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Movement Lawyering, Intersectionality, and Self-determination

March 29th 2021 @ 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm EDT

Hear Joshua Sealy-Harrington, Douglas Varrette, and Leora Smith discuss their work advancing economic, racial, gender and decolonial justice

About this Event

Traditional models of lawyering ignore lawyers’ responsibility to advance substantive justice. Established principles of legal ethics, such as zealous advocacy, require lawyers to set aside their own moral views in favour of the interests of their clients–be it landlords looking to evict tenants during a pandemic, residential and educational institutions challenging sexual abuse claims, or companies building pipelines on unceded Indigenous lands. Even where lawyers assume the role of “progressive advocates,” traditional models of lawyering fail to facilitate the self-determination of communities facing systemic oppression by positioning legal actors as the leaders of social change.

Legal professionals have long weaponized and crafted oppressive and violent laws that serve the rich and powerful to the detriment of the racialized, poor, and working class. In recent cases looking to prevent systemic discrimination against Black and Indigenous peoples during criminal sentencing we must remember that it is lawyers and judges who seek to maintain the racist, carceral, and violent status quo. In our anger at the callous cuts to legal aid, we must remember that it is lawyers serving State and Capital who maintain a society that requires legal aid and who turn arrears hearings into an “eviction blitz.”

We must fight for a more just world. As aspiring movement lawyers, we aim to use legal interventions as opportunities to push back against the law’s antagonism to social change and to empower the disenfranchised communities we hope to work alongside. In the face of EDI initiatives and pro-bono litigation we argue that mere representation, while necessary, is insufficient: communities demand power, not just places at the table.

The UTLU looks forward to discussing intersectionality, movement lawyering, and self-determination with Joshua Sealy-Harrington, Douglas Varrette, and Leora Smith. The speakers will address their research into, and roles fighting alongside, grassroots movements. The speakers will discuss how lawyers can bring clients into litigation and advocacy to foster their power and self-determination, and share their experiences helping communities advance racial, gender, decolonial, and economic justice.

The panel continues our semester-long series of discussions on movement lawyering. Movement lawyering is the practice of law with the understanding that grassroots activism and organizing drives fundamental change, not isolated legal victories. Movement lawyers work to support communities fighting injustice, allowing those most harmed by overlapping forms of oppression to lead the fight for transformative change. In our movement lawyering event series, we seek to explore these questions: what is movement lawyering and why is it necessary? How should lawyers work with grassroots organizers? How can movement lawyers help communities build power? How can lawyers fail social movements, and what lessons do those failures teach us? How do legal strategies fit alongside other social change strategies? How can we bridge the disconnect between conventional legal training and the skills needed to support social movements?

We hope these conversations help students appreciate the reality of progressive legal work. By hearing from practitioners whose work reflects the principles of movement lawyering, these conversations allow law students to understand the unique issues facing lawyers whose work supports grassroots activism.



Leora Smith

Leora Smith is a lawyer and writer living in Toronto. Leora is the Co-Director of the Community Justice Collective, who provide free legal and strategic support to organized communities in the GTAShe has written about policing and housing for publications including ProPublica, the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, the CBC and the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.

Leora’s legal work has focused on human rights, corporate accountability, eviction defense, and advancing the rights of people with criminal histories and their families. She has acted on behalf of people facing employment and housing discrimination and discrimination by police and prison workers in Canada and the United States, and alongside advocates around the world defending and advancing the rights of women, workers, poor people and people who are incarcerated or threatened with incarceration. Leora is a graduate of Harvard Law School and articled with the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.


Joshua Sealy-Harrington

Joshua is Trinidadian-Canadian, and was born in Calgary, Alberta. He practices remotely from New York City, where he conducts doctoral research at Columbia Law School theorizing law, identity, and sexuality. He previously completed an LL.M. at Columbia Law School, where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar, Fulbright Student, and Law Society Viscount Bennet Scholar.

Joshua’s research and practice centres on marginalized communities, particularly sexual, gender, and racial minorities. His research theorizes the complex relationships amongst law, identity, and sexuality, while his practice explores the intersection of these relationships with public, constitutional, and criminal law. He is a tireless advocate for minority rights, with litigation experience before all levels of court, including the Supreme Court of Canada.


Douglas Varrette

Douglas Varrette is an Algonquin Anishinaabe lawyer called to the bar in 2018. Douglas is a staff lawyer at Aboriginal Legal Services (“ALS”). ALS is an ethno-linguistic legal clinic, funded by Legal Aid Ontario, which provides free legal advice to Indigenous people living in Ontario. Prior to taking on the role of a staff lawyer, Douglas began working with ALS as a Callwood Fellow. He later worked with ALS during law school as part of a clinic placement and returned again as a student-at-law prior to being called to the Bar.

Douglas has presented oral and written submissions in a variety of administrative tribunals within Ontario including the Social Benefits Tribunal, Social Security Tribunal, Landlord and Tenant Board, Human Rights Tribunal, and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. In addition, Douglas has worked on test-case litigation and public interest interventions and has presented oral and written submissions at the Supreme Court of Canada, Ontario Court of Appeal, the Superior Court of Justice, and Coroners’ Inquests.

Douglas enjoys collecting vintage science fiction books and yelling at his cat, Babou, and dog, Norman.




University of Toronto: Law Union