Ottawa-based founder of refugee program raises the bar for legal achievements

Katie Black
Katie Black is co-creator of the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Ottawa lawyer Katie Black is a rock star. Not in the spiked leather jacket kind of way, but with how she’s compiled – in a mere decade – a list of accomplishments and awards formidable enough to inspire anyone.

She’s clerked for Beverley McLachlin, the first female chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Within six years, Black made partner at Ottawa law firm Caza Saikaley LLP. She helped bring more than 4,000 refugees to Canada by co-creating a program to deliver free legal services to private sponsors of Syrian refugees.

And by age 35, she was made an adviser to the federal justice minister.

On top of all that, she put herself through law school as a single mom and graduated with high honours.

“I worked hard because I didn’t want my status as a single parent to impose a glass ceiling on me,” she explains on a cold winter day at Caza Saikaley’s downtown office.

Black won the Gordon F. Henderson Award from the CCLA in 2016, followed by the Ontario Bar Association’s David Scott Award for Pro Bono Law in 2017, and the most prestigious alumni distinction from the Faculty of Common Law at the University of Ottawa in 2018.

“I am blessed to have worked for really great people,” she says of a career that has put her among the legal profession’s finest.

Black, now 37, remains incredulous when telling the story of how she was hired to clerk for Canada’s top judge in 2009. 

Never did she imagine she’d get the job. Without any expectations of being hired, “the chief justice and I just had this amazing conversation,” recalls Black. “As I was leaving, the chief said: ‘You’re going to do really well in life, Katie.’ I thought she was just being nice and replied: ‘Thank you so much for taking the time to meet me. It was a real pleasure.’”

It wasn’t until later, when she was offered the position over the phone, that terror struck.

“Have you ever had a job working for your superhero?” she asks. “I spent the last few years of my life parsing everything the Supreme Court said, weighing the social and legal analyses and import of where the chief justice was taking the law. And now I was supposed to give advice to my superhero?”

McLachlin, who retired from the bench in 2017, was one of two prominent women for whom Black worked closely. In 2016, she was appointed judicial affairs adviser to former minister of justice Jody Wilson-Raybould. Black was tasked with reforming the judicial appointment process, making it more diverse and transparent. 

“The minister and (former) chief justice had a lot in common,” she says. “They were unflinchingly honest in their approach, humble, good listeners and respectful.” 

As Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister, “Minister Wilson-Raybould cared profoundly about ensuring that Canadians have faith in the judicial system,” adds Black,who says she is non-partisan.

Aiding refugees

Black’s greatest contribution as a lawyer came a year before that appointment, in 2015. 

It was the iconic photo of a boy’s lifeless body washing up on a beach that woke up the world –and Black – to the plight of the Syrian refugees. Alan Kurdi drowned in the Mediterranean after his family’s attempts to escape to Europe saw waves swamp its flimsy inflatable boat. He was three years old.

“My son was the same age,” the mother of two says.

Her legal expertise wasn’t in refugee law; it was in commercial litigation, professional negligence, defamation and employment law. However, Black found a way to help.

"I wasn’t the only one who felt helpless; everyone at the bar, it seems, felt like they were watching this human tragedy happen, and all they wanted was a way to help."

She learned that one of the biggest barriers to privately sponsoring refugees was the paperwork involved. That’s when the light bulb went off. 

“I can fill out forms, I can project manage, I’m capable of pushing through the legalese.”

Black issued a call for volunteers to undergo refugee law training in order to deliver free legal support to Canadians interested in sponsoring refugees. Within three days, 80 lawyers had signed up.

“What happened next was magical,” recalls Black of the day they hosted a legal clinic at City Hall and advised 400 people on the sponsorship process. They even offered free translation and day-care services.

The program went national, spreading to 11 cities and involving 1,400 volunteers.

“I wasn’t the only one who felt helpless; everyone at the bar, it seems, felt like they were watching this human tragedy happen, and all they wanted was a way to help. We gave them the avenue through the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program.”

Five things to know about Katie Black

1. Black gives free “contractual negotiation hygiene” workshops to companies to ensure that the contracts they negotiate are the contracts enforced by the courts. “If a contractual relationship falls apart, you need evidence to demonstrate what was agreed upon,” says Black. “This requires good negotiation hygiene and record-keeping, a skill your company may not have.” Black created this practical workshop when teaching contract law at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law. “I challenged the students to use these skills to negotiate better cellphone contracts. A lot of them were successful.”

2. Black was raised in a family of entrepreneurs. Her father, co-creator of DY-4 Systems, used to make her give three reasons why she should get anything in life, including a glass of water.

3. Black has two sons, ages seven and 15. She and her husband married in 2010. Their ceremony at the Supreme Court building was officiated by McLachlin, with whom she still remains close friends. When a department store launched a campaign to sell bras named after famous Canadian women – including “The Beverley Bralette” – Black was the one who picked up the phone and shut the campaign down quickly on behalf of McLachlin. An apology was issued, as well as a donation to Cornerstone Housing for Women.

4. Black represented the woman who brought a harassment claim last year against her former employer, the speaker of the legislature in New Brunswick. An independent third-party investigator determined her allegations “to be founded, in part.” The politician lost his seat in the fall election while the woman, says Black, felt empowered and respected throughout the investigation.

5. At age 16, Black went on a year-long solo backpacking trip around Europe.