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Children’s rights advocate, Mary Birdsell to receive Guthrie Award

October 1, 2018

The Law Foundation of Ontario is pleased to announce that the 2018 Guthrie Award recipient is Mary Birdsell. The Guthrie Award is the Foundation’s signature award to recognize exceptional access to justice champions.

Ms Birdsell is the Executive Director of Justice for Children and Youth (JFCY), a legal aid clinic dedicated to protecting and advancing the legal rights and dignity of children and youth.

“Mary epitomizes the passionate and dynamic leader of a specialty legal clinic,” said Linda Rothstein, the Foundation’s Board Chair. “She has taken the mandate of justice for children and youth and fashioned services that respond directly to needs identified by youth and delivers them in the ways and places that are most appropriate, whether that’s a direct phone line, at youth groups, or literally on the streets.”

Ms Birdsell has devoted her career to providing legal services, justice advocacy, community development, and research and education on behalf of the most vulnerable children and youth.

“[Mary] has distinguished herself from the beginning through creative endeavours that expanded the work of the legal clinic and provided legal advocacy for more and more disadvantaged youth,” shared Cheryl Milne, Executive Director of the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights at the University of Toronto, who nominated Ms Birdsell for the Guthrie Award. “I have long admired the compassionate approach that Mary has taken to legal practice and her young clients. Her work with everyone, including colleagues, has been marked by kindness and caring – qualities… that humanize and facilitate interactions that bring justice for vulnerable individuals. She is the best of what the legal profession has to offer, particularly for young clients facing difficult life circumstances.”

Prior to her tenure as Executive Director, Ms Birdsell was a community development lawyer and staff lawyer at JFCY. During that time she created Street Youth Legal Services (SYLS), one of the only programs of its kind in the world. Addressing a service gap that Ms Birdsell identified, SYLS provides legal information, advice, referrals, and representation to homeless youth meeting those young people where they are, including in-person at various youth-serving organizations across the city.

Ms Birdsell has appeared at all levels of courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, on questions related to justice issues for children and youth across a range of legal subjects, the rights of children in criminal justice, rights of child witnesses, rights of children in immigration detention, rights of transgender youth, and on behalf of homeless youth impacted by the Safe Streets Act. She has also appeared at inquests, including the Ashley Smith Inquest.

Throughout her career, Ms Birdsell has dedicated many hours to public legal education and training for children and youth and community and legal professionals.

“Mary has helped address the mistrust and fear that many youth have toward those who work within the legal system”, shared Jessica Reekie, Executive Director of Ontario Justice Education Network. “She listens to the youth in marginalised communities and provides support that is sensitive to the realities of their lived experiences. No matter how busy the clinic is, she always finds a way to get us access to a child rights expert, even if that means attending after hours in a volunteer capacity herself.”

Ms Birdsell has participated in numerous committees and groups, including the: Cross-Over Youth Project; Canadian Bar Association’s Children’s Law Committee and newly formed Child and Youth Law Section; 311’s Jarvis’ Community Youth Court and 311 Advisory Committee; Canada’s Youth Justice Education Partnership; Toronto’s Committee for Better Policing; and the Conflict Resolution Educators Network. She is currently the Past Chair of the Child and Youth Law section of the Ontario Bar Association, a section she co-founded, a Board member and Treasurer of the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, and a Board member of A Way Home Canada. She co-authored Prosecuting and defending youth criminal justice cases: a practitioner’s handbook.

“I had the pleasure to work with Mary when I was the Children’s Lawyer. Mary’s commitment to access to justice for children and youth is demonstrated by her patience and compassion for the youth she represents and her understanding that their interaction with the justice system is deeply personal, said The Honourable Madame Justice Lucy McSweeney, Superior Court of Justice. “While working hard as a clinic leader advocating for systemic change, Mary will stop everything to take a call from a particular individual client in need. Most people lead change in the poverty and clinic law area at either the policy level or the client level; Mary has always done both.”

The Guthrie Award will be formally presented to Ms Birdsell at a reception later this year.


Supporters of Mary Birdsell’s Guthrie Award nomination

“[Mary] has distinguished herself from the beginning through creative endeavours that expanded the work of the legal clinic and provided legal advocacy for more and more disadvantaged youth. I have long admired the compassionate approach that Mary has taken to legal practice and her young clients. Her work with everyone, including colleagues, has been marked by kindness and caring – qualities… that humanize and facilitate interactions that bring justice for vulnerable individuals. She is the best of what the legal profession has to offer, particularly for young clients facing difficult life circumstances.”
– Cheryl Milne, Executive Director, David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights

 

“Mary is an outstanding advocate for children and youth – she is passionate, compassionate, and engaging. She has worked with disadvantaged youth in conflict with various systems, including criminal justice, education, family, health, and other social services. Mary has been committed to access to justice throughout her career and her long list of achievements is impressive and formidable.”
– Emily Chan, Community Development Lawyer, Justice for Children and Youth and Julia Huys, Street Youth Legal Services Lawyer, Justice for Children and Youth

 

“Mary is unquestionably the most outstanding advocate for young people I have ever encountered. She not only brings true passion to her advocacy, but she is always incredibly well prepared, and a pleasure to work with… In countless cases Mary has presented to me background information on her clients that has totally reshaped how I wish to approach their cases. Even in cases where I may have originally considered a custody and supervision order might be necessary, she can change my view of a case with her extensive knowledge of the young person’s life story and his or her needs.”
– Brock Jones, Assistant Crown Attorney and Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto

 

“Mary has been an ally to Peacebuilders from the organization’s inception in 2003, providing legal advice and input on our restorative justice programs in the courts and schools, as well as various other advocacy initiatives and programs. She has routinely supported organizations and individuals working to advance the rights and dignity of children and youth. Mary is also a dedicated community partner and collaborator.”
– Eva Marszewski, Executive Director, Peacebuilders Canada

 

“I had the pleasure to work with Mary when I was the Children’s Lawyer. Mary’s commitment to access to justice for children and youth is demonstrated by her patience and compassion for the youth she represents and her understanding that their interaction with the justice system is deeply personal. While working hard as a clinic leader advocating for systemic change, Mary will stop everything to take a call from a particular individual client in need. Most people lead change in the poverty and clinic law area at either the policy level or the client level; Mary has always done both.”
– The Honourable Madame Justice Lucy McSweeney, Superior Court of Justice

 

“Mary has helped to dispel the mistrust and fear that many youth have toward those who work within the legal system. She listens to the youth in marginalised communities and provides support that is sensitive to the realities of their lived experiences. No matter how busy the clinic is, she always finds a way to get us access to a child rights expert, even if that means attending after hours in a volunteer capacity herself.”
– Jessica Reekie, Executive Director, Ontario Justice Education Network

 

“Mary is firmly committed to educating youth and lawyers in child law. Her dedication to continuing education is evident in her co-authorship of the book Prosecuting and defending youth criminal justice cases: a practitioner’s handbook, and her countless panel appearance for the Ontario Bar Association, the Attorney General of Ontario, and the Criminal Lawyers’ Association.”
– Emma Rhodes, Barrister & Solicitor and Board member at Justice for Children and Youth

 

“Mary works both on the micro and on the macro level to ensure that the rights of children and youth are protected, and the voices of children and youth are heard… Mary is an awesome, passionate lawyer, skillfully advocating for vulnerable and marginalised people. She does so in a classy, highly principled, and civilised way. She exemplifies what it means to provide the highest quality service in accordance with the highest standards of the profession.”
– Jeff Rosekat, Partner, Spark LLP

 

“It was inspiring to me to see how [Mary] interacted with the defendants, most of whom were homeless and all of whom had been panhandling. Most of them had issues that made them difficult to work with. However, Mary’s extraordinary empathy overcame all the difficulties. Moreover, her legal insights were invaluable, and she was extremely hard-working.”
– Peter Rosenthal, Barrister

About the Guthrie Award
The Law Foundation of Ontario created the Guthrie Award in 1996 to honour H. Donald Guthrie, Q.C., a long-standing member and Chair of the Foundation’s Board. The Foundation welcomes and encourages nominations of individuals who have a significant and proven track record of furthering access to justice.

Guthrie recipients have built bridges between youth and the justice system, advanced justice for Indigenous peoples, served women experiencing violence, and strengthened the community clinic system to assist people with low-incomes. Previous recipients include: Professor Reem Bahdi, professor, author, and human rights advocate; Julie Mathews, Executive Director, Community Legal Education Ontario; Kimberly Murray, Assistant Deputy Attorney General, Aboriginal Justice and former Executive Director, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada; Stephen Goudge, former Ontario Court of Appeal; the Hon. Roy McMurtry, former Attorney General and Chief Justice of Ontario; Alan Borovoy, former general counsel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association; and the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic.

About The Law Foundation of Ontario
Established by statute in 1974, The Law Foundation of Ontario is the sole foundation in Ontario with the mandate of improving access to justice. Through granting and collaboration, the Foundation invests in knowledge and services that help people understand the law and use it to improve their lives.