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Patricia DeGuire: Touchstone Award Winner

With a strong commitment to social justice, mentorship and the rule of law, Patricia DeGuire has touched many lives throughout her successful legal career.

CBA Touchstone Award winner Ontario Superior Court of Justice Deputy Judge Patricia DeGuire
CBA Touchstone Award winner Ontario Superior Court of Justice Deputy Judge Patricia DeGuire

This year’s Canadian Bar Association (CBA) Touchstone Award winner has brought respect and compassion to helping others achieve their goals.

“Patricia has inspired many racialized women over the course of her lengthy career,” says CBA President Vivene Salmon. “Through her acts of mentorship and selflessness, she instills the importance of aiming for legal excellence, supporting and advancing the interests of other women, and fostering duty and responsibility to the legal profession.”

Currently serving as an Ontario Superior Court of Justice Deputy Judge, DeGuire has also been a mediator, adjudicator and arbitrator and has worked in the provincial and federal administrative law system for more than 25 years. She has served as a member of a federal government tribunal and provincial tribunals, including vice-chair at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and the Pay Equity Hearings Tribunal.

DeGuire’s numerous accomplishments include co-founding the Black Law Students’ Association of Canada (BLSAC), V♀ICES—a group for Women of Colour—and contribution to developing the CBA’s iconic 1993 Touchstone Report, Touchstone for Change: Equality, Diversity and Accountability. In 2008, the BLSA Canada Conference, held in B.C., established the DeGuire Diversity Moot Cup to honour her contribution to BLSAC and Black students across Canada. 

DeGuire was an executive member of the Ontario Bar Association’s Feminist Legal Analysis Section from its inception and co-edited its newsletter, V♀ICES. She co-founded and served as treasurer, vice-president and director of professional excellence of The Canadian Association of Black Lawyers. She was a frequent lecturer at the Organization of Commonwealth Caribbean Bars Association/International Law Forum.

In addition to these impressive accomplishments, it’s DeGuire’s tireless mentorship of others that stands out. She is an active member of the Law Society’s mentorship program and founded the At-Risk Youths Education Forum.

Helping others comes naturally to DeGuire. As a child, she was a member of Pathfinders, which stressed being “a servant to God and a friend to man.” A big touchstone for her growing up came from the Bible in Luke 12:48: “To whom much is given, much will be required.” She says her parents repeatedly told her, “God has given you these talents because he’s invested them in you with the hope that you would invest them in other people. That was always my motivation.”

Even during her law school days at Osgoode Hall, her commitment to social justice issues was strong. After Professor Mary Jane Mossman was overlooked for the position of dean in favour of a male candidate, “there was a challenge about what should be the policy of Osgoode going forward,” says DeGuire. “They said that they were going to make gender equality the top priority, and a lot of us people of colour said no, we need to have equality.” As a result, she says, “we had what I called a historical compromise in saying that they were going to make equality, just equality, as opposed to gender equality, a top priority.”

DeGuire and Donna Young (who is now the inaugural dean of Ryerson Law School) were the only two Black women in Osgoode’s 1991 graduating class. DeGuire recalls one of her professors saying, “Patricia, you’re not a Black woman, you’re a woman who happens to be Black.” The comment shocked her. “How is that for being defined? It was really negatively impactful on me because I never thought anybody would see me that way or tell me who I am.” DeGuire and Young subsequently created V♀ICES “because we felt that we were ‘othered’ by the other feminist groups.” She and a group of several Black men and women went on to create the Nelson Mandela Law Society.

Lawyer Monique Brand, legal counsel for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, counts herself extremely fortunate to have been mentored by DeGuire. While still in high school, she reached out to the Law Society’s mentorship program and DeGuire took her on as one of several mentees. “It was beyond life changing,” says Brand. “It really carved out my path in law and social justice. From day one, she made herself available for me to reach out and ask a number of questions. She created such a warm environment for me to explore what I didn’t know through pertinent questions.”

Brand says DeGuire has an intuitive gift of being able to listen and truly hear what people are saying, as opposed to projecting her values on them, “to help you arrive at the best solution for you.” She adds that DeGuire has asked all her mentees to “pay it forward by being generous with your time and having a commitment to continue with social justice and self-improvement.”

DeGuire’s own mentor was the late Honourable Julius Isaac, Chief Justice of the Federal Court. “From time to time, he would call me and ask me what I’m doing and where my career was going.” Justice Isaac had read a 250-page work on Constitutional law reform in the Commonwealth Caribbean she had written under the supervision of the late Peter Hogg. When he was subsequently asked to rewrite the Constitution in some Caribbean countries, Justice Isaac asked DeGuire to assist him. “I was so moved that I decided to do something in his honour and, with many others, I set up a scholarship in his name at Windsor University.”

Toronto Justice of the Peace Mary Ross-Hendriks has known DeGuire for years and says she has a heart of gold. “Patricia is the living embodiment of being a dedicated public servant. Even when she’s not working as an adjudicator or mediator, she’s always helping people behind the scenes. When we worked together at the Human Rights Tribunal, I would see dozens and dozens of Black law students coming by to get advice from Patricia.” And not just law students, says Ross-Hendriks—DeGuire’s dedication to mentoring includes high school, college and university students and people in other professions.

DeGuire, with her husband, criminal lawyer Paul Slansky acting as chef, hosts an annual backyard barbeque party for her mentees. As many as 70 guests attend, including judges and senior members of the Bar. She wants her mentees to “find mentors, find people that they can build alliances with, or allegiances with, as they try to carve out or navigate their way through their own careers.”

Finding out she had won the Touchstone Award came as a surprise to the modest DeGuire. “It’s a huge gift when your peers think you’re worthy. The Award was just the icing on the cake.”