And justice for all
VERN KRISHNA has spent a lifetime breaking
down legal barriers — and there are yet miles to go
Whenhe walked into the law school of the University of Alberta in Edmonton
for the first time in 1971 Vern Krishna, now 66,
was the only South Asian student there.
“I was conspicuous,” he says in masterly understatement. Ask him whether he faced prejudice,
and he tells you simply that his aims were high –
too high for him to concern himself with the trivial; he had to finish his law degree, then earn two
more from Cambridge and Harvard.
Interestingly, he points out, when he went on to
teach law at Dalhousie University in 1975, he was
again the only South Asian professor of law on
campus and in fact, in the whole country.
South Asian parents typically pushed their children into medicine or engineering; it took some
time, he says, for them to realize that “law is a
pathway to influence, and it plays a role in the
society,” Krishna explains.
“The University is somewhat sheltered from
the rest of the community, the rest of society, so I
was well received, but I was the odd man out lit-
Fast forward to 2001 when Krishna became the
first non-white to be elected Treasurer of the Law
Society of Upper Canada (2001-03), a position
equivalent to that of a university president. In
2004, he received the country’s highest civilian
honor, the Order of Canada; he had already in
2002 been recognized by the Indo-Canada
Chamber of Commerce as Professional Man of
Year, and in 2008 the South Asian Bar
Association conferred the Distinguished Career
Award on him.
As Treasurer of the Law Society, Krishna took
on the job of removing a grave obstruction in the
legal profession. Till then, you could practice law
only in the province from where you were
licensed. “It was certainly an aberration,” he says.
He began talking with legal bodies, and finally
succeeded in breaking down the artificial barrier.
“I chaired National Committee on mobility and we, all 9
provinces and 3 territories, signed a historic agreement that
has now permitted a licensed lawyer to go and practice any-
where in the country except Quebec which has a different legal
regime, a different legal system.”
Amidst all of this, he has found the time to write 12 books,
besides a regular law column for the Globeand Mail.
He has seen the profession change in two significant ways.
About 65 percent of those entering law school now are women,
he points out. “That’s a very significant change from when I
entered law school – then, we had 15 women out of 180 stu-
dents. And secondly, law school is now much more multicul-
tural than it ever was.”
As Treasurer of the Law Society, he is the one who does the
honors, admits students into the profession. “When I stood on
stage and shook every person’s hand (at that seminal moment
when they went from student to professional), I could see the
demography has changed very quickly. South Asians and peo-
ple of color, Orientals, etc are much more significant in num-
ber now than they were a generation ago.