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Advancing Women's Leadership

Q&A with Vivene Salmon, First Racialized President of the Canadian Bar Association

Vivene Salmon
Vivene Salmon

Vivene Salmon is the first Racialized President of the Canadian Bar Association and Founder & CLO at F8th Inc.

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As a young girl, did you always aspire to be a lawyer?

The short answer is yes. From an early age, I knew I wanted a career in law and/or journalism. I loved reading and I have a natural aptitude for writing. Throughout the school years from grade school to high school, I participated in many activities; including Book Club, Writing Club, Debate Club, History Club, Federal-Provincial Club and Model United Nations (MUN).

Every year after the school year was completed, my mom had us write in a memory journal several commentaries about the recently finished school year such as our weight and height, who were our favourite teachers, who were our close friends, what were key accomplishments and the infamous questions: what do you want to be when you grow up?

I don’t know where I got the idea, it was not from my mother, who herself had an interest in nursing and healthcare. My parents never told my brothers and I what career to have, but always expected we would try to do well in school.

I can remember from a very early age sitting around the family dinner table listening to CBC radio and talking about the issues of the day with my parents and their friends. It was always important to have an opinion and express it respectfully to other family members.

Both my parents loved listening to CBC Cross Country Check-up and Peter Gzowski’s Morningside, so when I was asked to be a commentator on Vaccination Passports on Cross Country Check-Up, it was a real honour.

What I can say is that pretty much from grade one onwards I wanted a career – in journalism or law. I am still passionate about public policy issues – to me being a lawyer has always been a calling, not a job.

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Upon being brought up to the bar in 2010, what was your vision for your legal career?

Prior to commencing my legal career, I held several roles of increasing responsibility in Crisis Communications and Issues Management in various ministries of the Government of Ontario. I thought I would graduate from law school and start my legal career either at the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General or as a lawyer for one of the Government of Ontario’s ministries. However, when I graduated from law school the Great Recession of 2009 had struck. For my generation of lawyers’ this impacted the type of work and opportunities that were available to young lawyers starting out their legal careers. Many opportunities that were previously available had dried up. My legal opportunity came in the private sector. I started out my career at the international law firm Gowlings WLG and went on to work at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in the Toronto Office and currently at F8th Inc. as a Co-Founder and the Chief Legal Officer.

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As the first racialized female President of the Canadian Bar Association (CBA), what advice can you lend to women trying to overcome obstacles in their professional careers?

Most professional opportunities in life blossom at the juncture of hard work meeting opportunity. If you don’t put in the hard work in advance; it’s pretty hard to get opportunities to come your way and then leverage those opportunities into new experiences.

It is important to have confidence that you are as smart as anyone else and understand that you bring something unique to the Board Room Table or your employer. Know that life can be hard sometimes, by believing in yourself and having resilience in the belief that nothing lasts forever – you can overcome a wide array of obstacles.

Leverage the power of the team. By understanding others’ strengths and weaknesses, valuing all voices in an inclusive leadership style, you can pull the organization forward and make difficult decisions while not compromising your personal values.

Most of all, don’t be afraid to deviate off the path well-trodden and take some risks in your career, the personal awards can be immeasurable in the journey of life.

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What were some impactful initiatives or moments during your tenure as President of the CBA?

I am the first racialized person and first female corporate counsel in the over 125-year history of the Canadian Bar Association to hold the position of President.

As President, I chaired the 14 member Board of Directors, acted as the CBA’s main spokesperson, represented the CBA internationally and was responsible for governance, advocacy and the financial affairs of the organization.

I provided strong leadership guiding the CBA and managing the financial impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on the organization as the pandemic crisis unfolded during my tenure in March 2020. I was the innovator behind and first Chair of the CBA COVID19 Taskforce.

I brought about a modern communication style as lead spokesperson for the CBA bringing about the use of social media and vlogging which previously had not been used in the CBA.

During my tenure, I developed and chaired the tremendously successful CBA’s inaugural Leadership Development for Racialized Lawyers which provided leadership skills and a networking forum for the next generation of diverse leaders in the legal profession.

I hosted the popular podcast series: Conversations with the President”, which focused on intergenerational dialogue technology and innovation in the legal profession. The Podcast received the 2019 Canadian Law Blog Award for favorite Canadian Law Podcast

During my tenure, the Black Lives Matter crisis unfolded, as well as targeted attacks against Asian Canadian and ongoing challenges with ensuring Indigenous Rights in Canada. I courageously wrote several public op-ed pieces and was not afraid to tackle sensitive issues such as diversification of the judiciary in Canada:

  • https://www.lawtimesnews.com/practice-areas/criminal/canadian-bar-associations-vivene-salmon-systemic-racism-is-not-just-an-american-problem/330334
  • https://www.cba.org/News-Media/Press-Releases/2020/April/Human-Rights-and-the-Rule-of-Law-in-Times-of-Crisi
  • https://www.ccca-accje.org/The-In-House-Edition/Archives/2020/Be-the-Driver-of-Real-Change-in-Equality
  • https://www.cba.org/News-Media/Press-Releases/2020/September/CBA-joins-national-call-for-more-diversity-in-judi
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How do you hope to see the organization grow in the future?

I think in recent years there has been a lot of very hard work undertaken across the country to revitalize the CBA for future generations of lawyers – particularly to make the CBA relevant for young lawyers, as well as Indigenous Peoples and members of Racialized communities. I hope this work continues in an impactful way.

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Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Unfortunately, it seems sometimes not much has changed to advance women in the legal profession since the release of the CBA’s iconic Touchstone Report in 1993. For racialized women, our trajectory in the legal profession can seem even more discouraging and disheartening. While women lawyer’s compensation is on average lower than their male counterparts – racialized women lawyers earn about 60% of what white men lawyers earn. Things may appear equal starting out in law school, but they are certainly not equal in the long haul.

“Women of colour hold only 6.2% of women-held Board, Executive, Senior Management and Pipeline positions collectively, with Black women, Indigenous women, women with disabilities and LGBTQ2S+ women each holding less than 1% of women-held senior leadership and pipeline positions, respectively. While most organizations have women who identify as women of colour in senior management and the pipeline to senior management, most have zero Indigenous, Black and/or LGBTQ2S+ women at all four leadership levels. According to the 2016 Census, 22%, 18.5%, 5%, 4% and 3.5% of Canadians also identify as living with one or more disabilities, people of colour, Indigenous, LGBTQ2S+ and Black, respectively.”

Despite the challenges and barriers still to be broken, I think progress is being made; but a lot more still needs to be done.

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