities about their rights and responsibilities, Andre observes that there is an “intense relationship” between immigrant status, poverty and perceptions about crime. “One of the hot-button issues with the law enforcement is whether immigrants disproportionately commit crimes, or whether members of racialized communities are policed more intensely. Suffice it to say at least in certain instances that policing is intensified in racial communities because of issues relating to poverty. Obviously, the question of gun violence and the increasing number of deaths in young black males has brought the issue to the forefront.”

According to him, the issue has to be dealt with as a community. “I think that is where the message of education has to come through. Because it’s through education you learn that salvation lies, in the extent to which you exploit the natural talents you have. So as a community this is something we have to address.

“I try to convey to the young people one of the things they should make their business to know, is to find out more about the backgrounds of their parents. That’s something I harp on a lot. Specially those of us who spend our formative years in so called ‘third-world’ countries so that they [the youth] know what hardship is all about; what deprivation is all about … you know, that is critical, to impart to young people the realization that time is not something that you waste and time is something that gives you an opportunity to take advantage of what exists in our society.”

At his home, Andre talks to his two daughters about the hardships he faced back home growing up, so that they may value the comparatively privileged life they have here in Canada and make the best of their lives. “The first one is at University of Western Ontario studying health sciences. She wants to work as a medical professional with Nurses Without Borders or Doctors Without Borders, and the second one wants to pursue law,” says the proud father.

Last Updated on Saturday, 26 February 2011 01:28

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