HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDER • FATHER • EQUALITY ADVOCATE • COMMUNITY BUILDER
I came to Canada as a Ugandan Asian refugee in 1972, after my parents Sul and Lou, along with my sister Shakufe and I, were forced to flee the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin. We arrived with little other than the clothes on our backs, but eager to start life anew in Canada – the country on the other side of the world that had provided us safe haven.
Our first port of call that cold October was the YMCA on Peel Street in Montreal. Our first set of clothes to prepare us for the Quebec winter came from the Salvation Army. We’ve called Toronto home since 1974, moving initially to Thorncliffe/Flemingdon Park and later settling in the Peanut Plaza neighbourhood of Willowdale, where I went to the local public elementary, junior high and secondary school.
Like any newcomer family, there were certainly times when we struggled, but what my parents couldn’t offer monetarily, they made up for in guidance and instruction—instilling in me the values of honesty, hard work, determination and most importantly of all – education. Although neither of them ever attended university, my parents made sure that the only question for me about post-secondary education was not if I would continue my studies, but where.
I attended McGill University on a combination of student loans, grants and scholarships, both from McGill itself and the Aga Khan Foundation. I graduated from McGill with a First Class Joint Honours B.A. in History and Political Science in 1994. My History thesis examined Martin Luther King’s role in the American Civil Rights Movement following the 1963 March on Washington.
The following year, I worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in the offices of two Members of Parliament, as one of ten persons selected nationally to participate in the Parliamentary Internship Programme. Plunging into work at the Committee level, I was deeply involved in Parliament’s efforts to implement tougher sentencing for hate-motivated crimes, and accept gender-based claims for refugee status under the Geneva Convention.
Following my work on Parliament Hill, I studied law at the University of Toronto, where I was on the Dean’s List. My energies outside of the classroom during my studies were devoted to assisting others through legal clinic work in the fields of immigration and criminal law. I received my Bachelors of Law from the University of Toronto in 1998, graduating as Valedictorian.
I articled at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP here in Toronto, and after being called to the Bar in 2001, I started my legal career as an associate in the area of corporate & commercial litigation. My background in advocacy includes a year of training at the Middle Temple, Inns of Court, London, UK, as the recipient of the prestigious Harold G. Fox Scholarship—awarded annually to two Ontario Barristers to receive intensive litigation instruction at the English Bar.
In 2003 I made the decision to marry my deep commitment to public service with my professional career path, and moved to my current position as Counsel in the Constitutional Law Branch of the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario. In this role I argue cases at all levels of court under both the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the federal division of powers. As a Crown Counsel, my overriding responsibility is to the people of Ontario—in furthering the administration of justice in the province, promoting the rule of law and protecting the public interest.
Throughout my education and thirteen-year legal career, I’ve been steadfast in my commitment to human rights and access to justice. I was one of the founders of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, and served on its Board of Directors for nearly eight years, assisting SALCO in securing permanent annual funding. I have worked as an Analyst with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, in Ottawa, and an Investigator at la Commission des droits de la personne et droits de la jeunesse, in Montréal.
Overseas, I’ve completed international human rights research on caste discrimination in Northern India, and served as a Programme Officer with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in New Delhi, developing mechanisms to strengthen police accountability. During a sabbatical from the Ministry of the Attorney General, I spent a year as an Assistant Trial Attorney prosecuting genocide at the United Nation’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Arusha, Tanzania.
In recognition of my contribution to the legal profession and community through my public interest work, pro bono activities and community service, I was the recipient of the Wilson-Prichard Award from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law as a distinguished young alumnus in 2008.
I have worked hard to apply the values of compassion, fairness and inclusion to the community where I live, in Parkdale-High Park. I am an active volunteer with Roncyworks—a citizen-led initiative to clean and maintain Roncesvalles Avenue for the benefit of local businesses and the enjoyment of local residents.
I’m a proud member and supporter of The Redwood, a local shelter than provides safe haven for women and children fleeing abuse who are compelled, much like my family 40 years earlier, to start life anew.
I’ve also developed a strong sense of what institutions are vital to our neighbourhood’s success. I’ve become a strong booster and contributor to the St. Joseph’s Health Centre Foundation (in particular the efforts to improve the Just for Kids Clinic and the important Child and Adolescent Mental Health program), as well as the Parkdale Community Food Bank.
I find the fact that many in our community continue to struggle with basic food security unacceptable, particularly because I know what we are capable of when we roll up our sleeves and work together—I’ve seen it firsthand by participating in the rebuild of the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground in High Park with hundreds of parents and non-parents alike. My goal for this riding going forward is to harness that collective goodwill in the form of local projects that meaningfully strengthen our ties with one another, and our broader sense of what it means to be a true ‘community’.
I’ve been happily married to my wonderful and supportive wife Suchita, and I’m the proud and devoted father of two boys, Zakir and Nitin.
© 2019 Arif Virani. All rights reserved.