How #whataboutalex is Putting #a2j on our Political Radar

How #whataboutalex is Putting #a2j on our Political Radar

By: Cassandra Bruni*

You’re probably aware that we’re in the midst of a federal election campaign. While each party promotes their platform, the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) aims to put‪ #A2J issues on the political agenda. This past summer, the CBA President Michele Hollins launched the two-prong CBA election campaign strategy at the CBA Legal Conference in Calgary.

The first prong is an Election Engagement Kit, which encourages CBA members to “Engage. Question. Vote.” The Kit provides readers with a set of questions to ask political candidates and gives an overview of the issues and facts.

The second prong of the CBA election campaign strategy is a social media campaign. The CBA is asking its members to tweet to the political parties and candidates about access to justice issues using the hashtag ‪#whataboutalex.

Who is Alex?

The CBA has created nine avatars named Alex. Each avatar has its own story and legal problems that highlight the need to address access to justice in Canada. The avatars demonstrate recurring themes in the ‪#A2J debate: the need to improve services for Aboriginals, the number of self-represented litigants, the need to expand the number of legal issues covered by legal aid, the number of middle class litigants that don’t qualify for legal aid but cannot afford representation, etc.

The avatars’ stories are especially familiar to lawyers working in poverty law. For example, Alex from St. John’s is a university student denied legal aid because the criminal offence he is charged with precludes him from accessing legal aid. Another avatar, Alex from Winnipeg, is Metis, a single mother who doesn’t receive child support. She doesn’t qualify for legal aid and is worried about how this will affect her ability to see her brother, who has FASD and is incarcerated 45 minutes out of the city.

While there are only nine avatars, their legal problems represent the stark reality for thousands of Canadians who have trouble accessing legal resources. Through their social justice campaign, the CBA is influencing political platforms.

Success of the CBA Election Campaign Strategy

There have been several major successes of the CBA Strategy. First, the CBA and lawyers have caused a twitterstom with the‪ #whataboutalex hashtag. Earlier this month, the CBA asked a political leader: “Treating it is 1 thing. What about those stuck in the justice syst [sic] due to mental illness w/o equal ‪#a2j?‪#whataboutalex.” They have also asked questions from the point of view of Alex, “I worry I’ll be deported and about how I will feed my 2 girls. ‪#whataboutalex#elxn42.”

Second,  since so many lawyers and others are using ‪#whataboutalex, it’s become a successful awareness campaign. While access to justice has been a hot topic in legal circles for a long time, it hasn’t received much media coverage –one of the many reasons the CBA initiative was much needed.

With the exception of the Conservative party, the major political parties have responded to the questions in the Kit. The questions are:

1. What would your government do to bolster federal leadership on ensuring that Canada’s civil legal aid system serves the essential legal needs of all people who need help?

2. What would your government do to ensure people have the legal help they need when they face criminal charges or are incarcerated?

3. What would your government do to save taxpayers’ money by providing adequate legal aid to help meet people’s legal needs at an early, preventive stage?

To read the parties answers to these vital questions, click here.

Why should #a2j be discussed in #elxn42?

As many of our readers know, access to justice is a systemic issue that plagues Canada. It can manifest in many ways: being middle class and not qualifying for legal aid; living in poverty and having all of you legal problems compound each other; insufficient resources in legal aid for civil matters, etc.

Here are some of the facts from the 2013 Reaching Equal Justice Report:

  • The federal contribution for criminal legal aid has dropped from 50% of the costs in 1995 to about 25% today.
  • Over a three year period, 45% of Canadians will have a problem needing a legal solution.
  • 22% of people have 85% of legal issues – so, by not providing legal help, we actually worsen existing inequality in Canadian society.
  • The World Justice Report ranks Canada 14th of 25 North American and Western European countries in terms of access to justice for civil issues.

Read More

Want to read more about ‪#whataboutalex? Click here to check out Omar Ha Redeye’s piece in CBA National, which poignantly points out, “[u]nfortunately, justice issues don’t get the same profile and importance as services like health and education, but for many Canadians there is no health or education without legal assistance for their pressing justice concerns.” Or click here to read Karen Dyck’s recent blog in SLAW.


Cassandra Bruni is in her third year in the J.D. program at Osgoode Hall Law School. She is a Research Assistant for the Winkler Institute on Dispute Resolution and regularly contributes to the Justice Innovation blog.