His father left home when he was four, and he grew up in Toronto's housing projects. But Donald McLeod has never been one to let personal circumstances stand in his way. Today, he is an Ontario Court judge.
"You're in a country that will allow you to dream," he said.
Even as the Conservative government comes under criticism for choosing only a handful of visible minorities to be new judges on federally appointed courts across Canada, the lower courts are changing and Justice McLeod is part of that change. Having emerged from the an inner-city childhood to sit in judgment on people from backgrounds similar to his own, he is challenging the stereotype of the remote judge. He is deeply involved in programs aimed at helping young, black people succeed in school and life.
Growing up in housing projects meant a different vantage point on life – which he used to his advantage as a lawyer.
"I could say to a jury: 'When you came through the door, you really felt that my client was guilty. Because the first thing you said to yourself was, 'I wonder what he did?' I know when we were growing up sometimes we were pigeonholed. We must have done something wrong if there was an issue – if something was gone, stolen. I learned we were sometimes guilty by association. Sometimes the association was just where you lived, how you dressed, how you walked, what your hair was like."
But as a judge, he said, "I don't think the law is different whatever race you are or whatever neighbourhood you grow up in. The law obligates me to look at the personal circumstances of each person who comes in front of me. My background doesn't help me to make the decision. At times it may help me to understand the individual."
In Ontario, the law governing the appointment process encourages diversity, and even requires diversity on the selection committee. According to an annual report for 2012, 7.1 per cent of the Ontario Court of Justice's members are from visible minorities, and another 1.9 per cent are from First Nations. No such tracking of racial diversity exists at the federal level.
Justice McLeod's personal story is about the surprising benefits of growing up in public housing, and about how a black teen might find a mentor in anyone – even a white South African.
At age 10, living with his mother and sister in Gilder, a housing project in Scarborough, he already knew he wanted to be a lawyer. "I wanted to be able to fight for people," he said in an interview in his office in the Brampton courthouse. "When you grow up in Gilder or Regent Park, sometimes you feel there isn't really anyone out there fighting for you."
Being raised in public housing was a crucial part of his education, he said. "The friends you make there, the life values of being honest to your peers and true to your word – moral integrity becomes a very important thing. We all grew up understanding that we want to make it out of this predicament. And so you learn what a work ethic is really all about if you want to be successful."
He was on a school trip to Osgoode Hall, the courthouse in downtown Toronto, when he met a young lawyer, Larry Lowenstein, who was white and had been raised under apartheid in South Africa. Mr. Lowenstein told him if he was serious about the law he should drop in at his office at Osler Hoskin Harcourt, a prestigious Bay Street firm.
His subsequent visit to Mr. Lowenstein's office made a life-altering impression on him, he said, citing Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. "There were people who were in the cave who made their way out and never came back, because they saw something different," he said. "When I saw how lawyers actually worked there was no turning back: 'This is how I want to be.'" He got a summer job in Osler's mail room, and was on his way.
He earned his law degree from Queen's University in Kingston and started his own firm, offering legal services in the areas of criminal, sport, entertainment and administrative law. His clients included an accused Muslim terrorist from the Toronto 18 and a teenager accused in the fatal school hallway shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Manners.
The Ontario government appointed him to the bench in the fall of 2013. Judges, he believes, do not need to be remote figures. He remains deeply involved in the black community, as founder and co-chairman of a fund organized by black men, in support of a summer school for black boys aged 12 and 13, mostly from Regent Park and in need of remedial help. He also co-chairs Stand Up, which brings black men in to speak to groups of boys (of any race) in Grade 7 and 8.
"It was time for us as a community of black men to put our money where our mouth is," he said. "If we can't even show our own young boys that we value them, we're sending a message that we're not willing to give but only to take."
Of the black men who support the fund, known as 100 Strong Inc., he said, "most of us were raised by black women. There were always women who were breaking their backs." (His mother was his most important mentor, he said. She was a nursing assistant who returned to school at 55 and became a nurse.)
He said the black community should do more to address the issue of absent fathers. His father was not around for his childhood; he only got to know him later in life. Justice McLeod, who is married and has a 10-year-old son, spoke about the surprises of being a father.
"My son gets up in the morning, gets his clothes on, comes downstairs, has breakfast, and when I'm downstairs making breakfast he says, 'Hey Dad.' To me, that's novel. Because at 10 years old I would never have said that. At eight years old I would never have said that. I'm the recipient of something I never experienced before.
"Absent fathers are still a difficult issue in our community. It impacts a lot on young black men. In the criminal justice system, there are a lot of individuals who do not have their fathers present. It's something that has to be addressed."
In his swearing-in speech, Justice McLeod said he stood on the shoulders of other black judges, such as Justice Michael Tulloch, first black member of the Ontario Court of Appeal (an appointee of the Harper government). "And so now I add my shoulders to the conversation, and upon these shoulders the next and then the next."