This is the story of how prejudice ignited the career that led to my appointment, as the first non-white person, to Ontario’s highest court.
I was born in British India in 1946, the year before India achieved independence. My family immigrated to Canada by ship in April 1955 and we went through the typical immigrant experience. My father, who had a good career in India, could only get a job as what was described as “office boy”, and worked a second job at night.
In 1955, Canada’s immigration policy was designed to keep Canada, in the words of Prime Minister William Lyon McKenzie King, “a White Man’s Country”. In fact, the number of immigrants from India was limited to 300 people at the time, which was just 0.27% of the total immigrants to Canada in 1955. My family was among those few people allowed to immigrate to Canada from India that year. At that time, it was unusual to encounter a person of colour in Toronto. I grew up an “exotic” in a white society. I developed a routine for dealing with people’s interest in who I was and from where I came. I naively believed my skin colour did not matter much to anyone, except as a conversation starter.
However, in the mid-1970s, Toronto’s complexion seemingly changed almost overnight after amendments to the Immigration Act and its administration were implemented. Sadly, Toronto did not adapt well to the rapid change. “Paki” jokes became a dominant form of humour. The evident general resentment towards newcomers signalled those in the racist underbelly of society that they could go further. “Paki Go Home” and “White Canada” were painted on walls throughout the city. Brown skinned newcomers were derided on public streets. Worse still, hoodlums engaged in “Paki bashing”.
When in public, I found myself being called names and often being made to feel unsafe. I felt betrayed by the society I thought I knew, and began to question what kind of future I would have I Canada.
In 1976, hoodlums attacked a non-white immigrant and broke both his legs. The public was horrified. As a result, City Council established the Metro Toronto Task Force on Human Relations to look into racism and violence in the city. I abandoned my fledgling law practice to work with them. Shortly after the task force delivered their report in 1977, Parliament enacted the Canadian Human Rights Act and created the Canadian Human Rights Commission. I went to Ottawa thinking I would work at the Commission for a year or two, but ended up staying for a decade.
In that decade, I was privileged to participate in ground-breaking cases which laid the foundation for human rights law in Canada, particularly since s. 15 of Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (guaranteeing Equality Rights) did not come into effect until 1985. I was able to develop a legal reputation through the high profile human rights cases I handled at the Commission, and later in private practice. This led to my appointment in 1998 as the first judge of South Asian descent to the Superior Court of Ontario. Six years later, in March 2004, I became the first non-white person appointed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario.
When I look back, I wonder whether I would have had the same satisfying career had I not experienced the intense prejudice that was manifest against people of South Asian origin during the 1970s.