Donald McLeod has tried to be a leader in his community. For that, he has paid a steep price, writes Jamil Jivani.
Imagine you grew up seeing some of the harshest conditions in your city: public housing and poverty. Like many of your peers, you struggled in school, but a dream to attend university was realized thanks to God’s grace, mom’s love, hard work and student loans. After exceeding all expectations to become a lawyer, you chose to represent clients in the neighbourhoods you once called home, eventually starting a criminal defence and human-rights law practice.
After such an improbable rise, consider how you’d feel when given the opportunity to serve on the judiciary, a pillar in the governmental machine that adjudicates matters of inequality with which you’re intimately familiar. You bring your unique insights into the courtroom and you’re an exemplary member of the judiciary. But because you’re a highly regarded member of a beleaguered community, you feel compelled to do more. Everywhere you turn, you’re reminded of the many problems in need of solutions: drive-by shootings put parents and children in danger of stray bullets, failing schools allow high-potential children to slip through the cracks, viral videos of police misconduct erode trust between cops and communities in need of ethical law enforcement. You’re left to wonder if you should be a voice for change outside of the courtroom, too, and what exactly that would entail.
This dilemma is the life of Ontario Court Justice Donald McLeod. And there was no precedent that he could turn to for guidance. A true trailblazer, Justice McLeod is a first of sorts: a Black Canadian judge whose intellect and spirit for the downtrodden was forged on Toronto’s toughest street corners.
Justice McLeod accepted that he did have a responsibility outside of the courtroom. In May 2016, after a Rexdale drive-by shooting killed Candice Rochelle Bobb, a pregnant Black woman whose child soon after succumbed to his premature birth, Justice McLeod called for an emergency town-hall meeting to interrogate the many challenges that afflict low-income Black families. By the end of 2017, he launched the Federation of Black Canadians, which set out to advocate for solutions to social and economic challenges that disproportionately impact Black communities across the country. By February 2018, the non-partisan federation was in a manufactured controversy due in part to its advocacy to federal government and Liberal party officials. In November 2018, Justice McLeod appeared before the Ontario Judicial Council on allegations of impermissible advocacy and other misconduct. Although he successfully defended himself at that first disciplinary hearing, the judge has been suspended for most of the last two years, awaiting a second hearing, which is scheduled to begin on Dec. 7.
Justice McLeod has paid a steep personal and professional price for trying to be a change leader in his community. And his persecution is driven by two primary forces.