Law and Orderly Conduct: Class of 2021 Keynote Speaker

His body of work reads like a book. A living history book.

The themes, cases, and names easily recognizable --- forever etched in many minds and in legal lore for their resonance and impact --- each of which continue to reverberate decades later in some way.

Human rights lawyer, Falconer delivered the keynote address to the Class of 2021 at SMCS.

Noted Canadian constitutional and human rights lawyer Julian Falconer is a father of two alumni of St. Michael's College School.
Photo courtesy of: Falconers.ca

Here is a small sampling:

2016 - Dafonte Miller
Teenager beaten by an off-duty police officer resulting in the boy losing his eye.

2015 - Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
Part of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement documenting testimony from survivors, families and communities.

2013 - Family of Sammy Yatim
18-year-old shot dead on a TTC streetcar by a Toronto Police officer.

2010 - Adam Nobody 
Protestor during the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto and victim of excessive police force. 

2007 - Ashley Smith 
Teen who died of self-strangulation while in custody at Grand Valley Federal Penitentiary.

2002 - Maher Arar
Syrian-born Canadian held and tortured for almost a year on suspicion of having terrorist links. 

1988 - Lester Donaldson 
Diagnosed schizophrenic shot by police as he wielded a small paring knife.

"I have happened upon an ability to help people in what I hope is a meaningful way," says Julian Falconer, one of Canada's pre-eminent human rights and constitutional lawyers. "I'm surrounded by extremely competent, smart people who, for the most part, tolerate me and prop me up to do the work and do the work themselves. I'm extremely fortunate to have a family that has stuck by me while I've had to travel so much. There's not many of us that have been able to sustain a business of delivering on human rights over a long period. And, so I'm very grateful that we've been able to do that," he says.

Human rights lawyer, Falconer delivered the keynote address to the Class of 2021 at SMCS.

Falconer delivered the keynote address to the Class of 2021 at SMCS.

Falconer delivered the keynote address during the graduation exercises for the Class of 2021 at SMCS. He is also father of two alumni, who graduated in 2013 and 2018.

During the almost 30-minute address, Falconer spoke about the "strength of resolve," managing adversity, "commitment to safety and service of others," resilience, and more. Each theme pinned to a piece of history, often unfolding in real-time.

"The issue of public service is really an issue about waking up in the morning and being proud of what you do," says Falconer, now 62 years old. "I sort of evolved into a person who made human rights my priority, and it felt like where my heart and mind were and now are, and so at one point I finally just let go of all the other work."

Julian Falconer, SMCS Class of 2021 keynote speaker and human rights lawyer.

Called to the bar in 1989, Julian Falconer runs a law firm with offices in Toronto, Thunder Bay and Little Current, ON.
Photo courtesy of: Toronto Public Library, 1998

In addition to cases involving police violence and wrongful deaths, Falconer's portfolio spans civil, constitutional, criminal, labour, and employment law, among other areas. A large portion of his practice over three decades has focused on racialized communities and Indigenous peoples --- with accountability and transparency underpinning the breadth of his firm's work --- as it dominates current headlines.

"There's some real irony to how some issues have, in my mind, blossomed in terms of societal awareness, while others languish," he says. "I don't think there can be any doubt about the impact of the events around the tragic death of George Floyd, and the literal awakening that appears to have gripped the continent, if not the world in terms of police accountability. And I don't think it can be overstated. There is a feeling of a shift, a seismic shift in the simple trust of the police. I think the issues that plague Indigenous people, and how Canada has come to terms with it, is way behind. So there are areas that I've seen a change. And there's areas that frankly, I feel like it's Groundhog Day. And I know there are words being used to discuss reconciliation, but I don't think we've come anywhere close to recognizing or understanding what that really embodies."

Image of a gavel


Born into a mixed-race family in the picturesque rural town of Mont Saint-Hilaire, Quebec, Falconer was among seven children, all of whom attended French school.

"I did get on a school bus and experience what it felt like to know you weren't white," he recalls. "And I am in the unusual position --- to some or many --- of looking white.

Others see my mixed-race background immediately. I grew up hearing some pretty tough words that were racist epithets that kids threw around. So that probably gives anyone a perspective. But at the same time, I grew up with many privileges --- a meal, protection of the family, a course of education my parents emphasized." 

"We grew up on a chemist's salary with seven kids, in a small Quebec town, where a black man and a survivor of the Holocaust, a Jewish woman, were not a commonplace piece. I had very strong parents who instilled in me early the importance of education. Every single one of the kids in my family has a university degree. I grew up in an environment of expectation and being set up for success --- modest, but set up for success --- knowing I was different. I'm sure that shaped me."

Human rights lawyer, Falconer delivered the keynote address to the Class of 2021 at SMCS.

Acclaimed for his work with Canada's Indigenous community, Falconer, a pilot, opened offices in the remote north to expand access to and forge relationships with First Nations.
Photo courtesy of: Falconers.ca

Julian Falconer, SMCS Class of 2021 keynote speaker, represented Nishnawbe Aski Nation.

Among clients Falconer and his firm have represented were the Nishnawbe Aski Nation during an inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students between 2000 and 2011.
Photo courtesy of: Falconers.ca

Falconer, who holds degrees from McGill University, the University of Alberta and the University of Toronto, also discussed the ‘power of empathy.’ It is a lesson he says has been reinforced in his life through his clients and working in the social justice arena.

"The work that I've had the honour of doing for families who have lost loved ones in horrible interactions with the state and in particular police, all of these experiences, you'd have to have no soul to not appreciate the pain these folks are going through."

And, despite a prolific career, Falconer continues to aspire.

"I need to be better at almost every piece of what we do," he says. "Grow every day. I'm not at all in a place where I can be comfortable about where I'm at. I need to be better as a husband, as a father, in all facets of our life. None of us can afford to sit back and be satisfied. I'm not."

Striving to spotlight injustices and right wrongs continue to drive him, especially when it comes to Canada's founding fathers. 

"We need to be better in how we create solutions to create real redress for the wrongs done to Indigenous people," he says. “We all need to be better at this. We just need to be better. There's nothing that doesn't need improvement."

Living history, another chapter, in the making.

To watch the Class of 2021 keynote address by Julian Falconer, click here.