“The world is now seeing the racism that Black people experience all the time”: The Black Legal Action Centre’s Ruth Goba on the legal struggles affecting Black Torontonians
Ruth Goba, a former Ontario Human Rights Commissioner and the executive director of the Black Legal Action Centre, spends her days defending Black Ontarians in cases related to employment, housing and education. Toronto Life spoke to Goba about how she ended up in her current job, why anti-Black racism is so hard to prove and the legal challenges Black people are facing during Covid.
—As told to Ann Marie Collymore
“I was born in Washington, D.C., where my dad attended Howard University. When I was two, we moved to Sierra Leone, my father’s home country, and lived there until I was six. When my parents separated, my dad stayed in Africa and I moved to Toronto with my mother and sister. We lived in a one-bedroom basement apartment for a year or so, until we could afford something more. From the time she was a teenager, my mom worked as a secretary—she never had the opportunity to get an education, which she had always wanted. Partway through Grade 13, I got a job managing the cosmetics counter at Shopper’s Drug Mart. But I always planned to resume my education. I had watched my mom struggle for years, working for other people, and I didn’t want my life to be like that. When I was 21, I enrolled at the pre-university program at Woodsworth College at U of T.
“University taught me about systemic inequity on a theoretical level, but I saw it first-hand in my own life. I had family in Sierra Leone, including my father, and I knew that everything was collapsing as a result of devastating financial adjustment programs: developing countries were paying millions of dollars of debt interest to northern countries. The country also endured a devastating war, largely fuelled by groups who wanted to control the rich diamond mines. Many of my family members ended up as refugees or were internally displaced, including my father and grandmother.
“As a result, I decided I wanted to work in international human rights. Throughout university, however, I experienced patronizing micro-aggressions from my White professors. I had one professor, in the African Studies department, who told me how surprised he was that I wrote so well, as most Black students did not. On another occasion, I told him that a Black friend of mine was absent from class because his best friend had died. The professor asked “Oh, was he shot?” I explained that the friend had died in a car accident. These are the types of micro-aggressions that Black students deal with constantly. But at U of T, I also had two professors, both Black, who were incredibly supportive. One of them was super-critical of my thought process and challenged me to work harder. The other one hired me to do research and encouraged me to go to law school.
“I started at Osgoode in 1997. At first, everything about law school seemed totally foreign to me. I came in knowing nothing about the law. I’m not a strong exam writer, and I have a crippling fear of public speaking; eventually, I took a trial advocacy course to force myself to get over that fear. Who wants a lawyer who can’t speak in public? I didn’t have time to socialize or network, and I was still at my Shopper’s job, which often interfered with my coursework. Even though there were some other Black students in law school, there were absolutely no resources or support systems in place for us at the time.
“My first semester was incredibly difficult, and I almost dropped out. In my second semester, though, I met my future husband, Jonathan Shime, in an elective class on African Canadians and the law. He came from a family of lawyers, so law school was completely different for him, and he became my support system. He would say to me, ‘You have to continue, you can do it.’ With his help, I finally found my footing.
“I did not get an articling position after law school, which was devastating. I wasn’t prepared and didn’t know how to interview for a job. Nor did I have a network to help me strategize about the best places to apply, or to develop my interview skills, or improve my resumé and cover letter. I had to figure those things out for myself. Looking back, though, not getting an articling job that year turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. Back then, the idea was you were successful if you ended up on Bay Street—and I’m not a Bay Street person. I don’t fit in that mould. I’m driven by a passion for social justice, and you don’t often find that kind of work on Bay Street.
“Around that time, I came across a job listing calling for a lawyer to advocate for women’s housing and property rights in India. I read the job description and said, This is my job. And I got it! During my time in India, I worked at the United Nations. I also worked on a case that challenged forced evictions from settlements in Delhi—quite similar to what happens to homeless encampments in Toronto. I’m terrified of public speaking, but I was compelled to speak up in court for their rights. In doing so, we secured an order from the Delhi High Court that mandated transportation for kids to go to school, potable water, sanitation and mobile healthcare. That case showed me that with the right advocacy, you can make some change.
“When I returned to Toronto, I completed articles at the ARCH Disability Law Centre, worked at the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation and also in private practice. In 2006, I was appointed to sit as a Commissioner with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which led to my appointment as Interim Chief Commissioner in 2015. When you advocate for an understanding of anti-Black racism, you experience pushback and questioning. Often, racism comes from people who consider themselves allies, but who engage with you from a position of privilege or bias. There’s the assumption that I’m only doing this advocacy work because I’m Black, or that I think anti-Black racism is more important than other kinds of racism.
“I was once in a meeting with a group of staff where I had to clarify the role of one of the employees, who was challenging me. He would not accept my position and direction as his superior, and instead, began yelling at me in front of all the meeting participants. I had observed him for years with my White predecessor, and he had never behaved this way before. It was clear to me that it came down to the fact that I—a Black woman and his senior—had the power to tell him what to do. People who were in the room that day told me they knew that the incident would have never happened if I wasn’t a Black woman.
“In 2017, I started a new job as executive director of the Black Legal Action Centre, or BLAC. When the African Canadian Legal Clinic was defunded by Legal Aid in 2017, BLAC was born as a new clinic whose mandate was to fight anti-Black racism across Ontario. At BLAC, we provide legal support to low- and no-income Black Ontarians. In my work, I see anti-Black racism in education, when two children, one Black and one White, do exactly the same thing, but the Black child is disciplined, suspended or even criminalized, and the White child is sent back to class with a slap on the wrist. I see it in housing when Black women try to find apartments and are rejected because the landlord says he doesn’t want lots of men coming in and out of the place. I see it when tenants are threatened with a call to Children’s Aid if they don’t stop demanding repairs to their unit.
“One of the greatest challenges with defending these clients is proving the existence of anti-Black racism. What you need is evidence, and usually all you have are two sides of the story. In employment cases, clients often deal with micro-aggressions from managers. They’re told, ‘You won’t be able to take care of that, so I’ll pass it on to someone more qualified,’ or ‘You speak so articulately for a Black person.’ The narratives and stereotypes around Black people are so ingrained in our society that most people believe the non-Black person in any retelling of events. When I’ve had coworkers disrespect me, I’d stake my life that they would never have been so belligerent and aggressive to a non-Black person in my position. But to prove it? That’s a whole other issue. At BLAC we tell people to take notes: text them to yourself, email them to yourself, write down the details.
“In this current pandemic and political moment, BLAC is trying to support our community. People are just trying to survive. They’re concerned with how to navigate emergency measures—someone recently called about housing and what happens if they are not able to pay their rent. We anticipate people in the Black community will have to eventually deal with evictions, and as a result of CERB there will be audits. As usual, the most vulnerable populations will be targeted. There is also an influx of calls about employment. Essential workers are worried about their safety and want to know if they have to go into work. What happens when they have to be out of their houses? Is their workplace providing proper equipment for them if they have to be exposed in the workplace and travel on the TTC?
“It’s critical that we recognize racism is not just an American issue; in Ontario, Black people are 20 times more likely than Whites to die at the hands of police, and 70 per cent more likely to be involved in an encounter where there’s use of force. Right now, during Covid-19, essential workers are more likely to be targeted by police because they’re the often the ones who are out of their homes. And Black people comprise a huge percentage of essential workers: they’re the childcare workers who enable us to do our jobs and keeps our kids safe, they’re the personal support workers who look after our elderly parents when we can’t, they’re the migrant farm workers and grocery store clerks who enable us to feed our families, they’re the custodians who keep our public spaces clean. I hope that, as a society, we remember who is essential to our existence when it’s all over. I want to see political will to make legislative changes to provide a living wage, paid sick days, affordable childcare and more, changes that will allow us all to live with dignity and safety and security. That’s where the government comes in.
“I think in the last few weeks, with George Floyd’s death, the world has seen the racism Black people encounter all the time. At BLAC, when we get call after call from Black people across Ontario with similar experiences, it is easy to see the patterns, the systemic nature of racism. And now the world is starting to recognize these patterns in policing. Historically, most people have believed police officers’ versions of events, but this is starting to change, thanks in large part to video proof. I see it every day in my work—the inability to see the humanity in Black people, to see us as equals. It’s not just police brutality, but inequity in education, employment, housing and health. And, of course, they’re all connected.
“I am inspired every day by the resilience and strength of my community. I am inspired by the people who have fought this struggle for many years and the people I work with today. I’ve been blessed tremendously to be where I am in my life right now. I hope that I am remembered for making a difference in my community and for doing what I can, in a principled way, with the privilege and the platform that I have, to make our society a better place.”