Law Society of Alberta votes to uphold mandatory education after Indigenous culture course comes under fire

Lawyers in the province were given 18 months to finish an online course called The Path or risk suspension

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A proposal to eliminate mandatory professional development for lawyers following an Indigenous culture course has failed, with 75 per cent of Law Society of Alberta members present at a special meeting voting to uphold the society’s ability to impose such education.

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More than 3,400 lawyers attended a virtual meeting Monday to decide the fate of Rule 67.4, an amendment to the law society rules that allowed the society’s board to mandate Indigenous cultural competency training for the province’s legal professionals.

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Lawyers in the province were given 18 months, ending last October, to finish an online course called The Path or risk suspension. The requirement drew the ire of a group of 50 lawyers, who signed a petition last month asking the rule be repealed.

Around 75 per cent of those who voted Monday, however, agreed the law society should be able to impose continuing education, which members of the board say they did only to adhere to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendation aimed at law societies. A total of 3,473 votes were cast Tuesday — roughly 31 per cent of all active lawyers in the province — with 864 in favour of scrapping 67.4 and 2,609 voting to uphold the rule. 

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Some of the original petitioners said they did not oppose Indigenous education per se but objected to the ability of the law society to suspend members for not completing the work. One claimed the move was part of a “woke” agenda, while an Indigenous lawyer used the opportunity to question the extent of the harms caused by residential schools.

More than 400 lawyers later signed a letter supporting Indigenous education, along with all 24 members of the law society board, known as benchers.

Sarah Kriekle, a Red Deer lawyer who helped organize support for upholding Rule 67.4, said she was pleased with Monday’s result.

“I’m really happy to see so much of our legal profession come out and support the law society’s authority to mandate courses like this,” she said. “The Path itself is not cultural or political indoctrination, it’s about learning and understanding facts that a lot of people in the legal profession — in particular those who have been in the legal profession for a long time — didn’t learn about in high school or elementary school or law school. So it’s just ensuring a minimum level of competence.”

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Monday’s meeting was closed to reporters and members of the public, but Kriekle said the tone was largely respectful, “aside from a few comments.”

“I think a lot of people who turned up were mainly concerned with potential overreach by the law society and not so much about The Path. It was great to hear a lot of the speakers for (repeal) talk about how the enjoyed The Path, they thought it was great, but they’re concerned about the authority of the law society to mandate professional development.”

Roger Song, a Calgary lawyer whose name appeared first on the repeal petition, declined to comment. He previously said mandated programs like The Path reminded him of his experience in communist China, and that he would be uncomfortable if the law society required courses on other topics, such as systemic racism. Song said he approves of continuing education generally, as long as it is self-directed.

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In a statement, law society benchers called the level of interest in the issue “unprecedented” and said there are no current plans to mandate another program such as The Path.

“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,” the benchers said.

“As previously stated, 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.”

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