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What's in a name? Law Society of Upper Canada to find out

(centre) Joseph Camille Gerald Van Buskirk, 82 years old, awaits to become a lawyer today as part of The Law Society of Upper Canada Call to the Bar Ceremony. A handful of lawyers are calling for an end to the body’s archaic name. Instead, they say, it should be known as the Ontario Law Society.

Ryan Carter/The Globe and Mail

There's no question the law can be a stodgy profession, with its black robes, its practice of standing and bowing for judges and its insistence on obscure Latin phrases.

But a handful of lawyers who work for the federal Department of Justice are supporting a long-shot proposal that would blow at least a symbolic layer of dust off the profession in Canada's largest province.

They have submitted a motion for next month's annual general meeting of the Law Society of Upper Canada calling for an end to the body's archaic name. Instead, they say, it should be known as the Ontario Law Society.

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"As an ethnic woman, tradition hasn't always worked in my favour," explains Antonia Aphantitis, who is among the 10 Ottawa-area lawyers proposing the motion.

"I'm not in favour of keeping an old tradition that is inaccurate," she said, adding that it confuses those outside the profession or from other countries.

Ms. Aphantitis, who said the gowns lawyers wear to court make her "feel like I'm in Harry Potter," added that even her own family was puzzled by the name when she was called to the bar three years ago.

The real Upper Canada vanished from the map more than 170 years ago, when it merged with Lower Canada in 1841.

The province of Ontario got its current name in 1867, with Confederation. But the Law Society of Upper Canada, which dates back to 1797, remained, making it the oldest of Canada's provincial law societies, which regulate the profession.

Many in the profession feel the old label should be retained to recognize this long lineage.

Earl Cherniak, a respected Toronto litigator who has been practising law for 52 years, called the proposal a terrible idea.

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"It's an historical name. It survived for 145 years after Confederation. Nobody is misled by the name," Mr. Cherniak said.

Michael Barrack, a Toronto lawyer with Thorton Grout Finnigan LLP, says he supports modernizing the name.

"I think it reflects the current Ontario society, which is a much more pluralistic society than Upper Canada was," Mr. Barrack said. "I think we are a profession of nostalgists, and we spend too much time looking back and not enough looking forward."

Law Society officials said it is premature to comment on the idea. The motion calls for the new name to take effect on Canada Day, 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Not even its supporters expect it to pass, although Ms. Aphantitis says it may at least spark a discussion.

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About the Author
Toronto City Hall Reporter

Jeff Gray is The Globe and Mail’s Toronto City Hall reporter. He has worked at The Globe since 1998. From 2010 to 2016, he was the law reporter in Report on Business, covering Bay Street law firms and white-collar crime. He won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards for investigative journalism in 2010. More

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