Women in the Ontario Legal Profession: Increasing Diversity

by Mary Jane Mossman


According to a Law Society publication in 1993, Ontario’s legal profession was still ‘overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, and middle-class’ – although ‘activism in minority communities, changes in university admission policies, and efforts by the Law Society to address issues of under-representation may have had some impact in recent decades.’[i] Thus, in addition to Black and Indigenous women who have been admitted to the Ontario bar, women from other communities have become Ontario lawyers in recent decades.

For example, although it is possible that Theresa Cherrier from Hamilton (called to the bar in 1918) and Lovedy Campeau from Windsor (called to the bar in 1919) from Windsor may have had a Francophone heritage,[ii] women from Francophone communities in Ontario faced a language barrier until recent decades because they were required to speak English. With law school programs, Bar Admission programs and trials in French becoming more available, however, Francophone women lawyers have achieved more success. Monique Metivier (called to the bar in 1979) was appointed to the Superior Court of Justice in 1995.[iii] Similarly, Louise Charron (called to the bar in 1977) was initially appointed to the District Court in 1988, and later to the Ontario Court of Justice (Gen Div) and the Ontario Court of Appeal; in 2004, she was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.[iv]

Moreover, while both Vera Parsons (called to the bar in 1924) and Elizabeth Robson (called to the bar in 1949) practised law with physical disabilities, lawyers with disabilities may face both practical challenges as well as prejudice. Nonetheless, Mary Louise Dickson (called to the bar in 1966) has practised law successfully in a wheelchair; she was appointed QC in 1983 and was elected a Bencher in 2007 and she received the Order of Ontario in 2009.[v] Issues of sexuality have also challenged women lawyers. However, Susan Ursel (called to the bar in 1986) was one of the first openly Lesbian women lawyers; she has practised labour, employment and human rights law, and advocates for the LGBTQ2s community. Ursel was awarded the Law Society medal in 2019.[vi]

In the early decades, only a few women from immigrant communities became lawyers in Ontario. For example, Helen Okuloski (called to the bar in 1935) was probably the first Polish woman lawyer in Ontario, and she practised law for many years in Hamilton; significantly, Okuloski provided legal services to many immigrants, and she also offered an articling position to a young Black male lawyer who had been refused articles by other firms. This articling student was Lincoln Alexander, later Lieutenant Governor in Ontario.[vii] Olga Chumak Chepesiuk (called to the bar in 1944) was the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants in Toronto, and she practised law on Roncesvalles Avenue alongside her husband’s medical practice. Many of her clients were Ukrainian and from other immigrant communities, and she also did pro bono work for the Ukrainian Museum of Canada.[viii] Gretta Wong Grant (called to the bar in 1946), was the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents in London Ontario. She was interested in juvenile delinquency and provided rehabilitation services at the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women and later at the Cobourg Training School for Girls. After her marriage to Alan Grant, they moved to London and Wong Grant provided part time assistance in his law office while raising her children; she was appointed a part time Legal Aid Director in London in the new legal aid program in 1966. After her husband’s early death, she worked full time for the Ontario Legal Aid Plan until her retirement; her contributions were recognized when she received the Law Society Medal in 2000.[ix]

Among early women lawyers in the 1920s and 30s, however, the largest cohort of immigrant women to be called to the bar were Jewish women. Helen Grossman became the first Jewish woman lawyer in Ontario, when she was called to the bar in September 1929. Grossman practised for many years in Toronto and was appointed QC. [x] Annie Epstein Baker was called to the bar in November 1929, and she practised for some years before her marriage; she later returned to practise law with her son after he graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1978.[xi] Lily Sherizen (who was called to the bar in 1930) also practised law for many decades in Toronto in spite of significant antisemitism. As she explained:

[The] doors were closed, and especially to little Jewish girls. Anne [Epstein] got into a law office, and Helen Grossman got into a law office ahead of me. [But] I couldn’t get in, people said, ‘no, they had enough,’ and they didn’t want any more little girls in their offices.[xii]

Although Sherizen and other Jewish women lawyers were apparently excluded from the Women’s Law Association of Ontario (WLAO) in the 1930s, Sherizen was invited to join after World War II and eventually became President of the Association in the 1950s. Sherizen had a successful legal practice and was active in law reform relating to delinquency and in many charitable organizations, and she was appointed QC.[xiii] Other Jewish women in the 1930s, many of whom were immigrants to Canada, included Lilian Sandler Gordon (called to the bar in 1931), who established a thriving sole practice; Tmima Littner (called to the bar in 1932) who found the legal profession too unwelcoming to practise law; and Clara Halperin Muskat (called to the bar in 1935), who established a sole practice in Toronto and worked well into her eighties.[xiv] In addition, Sarah Kaplan Goldstick, who had completed first year at Osgoode Hall in 1928 and then married a noted Labour lawyer, David Goldstick, returned to the law school and was called to the bar in 1943; she practised law for several decades after her husband’s death in 1944 and was involved in debates supporting abolition of the death penalty.[xv]

More recent women immigrants have also been called to the bar in Ontario. Alicia Natifidad (called to the bar in 1983) was the first Filipino woman lawyer to practise law in Canada.[xvi] Lucia Favret (called to the bar in 1986) was the first Italian woman lawyer in Ontario.[xvii] Iva Sareen (called to the bar in 1979), who was born in Kolkata, was the first South Asian woman to join the legal profession in Ontario; and Sheila Ray (called to the bar in 1981) became the first South Asian woman to be appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice.[xviii] Maryka Omatsu (called to the bar in 1977), whose family experienced discriminatory treatment during World War II, was the first Japanese woman to be appointed to the Superior Court of Justice in 1993.[xix] Rosalie Abella (called to the bar in 1972) became the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004; and Annemarie Bonkalo (called to the bar in 1978), a woman of Hungarian heritage, became the first female Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice in 2007.[xx]

In addition to these judicial appointments, two Chinese women became Benchers: Fatima Mohideen (called to the bar in 1978) was elected from ‘outside Toronto’ in 1991; and Avvy Yao Yao Go (called to the bar in 1991) became an in-term Bencher from ‘Toronto’ in 2001. Two Korean women lawyers, Jenny Chu Steinberg (called to the bar in 1986) and Kim Eunice (called to the bar in 1987) both worked successfully in specialized corporate law practices. Even earlier, Anne Levine Dubin (called to the bar in 1951), who was Jewish, succeeded in a corporate law practice, first at Kimber & Dubin and later at Torys. She became the first woman appointed to the Toronto Stock Exchange and she also served as a Director on the Board of numerous companies and cultural organizations, as well as Vice-Chair of the Board of York University.[xxi]

These stories of success for women lawyers from more diverse, often immigrant, communities reveal significant changes in the legal profession in Ontario. At the same time, some lawyers from racialized and immigrant communities continue to face barriers that do not challenge lawyers who are white and middle class, at least not to the same extent.[xxii] For these women (and men) who are Ontario lawyers, the changes that have created more diversity may represent continuity rather than transformation.[xxiii]



[i] Archives of the Law Society of Upper Canada, Crossing the Bar: A Century of Women’s Experience ‘Upon the Rough and Troubled Seas of Legal Practice’ in Ontario (Toronto: Law Society of Upper Canada, 1993) at 31.

[ii] LSO Archives, letter from E Brunet to Me G Levesque, 28 Oct 1993.

[iii] LSO Archives, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Monique Metivier.

[iv] LSO Archives, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Louise Charron. Nathalie Boutet (called to the bar in 1991), a Francophone from Quebec, succeeded in obtaining a commitment from the Law Society to amend the Rules of Professional Conduct to compel lawyers to advise bilingual clients of their right to use either French or English in the courts: LSO Archives, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Nathalie Boutet.

[v] M Rosenfeld, ‘The Lady … and the Crooks,’ Maclean’s Magazine, 3 March 1956 (re Vera Parsons); ‘Female Lawyer: Adversity a Challenge,’ Burlington Gazette, 15 Sept 1971 (re Elizabeth Robson); and ML Dickson biography, online.

[vi] LSO Archives, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Susan Ursel; and S Ursel biography, online.

[vii] LSO Archives, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Helen Okuloski; and Canadian Law Lists. See also L Alexander, Go to School, You’re a Little Black Boy’: The Hon Lincoln M Alexander: A Memoir (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2006).

[viii] A Kovalev, ‘Early Ukrainian-Canadian Lawyers in Toronto, 1923-1960’ (Osgoode Hall Law School, unpublished paper 2014, on file); and LSO, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Olga Chumak Chepesiuk.

[ix] Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, oral history, ‘Gretta Grant’; and C. Backhouse, ‘Gretta Wong Grant: Canada’s First Chinese-Canadian Female Lawyer’ (1996) 15 Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 3.

[x] LSO Archives, E. Huckle, ‘List of Women Barristers and Solicitors in Ontario 1897-1975’; and LSO, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Helen Grossman.

[xi] Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, Oral history: ‘Annie Epstein Baker.’

[xii] Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, Oral history: ‘Lily Sherizen Sharon.’ Antisemitic sentiments were evident in the riots in Christie Pits in 1933; Jewish (male) lawyers eventually established their own club, the Reading Club: S. Sperdakos, ‘“A Forum for Discussion” and a Place of Respite: Jewish Lawyers and Toronto’s Reading Law Club’ (2012) 30 Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 163.

[xiii] LSO Archives, WLAO fonds, Report of Committee on Public Welfare in Regard to Juvenile Delinquency and Domestic Relations Problems (Lily Sherizen, Chairman (sic)).

[xiv] Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, Oral history: ‘Lillian Sandler Gordon’; LSO Archives, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Tmima Littner Cohn; and LSO Archives, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Clara Halperin Muskat.

[xv] LSO Archives, Ontario Bar Biographical Research Project: ‘Sarah Kaplan Goldstick’ and ‘David Goldstick’; and Globe and Mail, 10 April 1954 at 15.

[xvi] LSO Archives, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Alicia Natifidad.

[xvii] LSO Archives, ‘Diversifying the Bar:’ Iva Sareen.

[xviii] LSO Archives, ‘Diversifying the Bar:’ Sheila Ray.

[xix] LSO Archives, ‘Diversifying the Bar:’ Maryka Omatsu. See also M Omatsu, Bittersweet Passage: Redress and the Japanese-Canadian Experience (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1992).

[xx] LSO Archives, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Annemarie Bonkalo.

[xxi] LSO Archives, ‘Diversifying the Bar’: Anne Dubin; and Obituary, Globe and Mail, 3 Aug 2007.

[xxii] LSO, ‘Working Together for Change,’ the report of the Working Group on Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees.

[xxiii] J. Bennett, ‘Theoretical Issues: Confronting Continuity’ (1997) 9:3 Journal of Women’s History 73; and Blog #1: ‘Women in the Ontario Legal Profession: Change and Continuity – or Transformation?’

Leave a Reply