Ottawa lawyers raised a glass last night to celebrate two long-time local organizations coming together to build a more inclusive society for people living with disabilities.
Reach Canada, which had been struggling financially to run its legal referral service for persons with disabilities, has joined ABLE2. Both groups have been working behind the scenes since 2018 to make the merger happen. It’s been an ongoing process, and one that’s expected to be completed by the end of the year, the room heard.
“I think it’s a wonderful new chapter that we’re in right now,” Gowling WLG partner and Reach Canada’s long-time honorary counsel, Domenic Crolla, said at the Reach Beyond: Impacting the Future event held in the RBC Foundry event space at Bayview Yards.
PPRC is launching their own career mentorship ship program “PPRC Connect” in the new year for people with disabilities, and more.
You would be hard-pressed to find someone living in Ottawa who hasn’t had a slice of Gabriel Pizza. Served up in 42 restaurants in Ontario and Quebec, at events including
Crolla served as master of ceremonies that night while his firm was one of the sponsors. “It’s incredible the impact that Reach has had,” he said of an organization that’s been around for more than 40 years. He led everyone in a toast to the “past, present and future” of Reach. “Thank you to all of you who’ve been involved with Reach Canada in the legal community for your leadership and commitment for 42 years. We recognize the fantastic good, honest work that you’ve done on a daily basis to support persons with disabilities in our community.”
The room heard from ABLE2 executive director Heather Lacey about how excited they are to welcome Reach. “The amalgamation of the two organizations seemed like the right thing to do,” she said of their shared values, missions and visions. “The services that we both offer empower individuals with disabilities to speak for themselves … and help them to build lives of meaning and joy.”
Lacey was joined at the Reach Beyond celebration by her board chair, chartered accountant Nick Korhonen. Said Lacey: “We see our role as a partnership with the legal community, building on the foundational work that Reach has done.”
Reach will be reaching even further by giving more aspiring lawyers an opportunity to take on advocacy work and build their legal skills. “We want to connect with other law schools in Ontario,” said Lacey. “We want to give opportunities to other law students outside of the Ottawa region to gain valuable experience and positively impact the lives of people with disabilities.”
The room also heard how ABLE2 is looking to deepen its engagement with the local legal community. “We’d like to be part of or assist them with the development of their associates by guiding them to the Reach roster,” said Lacey.
Reach has a list of 224 lawyers, mediators and paralegals who offer up to three hours of free, confidential and personal legal services.
As well, Lacey told the room about their plans to build a stronger case for government support. “They have a role to play, as well. It’s in everybody’s interest that everybody — all vulnerable people — have access to legal services and understand their rights.
“I’m really excited about the future of ABLE2 and the Reach Legal Services program,” she reiterated. “I know, together, we can make a much greater impact and more meaningful change.”
Lawyer Jennifer Mbang is heading up the service for the ABLE2 (formerly known as Citizen Advocacy Ottawa).
Special guests included honorary chair John Richard, retired chief justice of the Federal Court of Appeal. The Ottawa native took on the role of honorary chair of Reach Canada when he retired from the bench in 2009. He followed in the footsteps of Ray Hnatyshyn, Gordon Henderson and Steven Fletcher, all of whom also held the honorary role with Reach Canada, which was created in 1981.
“My experience as a judge brought home even more clearly the societal importance of access to justice for all members of the community,” Richard said at the podium last night. He also spoke of the educational work Reach has done through seminars, workshops and conferences focusing on topics relevant to individuals living with disabilities. “I invite you to continue to support Reach in order that it may continue to serve our community.”
The evening’s guest speaker was award-winning sports athlete and disabilities advocate Kevin Frost, who has very little hearing or sight due to a rare genetic condition called Usher’s Syndrome. He shared with the room a bunch of tips on how to be successful, emphasizing the importance of a positive attitude. “We’re going to have our bad days but remember: there are a lot of people who are worse off.”
In the crowd were former Reach Canada executive directors Joanne Silkauskas and Paula Agulnik, as well as Canada’s first accessibility commissioner, Michael Gottheil. Also spotted was Ernie Tannis, who co-founded Reach with the late Rod Carpenter and prominent Ottawa criminal defence and human rights lawyer Lawrence Greenspon.
Other long-time supporters include Goldblatt Partners, represented by Ottawa partner Peter Engelmann. The so-called “working poor” can’t always afford lawyers and may not qualify for Legal Aid, he said of why it’s important for his profession to do some pro bono work for clients, particularly those with disabilities. “You’re helping people have access to justice who otherwise probably wouldn’t.”
Frank McNally’s firm, McNally Gervan, was also a sponsor of the event. His personal involvement stretches back at least 15 years, including as board chair. “Access to justice is very important to me,” said McNally, who first got involved as a law student at the University of Ottawa. “It gives a lot of young lawyers an opportunity to do case work and advocacy very early.”
The evening not only celebrated the joining of forces between Reach and ABLE2, it also raised funds. Ottawa criminal lawyer James Foord, principal partner at Edelson Foord Law, had the crowd laughing as charity auctioneer, complete with a droopy gavel made of rubber.
Foord was originally going to be joined by Greenspon but the latter has been “occupied” lately with the high-profile ‘Freedom Convoy’ trial.
“The biggest item this year is thanks to Lawrence,” joked Foord, whose sense of humour is not for the easily offended. “It’s going to be a 30-day adventure called Kibitzing with the Convoy, and it comes with free hotdogs, bouncy castles, Alberta slam poetry. Masks not optional.”