ICDR Canada: Accelerating Change – Dealing with our Blind Spots in Dispute Resolution

Rena Taggar

Canadian Arbitration week kicked off its first event with a very important panel discussion about accelerating change and recognizing our blind spots relating to community, diversity, access, representation, bias, and culture in Canadian dispute resolution and abroad. CanArbWeek co-Chair Janet Walker welcomed everyone and thanked the many sponsors. Moderator Steven Andersen, vice president of ICDR, highlighted that the goal of the panel was as follows: to share a commitment to diversity, whereby those practicing dispute resolution are empowered to instill change in their daily and professional lives, hoping that the panel would provide preliminary steps to do so. Circulating through the panelists, each one was assigned a different sub-topic to discuss.


Rahat Godil, partner at Blakes, Cassels & Graydon LLP began with a call-to-action inviting attendees to not only recognize when someone is not being included in a community, but to recognize when you have been included and why. Whether your inclusion was due to your expertise, your gender, or simply because you look a certain way, Godil suggested the following sources of blind spots: presumptions about the members of one’s own and others’ communities, our tendency to assume that the creation of a certain sub community is adequate to address an issue, and our own individual and unconscious biases that we bring to the communities that we are a part of. Wrapping up the introduction to the topic, Godil gave us a few ways that we can implement change, suggesting that we start at an individual level and then take a broader approach by looking at the purpose of the communities with which we engage..

Andersen followed up Godil’s segment on communities with a question about how to strike a balance between inclusion on the one hand, and upholding reasonable professional standards for inclusion on the other. Godil responded suggesting looking at the purpose of the community and the criteria to enter the community, while fostering an environment where everyone feels like they can bring “their full authentic self to the table”. Godil summarized her comments on communities by reiterating that change starts individually by acknowledging our own biases, becoming conscious about them, and then addressing them.


Dr. Ayodele Akenroye, independent arbitrator, spearheaded the discussion on diversity by beginning with a personal experience of a talk he had attended where there was a clear lack of diversity in the room. Akenroye’s focus for the panel’s diversity discussion surrounded the representation—or rather lack thereof—of black people in the arbitration field. He stated that the factors perpetuating such underrepresentation vary, and emphasized the need for assessment of barriers that continue to hinder black people from becoming arbitrators. Andersen asked how we may attempt to change or remove those barriers. Akenroye responded that the solution must be systematic, giving black people more opportunities than they are given now. Using law school acceptance as an example, he suggested that having conversations about it is the first step. Anthony Daimsis, Director National Prog., Moot Coordinator and Sessional Professor at the University of Ottawa, chimed in. He emphasized the importance of education and the barriers to accessing higher education that continue to hold back underrepresented communities. Akenroye summarized his segment by suggesting that we each acknowledge our privilege, advance equity, and give exposure to the under-represented, by moving away from performative acts that, while not in themselves objectionable, do not actually advance diversity.

Overcoming Bias

            Lousie Barrington FCIArb: Arbitration Place, discussed efforts to overcome bias in the arbitration community. She broke the issue down into subjective and objective decision making. After showing a short video from the Royal Society, “Understanding Unconscious Bias”, Barrington went through a brief history of women in arbitration, in particular the foundation of Arbitral Women in 2006. Emphasizing that many of the women did not join right away, in some cases due to their own biases about women in arbitration. She suggested their reluctance to join may have been due to a fear of being part of a community that could be denounced, causing their careers more harm than good. Barrington then listed some initiatives and groups that attempt to reduce bias: REAL, the Euro Pledge, and the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, to name a few. Although there are many good things going on, Barrington highlighted that what is needed is behavioural change. She summarized her segment by suggesting that we be persistent in our progress, creative in our initiatives, and keep each other accountable.


Daimsis tackled the topic of access, focusing on access to justice and how arbitration can be a solution. He emphasized that arbitration has yet to fully permeate the field of justice because of a lack of education surrounding arbitration in law schools and in practice. Providing some statistics, he focused in on how there are many legal problems in society, but only a small portion of individuals who face these issues get legal help. He suggested that arbitration can help this “supply problem”. By increasing arbitration’s presence in settings beyond commercial disputes, seasoned and new arbitrators could gain valuable experience helping individuals with any type of dispute. Law schools could implement arbitration clinics, alongside the many legal clinics that they already run, which would further expose students to careers in arbitration. Daimsis summed up his segment by saying that it is time to take charge and use ingenuity to fill the supply gap.

The panel wrapped up with some concluding thoughts from each speaker, after which Andersen re-emphasizing that making substantial change in the arbitration community will stem from conversations and taking initiative to learn, listen, and implement new ideas.