When he walked into the law school of the University of Alberta in Edmonton for the first time in 1971 Vern Krishna, now 66, was the only South Asian student there. “I was conspicuous,” he says in masterly under- statement. Ask him whether he faced prejudice, and he tells you simply that his aims were high – too high for him to concern himself with the trivial; he had to finish his law degree, then earn two more from Cambridge and Harvard. Interestingly, he points out, when he went on to teach law at Dalhousie University in 1975, he was again the only South Asian professor of law on campus and in fact, in the whole country. South Asian parents typically pushed their children into medicine or engineering; it took some time, he says, for them to realize that “law is a pathway to influence, and it plays a role in the society,” Krishna explains.

“The University is somewhat sheltered from the rest of the community, the rest of society, so I was well received, but I was the odd man out literally.” Fast forward to 2001 when Krishna became the first non-white to be elected Treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada (2001-03), a position equivalent to that of a university president.  In 2004, he received the country’s highest civilian honor, the Order of Canada; he had already in 2002 been recognized by the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce as Professional Man of Year, and in 2008 the South Asian Bar Association conferred the Distinguished Career Award on him. As Treasurer of the Law Society, Krishna took on the job of removing a grave obstruction in the legal profession. Till then, you could practice law only in the province from where you were licensed.

“It was certainly an aberration,” he says. He began talking with legal bodies, and finally succeeded in breaking down the artificial barrier. “I chaired National Committee on mobility and we, all 9 provinces and 3 territories, signed a historic agreement that has now permitted a licensed lawyer to go and practice any- where in the country except Quebec which has a different legal regime, a different legal system.” Amidst all of this, he has found the time to write 12 books, besides a regular law column for the Globe and Mail. He has seen the profession change in two significant ways. About 65 percent of those entering law school now are women, he points out. “That’s a very significant change from when I entered law school – then, we had 15 women out of 180 stu- dents. And secondly, law school is now much more multicultural than it ever was.” As Treasurer of the Law Society, he is the one who does the honors, admits students into the profession. “When I stood on stage and shook every person’s hand (at that seminal moment when they went from student to professional), I could see the demography has changed very quickly. South Asians and peo- ple of color, Orientals, etc are much more significant in num- ber now than they were a generation ago. “It is not going to be an easy road, as full integration doesn’t come overnight,” Krishna says.

“It has to be earned, and there is resistance to it. You have to work literally twice as hard and be twice as good to be considered equal to the mainstream, and that requires sacrifices. There are compromises and tradeoffs.” To survive takes enormous commitment, Krishna says. “I believe that many times on the professional curve, we will be kicked out or slighted or victimized. And you have to pick yourself up and no matter how badly you are treated, dust yourself and carry on. You cannot let it defeat you.”

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