As the clock ticked towards midnight last Saturday, the relevant Ontario government agencies completed a prolonged process: the African Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC) had been tried, convicted and financially executed.
Was it a hatchet job, as the ACLC argued? Was it the final silencing of a hyper-active Black community organization that militantly and fearlessly advocated for justice at all three levels of Canadian governance as well as in the highest international fora?
Or was it, as the provincial government claimed, an accountability decision, based on the ACLC’s consistent pattern of financial mismanagement and the organization’s refusal to implement the necessary corrective measures?
The Executive Director and the Board of the ACLC remained categorical and steadfast in their position over the years: it had been the victim of a concerted attack headed by Legal Aid Ontario (LAO). Why was the ACLC not given any credit for having completed 96 per cent of the corrective measures required by the LAO and recommended by the external auditors appointed by the LAO? Speaking on the record some time ago, the Executive Director bemoaned the intransigence of the provincial government in the following terms:
“Where is the attorney general? What, you are going to let a 23-year-old institution crumble because of past minor deficiencies. What? We are not worthy of redemption?”
The Executive Director was adamant that the intense scrutiny to which the ACLC had been subjected was blatant anti-Black racism. The other ethnic legal aid clinics were not being similarly targeted by the LAO and none of them had voluntarily provided annual audits as the ACLC had done.
That strong accusation of racism is supported by some commentators who feel that the provincial and federal governments were reacting to the political fallout from the ACLC’s interventions in numerous court cases involving justice for Black persons. In one specific case, significant media attention was given to the Executive Director and the ACLC for their advocacy before the United Nations in protest against the treatment being suffered by Canada’s Indigenous Peoples at the hands of the Canadian authorities.
In that context and given the other youth training and development offered at the eight sites at which the legal services were provided, one commentator concluded that the “de-funding the ACLC would be an example of excessive force and an abuse of power”.
Needless to say, the LAO defended its decision, and that of the Ministry of Child and Youth Services to terminate financing for the ACLC. It claimed that it had followed a lengthy dispute resolution process and had acted on the serious deficiencies identified in a forensic audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC) on the operations of the ACLC.
Looking towards the future, the LAO made a firm commitment to the establishment of a new clinic to carry out the mandate previously assigned to the ACLC. An LAO spokesman made the following commitment since last year 2017:
“LAO’s commitment is to support the creation of a strong, black-led, black-focused community legal clinic. To that end LAO is immediately committing $850,000 toward the work of establishing a new clinic.”
It was an all round tragedy that the LAO’s campaign against the ACLC opened up significant divisions in the Black community. All six members of the volunteer “Advisory Committee” set up by the LAO were Black. Their task was to identify the most appropriate options to meet the Black community’s needs for legal support and to help ensure continued services.
In spite of the wide media coverage of the dispute over the years and the finality of the de-funding decision taken by the Ontario government agencies, there were no massive demonstrations of protest.
The ACLC paid the price for not toeing the line and for speaking out against racist injustice. So many other government funded community agencies do keep quiet.
But the fact of life is that those who pay the piper call the tune.