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Passing the Torch: A Conversation with Vivene Salmon and Bradley Regehr

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

Written by Wanda Taylor

Behind every successful lawyer lies passion, drive, and a necessary laser focus for what is easily a gruelling and challenging profession. For two trailblazers paving the way, strong family support has kept them afloat in an ever changing world and an equally evolving profession.

Vivene Salmon, vice president and country compliance manager of global banking and markets compliance at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and Bradley Regehr, a partner at Maurice Law, smile fondly as they speak about their cherished families. Salmon speaks to her father on the phone every day and has a strong network of siblings and longtime friends in which she confides.

Regehr talks of his three children and life partner, Nalini Reddy, who’s also a lawyer. Regehr was adopted as a child, and so his family also comprises his parents and his five siblings, two of which are from his birth mother, whom he was fortunate enough to meet later on in life along with her spouse and his four children. Together with his supportive in-laws, Regehr’s family tree resembles more of a “family bush,” and it’s this large family circle that keeps him grounded. Salmon and Regehr acknowledge having a circle of support is vital and important to them, not only for the times we are in but for the demanding legal profession they both love and enjoy.

Their love of family isn’t the only thing these two leaders share. When Salmon stepped into the role as president of the Canadian Bar Association in 2019, she did so as the first person of colour and the first female corporate counsel to ever hold the position in the CBA’s 124-year history. At the end of August 2020, Salmon stepped out of this role, making way for its new president, Regehr. He’s the first Indigenous person to ever hold the position.

“I never thought I would have been the person,” Salmon says of her role as president of the CBA. “It was a special moment not only for me as an individual but for the racialized community and, in particular, the Black community and Black female lawyers.”

Regehr says it still amazes him that no Black or Indigenous person held the role prior to Salmon and him, but he hopes the move will encourage other Black and Indigenous people in the profession to become involved in the organization. He recognizes there’s a perception that the CBA may not be a home for Indigenous lawyers, but he feels this will change by continuing Salmon’s outreach and dialogue with the Indigenous Bar Association.

The CBA was formed as a volunteer organization in 1896. Its objective was to be a voice for members of the legal profession in Canada. Its website says the organization is “…dedicated to enhancing the professional and commercial interests of our diverse membership, and to protecting the independence of the judiciary and the Bar.” The organization currently has a branch in every province and territory in Canada and represents more than 36,000 lawyers, notaries, teachers of law, judges, and law students across the country.

The work of a president leading such an expansive organization is exciting and daunting at the same time. During her time as president, Salmon rose to the challenge and made notable strides. She served as chair on a task force to examine the pandemic response to justice issues and to develop recommendations. She also led a widely successful national conference for young lawyers in June, with the theme of innovation. One of Salmon’s goals as president was to try to bridge the gap between veterans in the profession and new lawyers. To achieve this, she started a podcast to spark intergenerational dialogue and to discuss issues important to the legal profession.

Regehr shares Salmon’s passion for mentoring up-and-coming lawyers, and he’s carrying on that work now in his new role. To their colleagues just embarking on their careers in law, Salmon and Regehr advise them to work in areas in which they have an interest. In order to avoid the burnout seen all too much in a profession that, at times, can be demanding, Regehr notes it’s important for young lawyers to do what they’re passionate about, adding, “Always remember your clients in the midst of it all but learn when to say yes and when to say no.”

Regehr is focused on continuing the member engagement Salmon started during her tenure, and he’s expanding on some of the CBA’s current initiatives, including work on a truth and reconciliation report and an accredited online series the organization launched to provide Indigenous history and background to its members. The wheels of opportunity and possibility turn as Regehr blazes a fresh trail in his role as president, like Salmon did before him.

Themes of change and mentorship are recurring goals shared by these accomplished lawyers. That work is increasingly important today, especially with the crushing blow of an unprecedented global pandemic and the glaring spotlight now placed on systemic inequities amid a racial reckoning.

Bradley Regehr © Blair Gable

A 2020 diversity report by Ryerson University indicated that while visible minorities made up more than half of Toronto’s population, they account for only 4.3 per cent of corporate board members. And of that, less than 1 per cent are from the Black community. The report also showed the Black community represents 7.5 per cent of the Greater Toronto Area; however, only 3.6 per cent of board positions in all sectors combined were held by someone from the Black community.

These statistics have not gone unnoticed by Salmon and Regehr, who agree more needs to be done to address these disparities, including the ones that exist in their own profession. “Organizations and businesses need to be proactive. They need to go out and seek candidates, and not just the same ones,” Regehr says. “There are lots of people nationwide who are qualified and can sit on these boards.”

Salmon agrees, adding, “Policies are not enough. Organizations need to expand their networks and look at who they are hiring.”

The CBA is conscious of its position, and Salmon indicates the organization is trying to make meaningful changes as the country and the world tackle social injustice. While president, Salmon wrote op-eds and released various statements addressing the issues. She received a lot of feedback from people across the country who were excited the CBA was being progressive in that respect. Salmon says the CBA can’t be silent on the important challenges facing society.

“The legal profession as a whole is a powerful voice that can positively influence Canadian society,” Salmon acknowledges. She reiterates Regehr’s comment about the need to educate society when it comes to the history of residential schools and colonialism. These are all steps toward much-needed change.

In some universities across the country, law programs hold seats for Black and Indigenous students in efforts to increase equity and to graduate a crop of lawyers that better reflect Canada’s cultural makeup. The Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University is one example. Students who get accepted into these programs are no less qualified than any other student, yet some have expressed being stigmatized, not only in the program but in their attempts to article at law firms.

Salmon grew up in a working-class family and had to pay her own way through law school. She believes talent will always rise to the top but admits there are obstacles for certain people and the misconceptions about programs like these — designed to level the playing field — need to be dispelled.

“There are stereotypes everywhere, but the perceptions in these kinds of programs are not incumbent on the student to change but are incumbent on the legal profession to change,” she says. If one digs deeper, Salmon points out they’ll discover these are excellent programs. She also feels talent needs to be nurtured, and these kinds of programs provide another opportunity for students to receive that support.

Regehr attended law school at the University of Manitoba in the early 1990s through a similar program for Indigenous students. Back then, Regehr says there were times when he was the recipient of those same stereotypical comments. He was told he hadn’t earned his spot and that he only got into law school because of the program.

But Regehr says he put in the hard work, got the good grades he needed to apply, wrote his admissions test, and passed. He earned his spot like everyone else in the law program. Law schools have traditionally served a specific demographic, and people don’t always want to give up their comforts, he points out, adding, “I am unapologetically a defender and a proponent of those kinds of programs.”

Now, Salmon has passed the torch to Regehr, creating further opportunity for many more students from the Black, Indigenous, and people of colour communities to walk through the doors these two trailblazers have swung wide open. If the global pandemic and this era of unrest due to social injustice has taught us anything, it’s that there’s room for everyone — at boardroom tables, in law programs across the country, in senior management roles, as tireless mentors to new minority lawyers, and, yes, as president of the CBA.

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